Rebecca Wragg Sykes is the author of Kindred: Neanderthals Life, Love, Death and Art published by Bloomsbury Sigma. Available in hardback at Bloomsbury.com and via the Creswell Crags online shop. On 16 November, she will join Professor Jamie Woodward and Creswell Crags Curator, Dr. Angharad Jones, in a live online conversation via Zoom. Tickets are free, but donations requested. Reserve your place via Eventbrite. Here, in a guest blog post, Rebecca writes about the Neanderthals at Creswell Crags.
Creswell Crags is a unique place today, and so too during the Pleistocene 55,000 years ago. Back then it offered a refuge to Neanderthals, a place to hunker down on the great Western Doggerland plateau, now known as Britain. The Pleistocene is the geological epoch between around 2 million and 11,000 years ago, at which point the last ice age ended; through that period of time in total there were more than sixty pulses of deep cold and warmth. Around 55,000 years ago the world was taking a breather between frozen exhalations when ice caps and mountain glaciers blossomed. Britain had only thawed from a true arctic landscape to one of steppe-tundra around five millennia earlier, allowing great herds of the plains to return: joining reindeer were woolly rhinoceros, mammoth and horse. Not far behind, stepping out across what’s today the Channel and North Sea, were Neanderthals.
As far as we can tell, there had been nobody at all in Britain for at least 5000 generations before that point. The last Neanderthals in Britain were living around 250,000 years ago, and include precious fossils of at least five individuals from Pontnewydd Cave, Wales. After that a glacial period intervened, followed around 123,000 years ago by an interglacial even balmier than today, when lions stalked wooded glades and hippos splashed in a swamp filling the Crags basin. Their bones come from mottled clays towards the base of Robin Hood Cave. But during this warm period lasting until around 75,000 years ago and the short but intense glacial afterwards, we find virtually no evidence of any Neanderthals.
When they re-colonized Britain from around 60,000 years ago however, it seems Neanderthals came over as soon as things warmed up enough for grassland to support herds, including horses, who had notably also been absent over the same period. Some of the first discoveries of the archaeology they left behind comes from Creswell Crags, although in the 1870s when the caves began to be investigated, nobody even knew that Neanderthals made tools. The first recognised skull from Feldhofer, Germany had been found just a couple of decades before, and was swiftly followed by another from Gibraltar. But it wouldn’t be until the 1890s that their skeletons were unearthed alongside artefacts.
Our understanding of the Neanderthals ate Creswell instead developed through the later 20th century, well after major excavations by Leslie Armstrong had taken place through the 1930s-50s. Through a massive program of dating by Roger Jacobi in collaboration with the Oxford Radiocarbon Laboratory, together with modern technological analysis of the stone artefacts, we can now say quite a few things about what Neanderthals were up to at Creswell.
They were probably attracted here from southern Britain, or even east on the Doggerland plains, in search of game. Certainly woolly rhinoceros was being hunted, as well as reindeer, and the presence of very young reindeer at other sites in the region shows the Midlands might have been a calving ground at this point in time. When Neanderthals arrived, they brought with them artefacts made of flint that they’d carried long distances from those south-eastern regions, likely over 80 km. Thousands of other sites across western Eurasia show a similar pattern where artefacts made of high quality stone were transported both because they were easy to knap and resharpen on long trips, but also because Neanderthals were knowledgeable about local geology. Around Creswell, there are no decent flint deposits, and instead the most abundant stone is quartzite; typically found in cobbles and very tough to knap. Neanderthals were perfectly able to use it, and did so while staying in the caves, but they didn’t take it away southwards with them.
They also seem to have used the caves differently. Because they were dug a long time before archaeologists understood fine layers representing occupations through time could be preserved, we don’t have very high resolution chronology to pick out different occupation phases. But we can see patterns in the artefacts, and it does seem that Church Hole on the north-facing side of the gorge wasn’t used much, unlike the south-facing and larger Robin Hood’s Cave. Most interesting is Pin Hole, which is actually a tiny space and could never have hosted large groups. The archaeology from here does look different, with a smaller assemblage and apparently more far-travelled tools. It ‘feels’ more like a place where a few Neanderthals might have stopped for a night or two now and then, something we can see clearly in modern excavated sites like Abric del Pastor, Spain. Alternatively, perhaps Pin Hole was used at the same time as the other caves, but for different tasks or by different members of a travelling group. It’s even possible they were on their way further up into Britain; the farthest north probable Neanderthal site is Ravencliffe Cave, Derbyshire where excavations before 1920 found big animals like woolly rhinoceros and one beautiful flint scraper, very much like those from Pin Hole. Certainly Creswell Crags was a place that was one node in a vast web across the landscapes that Neanderthals knew well.