At the Crags

All the latest news on what's been happening and what's coming up at Creswell Crags. Keep up to date with events, exhibitions and much, much more!

  • Excavation 2016: The Upper Upper Upper Palaeolthic

    With only a few working days left until it's time to leave the site for another season, we're in a very good position. As we've pulled back the straigraphy to get to the undisturbed archaeology, we've come to the prehistoric layers-- as indicated by the presence of several pieces of prehistoric (possibly Bronze Age) pottery. This is very helpful, as it lets us know what period we're currently digging.

    The working hypothesis of the hearth in the corner of the trench has since been disproven; pulling the layer back, we've found more quartzite cobbles and an extremely rocky layer that looks like scree from the cliff face. Annoyingly, this scree covers the entire bottom of the trench, meaning that there's lots of very careful troweling in the crevices between rocks and awkward angles trying to balance your feet on angular bits of limestone. Although this is a pain now, when we pull up these rocks it seems very very likely that we'll have come to the end of the Holocene and the beginning of the Ice Age. 

    This is supported by the fact that we found a very special kind of flint tool in the trench yesterday: a Federmesser, or pen-knife point, from the so-called Federmesser culture. These come right after the Creswellian culture at the very end of the Upper Palaeolithic (the 'Upper Upper Palaeolthic', jokingly), and that we've found one implies we're in the layer or two ahead of the Creswellian culture.

    The points are distinctive for being of a specific shape, like that of a pen-knife, and for being curve backed-- so whoever made these had to strike the flint from the core, then go back and retouch the flint to have a specific shape and edge. You can see a little bit of that in the pictures below: the triangular shape, then the curved back. You can also see a little bit of retouching on the face, where the bottom 1/3 of the flint goes concave where someone's retouched it as well:


    Andrea Leigh. Durham University

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  • Excavation 2016: The End of Week One

    With Week One drawing to a close, 

    The finds from the last few days were given a bit of airtime at Paul Pettitt and Alistair Pike's talk at the visitor centre yesterday-- it was great to see everyone who came out! What we have so far is great because it gives a highlights reel of occupation and use of the Crags: Neanderthals, prehistoric fauna, human occupation, then modern disturbance. It gives a nice tangible narrative for us to follow, and now we've begun to round that out. 

    On Friday we found a lovely, but broken, cheddar point (pictured)-- named for where this type of shape was originally found, in Gough's Cave at Cheddar Gorge; as compared to the Creswell point, no prizes for guessing where that tool type was discovered! Worked flint was valuable to people in the Palaeolithic because it provided a very sharp cutting edge. Fortunately for us today, flint dulls very quickly each time you use it and needs to constantly be touched up or made new entirely. This is a messy process that leaves loads of small fragments (called debitage) that we can find. This type of flint point was probably mounted on a spear or javelin; Paul, in a moment of inspiration (or boredom) shaped his own rough propel-sur or spear thrower and had a quick throw down the path. No archaeologists, visitors, or animals were harmed; only Paul's pride when the stick went a whopping three metres.

    We think we've found a feature in the corner of one of the trenches, a series of river cobbles called potboilers: these were smooth, round stones that were heated up in a fire and sometimes dropped in water; they occasionally crack pretty distinctively through the middle

     from the heat. Their presence implies a hearth or a fire pit of some sort; everyone gets excited and likes to come over to have a look at how it's emerging... until it comes time to move some of the cliff scree around it,

     when suddenly everyone is very busy troweling or sieving elsewhere and couldn't po

    For Week Two, we've now come to the archaeological layer and can start pulling it back context by context to start drawing conclusions about what was happening. What we've found so far is very encouraging, but real meaning on archaeological sites comes from comparing layers of stratigraphy against what lies over and under them. We've traced the story back pretty far, but hopefully we'll get an even better picture over the next six days!ssibly be disturbed.

    Andrea Leigh, Durham University

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  • Exciting finds at Mother Grundy's Parlour

    Andrea is an MA Museum & Artefact Studies student at Durham University and forms part of the 2016 excavation team.  This is the first of her on-site reports -

    Archaeology is usually pretty slow work-- the process to get an excavation started involves stringing out your trench, taking levels above sea height, and deciding on where you're going to put your sections and trench faces (from which side you work). That doesn't even include actually moving all that soil! 

    Luckily for us, it's only Day 3 and we've made very exciting progress. The team's goal was to find the trench of previous excavations run by Leslie Armstrong in the early 20th century so we can then look outside of where he dug, in untouched soil. After stringing out our trenches and removing about 30 centimetres of soil, we've found the edge of where he put what's called backfill: all of the soil you remove from your trenches after you've taken out all of the artefacts. We needed to play a bit of a guessing game because his records aren't very clear about where he started and stopped-- he wasn't very big on drawings or plans so it's very lucky we've found it as quickly as we have, we could have spent days searching for his stopping point.

    Although we made a lot of jokes about not even getting to have our own excavation and only getting a secondhand one, going back through what Armstrong left was actually very worthwhile. In the 19th and 20th centuries, archaeologists weren't very concerned about smaller, broken, or incomplete artefacts; they really only cared about the big exciting pieces. They also didn't know as much as we do now about making Palaeolithic tools, so we've found quite a few pieces that they either didn't spot or didn't think were worthwhile. 

    We've found a few pieces of broken flint, which seem quite small and unimpressive but are really quite remarkable because they let us know that the people who stayed in Mother Grundy's Parlour were also making flint tools here; similarly, we've found a broken piece of chert, which lets us know that people may have used the cave during the late Upper Palaeolithic or Mesolithic as well. 

    A piece of red ochre has also turned up. Red ochre is very exciting to archaeologists because it's what people in the Palaeolithic used to draw on cave walls, and possibly themselves to spice up their look! It looks a bit like a small lump of clay so it can be tricky to spot, but it leaves a really distinctive red smear whenever you press it against anything. Sadly, if people were making drawings using the red ochre in Mother Grundy's Parlour, they've been washed away since so we can't say for sure.

    The most exciting find is a very beautiful Neanderthal chopper: a piece of quartzite that they grabbed from the lake (which would still be a stream back then) and broke pieces off of to make a nice sharp edge on one side. They could use this for a few things, but most likely for chopping up their dinner-- which is why we call them choppers! Armstrong wouldn't have known what these were while he was excavating as they didn't know as much about Neanderthals back then, so to him it would have looked like just a broken rock. 

    We've also found a few of Armstrong's old excavation pins that he would have used to mark the edges of his trenches. We're now studying the archaeology of the archaeologists! 

    An amazing thing turned up today, Day 3, is a hyena tooth. It's not a bone you would find meat on so we can't say whether it was left at the cave after someone had a bit of hyena steak for dinner or whether a hyena happened to die at the cave, but it still helps to fill in the picture of Palaeolithic life at the cave.  

    We'll be at the cave until 16 July every weekday with tours running on 9 July, but school groups and individuals are more than welcome to stop by, have a chat, and see what progress we've made. Digging is hard work, so we're always happy to have a quick break!

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  • Let's inspire all our visitors

       It's easy to fall in love with a place like Creswell Crags.  I think it will always be an inspiring place, meaning so much in many different ways to our many different visitors and users.  It has had so much effort and energy, not to say money, poured into it since the 1990s – with the removal of a sewage works, a diversionary road (long before Stone Henge!), the discovery of our enigmatic and wonderful engraved cave art.  And we've come on a remarkable journey even since opening the new visitor centre in summer 2009.


    By itself, our internationally astounding evidence of human activity 55,000 years ago, and then again after Britain’s last ice age, is enough to draw visitors from far and wide – but is that enough for the Crags to pay their way as a commercial visitor attraction?


    The Heritage Trust that runs the Crags site is an educational charity, set up with social aims in the early 1990s.  That can sit uneasily with the need to make money, but that’s the challenge now facing the Crags, as it is buffeted by uncertain funding.


    Last year we were fortunate in gaining ‘Transition’ funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.  That allowed us to work closely with the National Trust – experts in outside landscape management, volunteer organization and running tourist attractions that mix buildings and sites in rural locations.  Their suggestions were considered by our board of trustees, and we’ve now set ambitious targets for our shop, café and car park. 


    We know we also need some major improvements in our infrastructure – from a website that can be used on mobile devices and handle advance cave tour bookings, to improved tills in our café and a better car park.  These are all signs of ‘growing pains’.  The Crags site received record visitor numbers of 45,000 in 2013-14, and topped this again in 2014-15 – we now need to capitalize on these extra visitors and make sure we can respond to their needs and wishes.


    But it’s not just investment in things, we need to invest in our people – staff, volunteers and trustees.  Those of you who are subscribers to our e-newsletters and follow us on Twitter and Facebook will be increasingly familiar with our new plans and calls for volunteer helpers and supporters. 


    It’s nothing less than a change of culture we’re undergoing – to one where we’re more self-sufficient, more aware of our users’ interests and needs, but in return where everyone understands that the Crags is a charity as deserving as any in the land.  We may not be big, or as obviously heart-wrenching as other charities that look after people or animals, but in our own way, are we not just as deserving?  Not of handouts from government… but of support from our many visitors and users.


    Watch out for our exciting developments this year – from extra cave tours (every day where there’s a demand), exciting new uses of the site like our Cave, Cake and Collections package (what it says on the tin!), extra activities for the young, excavations (outside Mother Grundy’s Parlour – we hope!)… But please also think how you can help our charity stay strong and vibrant, so we can work together to ensure this inspirational place remains available for all to enjoy.


    Roger Shelley (Director) 

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  • It's Cool in Sheffield

    Life on the Edge: Ice Age Frontier is a great exhibition currently available to see at Weston Park Museum in Sheffield. Co-curated by Creswell Crags and the team at Weston Park, it tells the story of the people and animals of the last Ice Age and how they managed to survive in such a harsh environment. 

    There are loads of things to do and see that give a real impression of what it was like for the people that made the caves at Creswell Crags their home. It is a great chance to learn all about our Ice Age ancestors and how they interacted with the animals of their time, many of which have since gone extinct. There is even the opportunity to dress up as some of these Ice Age animals! Do you fancy becoming a woolly rhino or mammoth?

    When you have had enough of dressing up there are also plenty of artefacts to see, many of which were discovered here at Creswell Crags. A particular highlight is the almost complete skeleton of a baby hyena found in Pin Hole Cave.

    It might seem strange that the skeleton of a hyena would be found here rather than in Africa say, but they were actually a fairly common sight in the Ice Age before becoming extinct. They were just one of the many dangerous animals our Ice Age ancestors had to contend with. Just imagine having to fight off hungry hyenas as well as the bitter cold! It is incredibly rare to find such an intact hyena skeleton and this example has never before been on display. 

        Another reason to go along to Weston Park Museum and see this fantastic exhibition! Life of the Edge: Ice Age Frontier runs until 20th September 2015 and admission completely free.

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  • Community Day

    For many local people Creswell Crags is an attraction on their doorstep – much loved, quite literally part of the landscape, but not always understood.  It’s many years since people were able to enter the caves unescorted, but as the site is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and contains steep crevices and hazards, as far as it can Creswell Heritage Trust is obliged to protect the remaining cave deposits and structures and prevent visitors from coming to harm.

    Saturday 20th June is your big chance to visit Robin Hood Cave at a reduced rate if you are one of our loyal local followers.  If you are a resident of Elmton with Creswell or Whitwell parishes, you are entitled to half-price tickets on our ‘Life in the Ice Age’ tour on this special annual Community Day (on production of evidence of local residency, such as a utility or Council tax bill).  This day also happens to be the opening of our new special exhibition looking at the amazing work of botanical artist Mary Delany from over 200 years ago.

    Two great reasons to make a special visit to the Crags – remember to book in advance if you want to secure your place on our cave tour – numbers are limited by the safe capacity of the cave.  Call us on 01909 720378.

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  • A Baltic Gem

    When I’m not looking after a group or taking a tour, I like to have a walk around the exhibition in the visitor centre. Even though I’ve been inside lots of times, I always find something new for me to look at. For a while I’ve been looking forward to the new temporary exhibition, A Baltic Gem, and once it opened I couldn’t wait to have a look around. It focuses on a small amber pebble which the Ice Age people carried all the way from the Baltic here to Creswell Crags. Archaeologists aren’t sure why they brought it here but have different theories, including that it could have been used as a medicine. I like to think that they kept it just because it looks decorative and it meant something special to them. For me, the best kinds of exhibitions are ones which are interactive because it makes the history and the artefacts come to life. I was really pleased when I saw that there was a section of the exhibition where people could leave objects, or comments about the things that they keep because they are special.   

    People's hidden gems at Creswell Crags

    My favourite item is a large feather as it looks unusual. I put one of my London Underground tickets into the exhibition as I have kept that because it reminds me of good memories, even though someone else may see it as a piece of rubbish. One visitor has commented that they enjoy collecting old coins with their friends, whilst another said that they pick up stones from the beach. It makes me realise that we aren’t so different from the Ice Age people.  

    Feather at Creswell Crags

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  • Behind The Scenes At The Museum


    This week I wanted to show all of the behind the scenes work that goes on in the museum. The first thing I do at the start of my day is to have a patrol around the gorge and open the meadow for visitors. I love walking around at the start of the day as it’s so tranquil and peaceful. I often see the same people each time having a walk around the gorge so it’s nice to have a chat and see how the regular visitors are getting on.


    As part of my patrol I complete a cave inspection. This is done everytime visitors will be going into the caves to make sure that everying is safe and is as it should be. Whenever I’m alone inside Robin Hood’s cave I check to see where the cave spiders are residing that day to make sure they don’t spring up on me during a tour! Also, when inspecting the art in Church Hole I have a close look at the cave walls. I always hope to see a new engraving that I can claim as my own discovery!


    The artefacts inside the exhibition need to be checked regularly as well. I check the temperature inside the cases by using an electronic gauge and make a recording of it to see if there have been any fluctuations. The artefacts are quite fragile, so they need to be kept at the correct temperature to conserve them, and they need to be protected by low level lighting. I really enjoy going around the museum and taking care of the objects as each one is so special and unique.

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  • Mammoths and Mask Making Summer Fun

    My name is Emma and I’m one of the Interpretive Guides here at Creswell Crags. I’ve worked here for just over three year now and everyday is different. With it being the school summer holidays at the moment lots of events have been going on in addition to our tours, including our craft events.

    The fantastic playground at Creswell Crags


    Each week there’s been a different craft activity, and in between my tours I went to have a look. The children were making fantastic Ice Age masks of all different kinds of Ice Age animals, like reindeer, mammoth and bison. Looking around I could tell that the cave lion was the most popular animal! I thought I’d have a try myself but I’m not the most artistic person around.

    Mask making fun at Creswell Crags


    The two volunteers who were looking after the activity were doing a great job and the kids had a really good time. Hopefully I’ll be working when the next craft activity is on and I can have a go at making some finger puppets and some Ice Age clothes.


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  • Summer Fun

    Creswell Crags is planning for the upcoming summer festival. We are in for a busy week as we are covering sports and arts this year. Many artists and crafts people have signed up so come along to see some of the wonderful products they are showing. Down in the meadow you and your family can compete in our Ice Age sports day. Test out your skills to see if you could have survived!

    If you've been along to one of these events, please leave a comment below and let us know what you thought.

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