image of ochre crayon
showing the team that discovered the ochre

A few months ago, we made a very exciting discovery at Creswell Crags – we found ochre! We were having some signs installed in the gorge (hopefully you’ve seen them!) and because it’s such a sensitive archaeological site I was attending doing the ‘watching brief’ (basically making sure the contractors didn’t get too carried away and dig up the entire site). Dug hole number 1, found nothing. Dug hole number 2, found nothing. Dug hole number 3, and you guessed it, found nothing.

But then while we were digging outside Church Hole, our last cave of the day, … stopped and said the words every archaeologist wants to hear – ‘I think I’ve found something’. And unlike the other 8 times he’d said it that day, this time he had. What he’d found was a small cuboid-shaped piece of ochre, about half a meter down into the ground. It didn’t look like much, but it’s one of the most exciting things to be found at Creswell Crags for many years.

“Why?” I hear you ask. Because it opens up a huge number of questions as to what humans were doing at our site during the Pleistocene. Anyone who’s been on our Rock Art cave tour into Church Hole knows that the rock art isn’t anywhere near as impressive as some of the European sites, such as Lascaux or Alta Mira, which are beautifully decorated with different ochre pigments. We’re very proud of our rock art at Creswell Crags, but it doesn’t look quite as fancy, does it?

But if there is ochre being found just outside the rock art cave, then perhaps this cave was painted in the past?

I wish it was this simple. In fact, the find triggers more questions than it answers. Initial chemical analysis suggests that our ochre is perhaps quite modern, as it is made up of lots of different minerals instead of just iron oxide. Yet how else would a small crayon-sized piece of ochre make its way 48cm below the surface of the ground at Creswell Crags? The colour of the ochre is also confusing, as the deep red of this piece isn’t often found in this area. It may have been heated in order to change its colour, or else been brought from a long way away.

We may not have answers to these questions for a long time, but wherever it came from it’ll still remain a career high for me, and reminds me why I love working here!