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Durham University

Department of Archaeology

All Research Projects

Palaeolithic art and archaeology of Creswell Crags, UK

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


The caves of Creswell Crags on the Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire border form Britain’s primary resource for Upper Palaeolithic archaeology, and the richest cluster of Middle Palaeolithic archaeology in the north of England. It is now on the tentative list for world heritage status. Like the Neander Valley in Germany the picturesque crags were attracting visitors since the eighteenth century, and among the visitors to the Duke of Portland, on whose estate the gorge lies, was the artist George Stubbs, who painted a number of pictures with the Crags as background. By the mid-nineteenth century the value of the archaeological and palaeontological deposits in the caves was realised, and formal excavations were conducted in two broad periods – the 1870/80s and the 1920s/30s. Most of the archaeology contained in the deposits of the gorge’s five main caves - Pin Hole, Dog Hole (West Pin Hole), Robin Hood Cave and Mother Grundy’s Parlour on the north (Derbyshire) side of the gorge and Church Hole on the south (Nottinghamshire) side – was removed during these campaigns.

The whole gorge is now protected as a Site of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI) as a nature reserve, and as a Scheduled Ancient Monument (SAM) as an archaeological and palaeontological resource. The caves’ Middle and Upper Palaeolithic archaeology evidences Neanderthal presence between around 60 and 50 thousand years ago; and brief episodes of occupation in the Upper Palaeolithic, specifically a very brief Gravettian occupation around 28,000 (14C) years ago, and a significant use of all the major caves during the Final Magdalenian between 12,500 and 12,200 (14C) years ago. The evidence for the latter is so rich at Creswell that the prehistorian Dorothy Garrod coined the term ‘Creswellian’ for the British Magdalenian in her survey of the British Upper Palaeolithic in 1926.

Creswell Crags contains Britain’s only examples of Upper Palaeolithic cave art. Along with one image in Robin Hood Cave, Church Hole contains around twenty images. These take the form of simple, incomplete engravings including a cervid (probably a young red deer), a bovid (probably the extinct wild cattle aurochs), a horse, several downward-pointing triangles usually interpreted as vulvae, and enigmatic elongated forms which could represent incomplete long-necked birds or highly stylised human females. The style and themes of the art link it strongly to the continental Magdalenian, and uranium-series dating of stalactites overlying three of the images provide independent verification of the Pleistocene age of the art as the stalactites formed around 8000 and 13,000 years ago.


Despite the fact that Church Hole has yielded almost all of the cave art from Creswell we know less about the Pleistocene occupation of this cave than we do of any other at Creswell. Given that it is this cave that contains almost all of the Palaeolithic cave art, it is critical to understand the context of the art’s production. Was Church Hole functioning similarly to the cave’s of the gorge’s north side and thus was the art part of the cave’s use as a domestic camp site? Or was the cave used far less for prosaic reasons and thus could one say that this side of the gorge had a more ‘spiritual’ function? As deposits inside the cave have all been excavated away only excavations to its immediate exterior could address these issues.


Because of this, excavations have been undertaken on the talus (slope) in front of Church Hole since 2006. This began with an evaluation of the potential of the deposits exterior to the caves of the gorge for more ambitious work, funded by the British Academy and directed by Paul Pettitt. Since then, excavations have targeted three main contexts. First, the excavation of a sample of the Victorian spoilheap from the excavations of 1875 & 1876, which effectively cleared the cave of its sediments. This has allowed the recovery of archaeological remains discarded by the Victorian excavators which have balanced our understanding of the archaeology that the cave contained and thus our understanding of the cultural attribution of the cave’s occupants. It has also provided untreated faunal remains which can be identified to genus and dated by AMS radiocarbon to improve our understanding of the chronology of the cave’s use. Secondly, the excavation of in situ Holocene deposits has improved our understanding of post-Pleistocene use of the gorge. Lastly, we have located and excavated in situ Pleistocene slope deposits with the aim of improving our understanding of the amount and nature of archaeological and palaeontological activity in and around Church Hole.

Church Hole is the only cave on the southern side of the gorge that is known to have contained archaeology. From early excavation notes it seems that Middle and Late Upper Palaeolithic artefacts were recovered from a same sediment described as a ‘red mottled bed’, a silty ‘cave earth’ containing limestone fragments. A picture of what Church Hole originally contained can be built up from known collections in Britain and Eire, previously unrecorded collections housed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., and materials recovered from the spoilheap of the Victorian excavation of the cave during the ongoing excavations. From these it can be ascertained that Church Hole contained at least seventy Middle Palaeolithic artefacts, although one must remember this is presumably a minimum number. These are made on quartzite, and include four cores, two of which show removals from a single striking platform created by the removal of one flake, and two are discoidal cores showing the radial removals of flakes from a single surface. In addition to these four crude chopping tools, a number of simple flakes, four naturally backed knives, a scraper on an elongated flake and a flake with bifacial retouch were recovered.

The Late Upper Palaeolithic (Magdalenian) lithics from Church Hole are dominated by broken blades and bladelets; four unbroken examples of these are known, and the cave also yielded several flakes, crested blades resulting from the preparation of blade cores, burins, piercers and abruptly retouched pieces. Form the diversity of cores and products it seems that a variety of tasks including hide working and perhaps woodworking and engraving were performed here. In addition to the lithic items Church Hole produced several worked bone and antler items of Magdalenian age. These include three bone eyed needles – perhaps a cache of a sewing kit in the cave; a trimmed oval-shaped process of a lumbar vertebra of a large herbivore (possibly horse) bearing irregularly spaced notches which may have been used as a serrated flesher or as a thread winder; two awls made from the tibiae of arctic hare; and two incomplete parts of reindeer antler rods which have often been described as ‘marrow scoops’ but which probably functioned as javelin foreshafts.


There are three broad stratigraphic contexts outside Church Hole. The Victorian spoil heap is abundant in the lower trench area. This lies atop a buried Victorian turf line, under which is ~0.5m of Holocene soil that contained a mix of material from Pleistocene lithics and fauna, through later prehistoric materials, to Medieval and post-Medieval ceramics. The mix is due to the incorporation of materials washing downslope from within the cave, those deliberately cleared from the cave, and those washing down from exterior slope deposits. This lies atop an in situ talus slope. The upper parts of this are of Holocene age, containing in situ stratified deposits of the Late Bronze Age and Neolithic. Surprisingly, the later prehistoric talus deposits slope towards the cliff face as well as down-slope away from the cliff, and where the trench abuts the cliff we have unearthed a rock overhang from which air is flowing. This is a small rockshelter that had filled to its roof by ~1000 BC, which we have named The Crypt. The spoil heap has yielded large amounts of Pleistocene fauna in excellent condition, as well as several dozen flints demonstrably of Late Upper Palaeolithic age and several dozen quartzite artefacts of Middle Palaeolithic age. The fauna include examples of every taxon known to have been excavated from inside the cave, e.g. hyaena, reindeer and woolly rhino (which relate to hyaena denning), large bovid (probably aurochs), fox, bear, horse, mammoth and a fragment of human clavicle. The Holocene soil yielded >1000 Holocene faunal remains, rich samples of ceramics, coins and metal items from various periods.

Example finds from the Church Hole excavation include:

• Numerous pieces of worked quartizite clearly of Middle Palaeolithic antiquity attesting to Neanderthal use of the cave for shelter
• fragment of awl on Arctic hare tibia of Upper Palaeolithic antiquity bearing incisions (probably to facilitate gripping)
• Abundant faunal remains of hyaena and of large herbivores bearing gnaw marks from this species (especially reindeer and woolly rhino)
• Ceramics of Late Neolithic, Middle/Late Bronze Age, Iron Age, Romano-British, Medieval and Early Modern date
• A Coin of the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine
• A later prehistoric bone point, probably Late Bronze Age
• A medieval/early post-Medieval Merrels (‘Nine Mens Morris’) board engraved onto a limestone block
• Two coins of Henry Ist (a third was found in the cave in 1876)
• A number of Late Upper Palaeolithic (Creswellian/Final Magdalenian) blades and obliquely retouched blades (Cheddar Points)

More recently, newly-discovered lithics from the excavations have been used as part of an ambitious trace element characterization of British flint sources and Late Upper Palaeolithic tools. Using Laser Ablation Inductively-Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) this has been used to identify the sources of the flints used for tool manufacture at Creswell and elsewhere, and by so doing to reconstruct the movements of Lateglacial hunter-gatherers. It indicates that Creswell was an important node in a nationwide annual mobility system, probably structured around the use of rivers for canoe-based travel.

Creswell Crags from the air, looking east. Photo courtesy Creswell Heritage Trust.

Creswell Crags from the air, looking east. Photo courtesy Creswell Heritage Trust.

Pleistocene deposits with Middle Palaeolithic archaeology & palaeontology in the lower trench, 2012. Photo Paul Pettitt.

Pleistocene deposits with Middle Palaeolithic archaeology & palaeontology in the lower trench, 2012. Photo Paul Pettitt.

Enigmatic engravings from the rear of Church Hole, which may be incomplete long necked birds or highly stylized human females of a form common in Late Upper Palaeolithic art. Photo courtesy English Heritage.

Enigmatic engravings from the rear of Church Hole, which may be incomplete long necked birds or highly stylized human females of a form common in Late Upper Palaeolithic art. Photo courtesy English Heritage.

Published Results

Authored book

  • Pettitt, P.B. & White, M.J. (2012). The British Palaeolithic: Human Societies at the Edge of the Pleistocene World. London: Routledge.
  • Bahn, P. & Pettitt, P. B. (2009). Britain's Oldest Art: the Ice Age Cave Art of Creswell Crags. English Heritage.

Edited book

  • Pettitt, P. B., Bahn, P. & Ripoll, S. (2007). Palaeolithic Cave Art at Creswell Crags in European Context. Oxford University Press.

Journal Article

  • Dodge, D. A., Bouwman, A. S., Pettitt, P. B. & Brown, T. (2012). Mitochondrial DNA haplotypes of Devensian hyaenas from Creswell Crags, England. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences
  • Pettitt, P. B., Rockman, M. & Chenery, S. (2012). The British Final Magdalenian: Society, settlement and raw material movements revealed through LA-ICP-MS trace element analysis of diagnostic artefacts. Quaternary International 272-273: 275-287.
  • Pettitt, P. B., Jacobi, R. M., Chamberlain, A. C., Schreve, D., Wall, I., Dinnis, R. & Wragg-Sykes, R. (2009). Excavations outside Church Hole, Creswell Crags: the first three seasons (2006-8). Transactions of the Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire 113: 35-53.
  • Hall, M. & Pettitt, P. B. (2008). A pair of Merrels boards on a stone block from Church Hole cave, Creswell Crags, Nottinghamshire, England. Transactions of the Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire 112.
  • Pike, A. W. G., Gilmore, M., Pettitt, P. B., Jacobi, R. M., Ripoll, S., Bahn, P. & Muñoz, F. (2005). Independent U-Series verification of the Pleistocene antiquity of the Palaeolithic cave art at Creswell Crags, UK. Journal of Archaeological Science 32: 1649-55.
  • Bahn, P., Pettitt, P. B. & Ripoll, S. (2003). Discovery of Palaeolithic cave art in Britain. Antiquity 77: 227-31.


From the Department of Archaeology

Scottish Soldiers Project

Cooperating with the Palace Museum in China