Backwell Environment Trust

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Backwell Cave

 Location

The cave is just outside the boundary of Badgers Wood on a side path, just before the steps at the lower entrance to Badgers Wood.

Archaeology

Backwell Cave is tucked away in the hillside at the bottom end of Cheston Combe, on a small strip of land between BET’s Badgers Wood and the old quarry.  More of a recess than a cave really, it was of great importance to the people who lived nearby over 5,000 years ago.  It was a sacred site, situated where features of the landscape came together – Earth, Sky and the Underworld.  Water also had special properties, whether in streams, rivers, underground pools or, in this case, dripping water down the hillside which would have formed calcite deposits of stalagmites.

Backwell Cave was relatively unknown until 1936, when quarry owner Joseph Coles asked two quarrymen to clear out the debris of stones and sticky red clay inside it, over 2.40m (8ft) high, and spreading 3m (4.50ft) down the hillside. When pieces of bone appeared in the soil, digging-out was halted, and in 1937 an excavation was carried out by E. K. Tratman.  Remains of 18-30 individuals – men, women and 3 children were uncovered, their bodies apparently buried on their left sides, in the flexed position.  This could explain why many right side bones were missing, as the bodies were disturbed when further burials were placed over them at a later date.  Even the surviving bones were less than they should be, and only two complete skulls were found, one of which had a large healed fracture, probably by an axe, causing a severe head or brain injury.

 

Bones found at the cave during 1937/8

 

  • Bone collection
  • Skull pieces
  • Jaw bone
  • Spine vertebrae
1 2 3 4
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 Animal bones recovered were also fragmentary, with sheep and oxen being the most plentiful, plus badger, not surprising as a sett lay beside the cave itself.  Artefacts included a rare sheep or goat bone double-pointed prong or fork, a leaf-shaped flint arrowhead, a broken flint knife, and 2 spindle whorls for spinning wool.  One, made of liassic limestone was lathe-turned, and the other was of pottery, flat, disc-shaped, and both were possibly Roman.  Amongst the few other pieces was the lip of a wheel-turned black pot, and several early Iron Age fragments. 

Unfortunately many of the finds, including the human bones were lost when Bristol Museum was bombed in World War Two, but the good news is that radiocarbon dating has been carried out on 2 of the surviving vertebrae, revealing that they are Neolithic (New Stone Age) and are over 5,000 years old, much earlier than previously thought.  This was a time when people used stone tools, began to build permanent settlements, and took up farming, raising cattle, pigs, a few sheep and growing crops including corn.

Today it is easier to see where the dead were buried, sometimes in longbarrows or caves, which are still visible, but remains of their settlements and evidence of daily lives are harder to find.  In BET’s Badgers Wood volunteers are opening up parts of the wood by selective tree pruning and clearance of scrubby undergrowth, which may reveal archaeological features to help us understand more about the people who lived there so many years ago.

 

Geology

The cave itself is geologically quite unusual as it was probably formed by hot, mineral-rich water forcing its way out from the hot depths of the earth and not by the more usual water leaching process which is much more common in limestone areas. Its method of formation has resulted in various minerals being deposited on the surface of the cave which, in the right lighting conditions, can shine back as a whole range of bright, steel-blue colours (see photograph below).

Backwell_Cave

 

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