Dr Robert Laing and His Enigmatic Felid
Creswell Crags has been subject to many excavations since the 1870s. The principal Victorian excavators were Reverend John Magens Mello, Sir William Boyd Dawkins, and Thomas Heath. However, other smaller excavations were carried out in the 19th Century, including those by Dr Robert Laing.
Relatively little is known about Dr Robert Laing and his excavations. In 1890, a short article was published in the Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (Laing, 1890). In this, Dr Laing very briefly mentioned that he excavated Dog Hole, finding species similar to those found in Pin Hole by the earlier excavators a few years before.
Dr Laing also excavated part of Robin Hood Cave, stating that he found Neolithic and Palaeolithic deposits. In the rear of the cave, he found species such as hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) and narrow-nosed rhinoceros (Stephanorhinus hemitoechus, referred to as Rhinoceros leptorhinus in Dr Laing’s publication), which had previously been found by William Boyd Dawkins and John Magens Mello in Mother Grundy’s Parlour (Dawkins, 1880). We now know that these species lived in Britain during the Last Interglacial, around 125,000 years ago.
The main topic of the article was the finds of a felid species, Felis brevirostris, from Robin Hood Cave, which, according to Dr Laing had not previously been found in Britain, but had been found in Pliocene deposits in France. It seems unlikely that a Pliocene species was found within Robin Hood Cave, given that the rest of the palaeontological finds date from the Late Pleistocene (the Pliocene ended 2.6 million years ago, while the Late Pleistocene began 125,000 years ago).
A clue as to the real identify of Dr Laing’s felid might be found in a publication by Jean Baptiste Croizet and Antoine Claude Gabriel Jobert (1828), who described the finds from Puy-de-Dome in France. The description of F. brevirostris indicated that it was the smallest felid included within the publication. Croizet and Jobert (1828) stated that the measurements of specimens of F. brevirostris are the same as the European lynx (Lynx lynx).
Given the size similarity of F. brevirostris and lynx, and that Pleistocene lynx has been found elsewhere in Britain (including Steetley Quarry, only 5km from Creswell Crags), it seems more likely that Dr Laing’s mystery felid was actually a lynx.
According to Dr Ruth Charles and Dr Roger Jacobi (1994), the excavation records and specimens from Dr Laing’s excavations have been lost, which is a shame especially considering the questions surrounding the supposed F. brevirostris. However, a side scraper, located in the British Museum, may have derived from Dr Laing’s excavations. According to the ‘Curator’s comment’, a label on the object states the year ‘1889’, which coincides with the time that Dr Laing was excavating at Creswell Crags (British Museum, no date).
British Museum (no date) Side scraper, Available at: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/H_1937-0712-201 (Accessed 26th September 2022).
Charles, R. and Jacobi, R.M. (1994) ‘The Lateglacial fauna from the Robin Hood Cave, Creswell Crags: a re-assessment’, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 13(1), pp. 1-32.
Croizet and Jobert (1828) Recherches sur les Ossemens Fossiles du Departement du Puy-de-Dome, Members de la Société Académique de Clermont-Ferrand, pp. 224.
Dawkins, B. (1880) Untitled, Transactions of the Manchester Geological Society, 15, pp. 298-301.
Laing, R. (1890) ‘On the bone caves of Cresswell, and discovery of an extinct Pleiocene feline (Felis brevirostris) new to Great Britain’, Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 59, pp. 582-584.