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Mesolithic and Neolithic Human Remains from Foxhole Cave, Gower, South Wales

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 September 2013

Rick Schulting
Affiliation:
Rick Schulting, School of Archaeology, University of Oxford, 36 Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2PG, UK. Email: rick.schulting@arch.ox.ac.uk
Linda Fibiger
Affiliation:
Linda Fibiger, School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh, Old Medical School, Teviot Place, Edinburgh EH8 9AG, UK. Email: linda.fibiger@ed.ac.uk
Richard Macphail
Affiliation:
Richard Macphail, UCL Institute of Archaeology, 31–34 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PY, UK. Email: r.macphail@ucl.ac.uk
Rowan McLaughlin
Affiliation:
Rowan McLaughlin, 11 Closkelt Road, Ballyward, Castlewellan BT31 9QE, UK. Email: r.mclaughlin@qub.ac.uk
Emily Murray
Affiliation:
Emily Murray, Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork, Queen's University Belfast, Belfast BT7 1NN, UK. Email: e.v.murray@qub.ac.uk
Catherine Price
Affiliation:
Catherine Price, 12 Higher Perthy, The Perthy, Ellesmere SY12 9HP, UK. Email: cath_price@btinternet.com
Elizabeth A Walker
Affiliation:
Elizabeth A Walker, FSA, National Museum Wales, Carthays Park, Cardiff CF10 3NP, UK. Email: elizabeth.walker@museumwales.ac.uk

Abstract

This paper presents an overview of the results of two brief excavation seasons (2008 and 2010) at Foxhole Cave, Gower, south Wales, placing them into the wider context of mid-Holocene Britain. No prehistoric pottery was found and the few pieces of worked flint recovered are diagnostic of the Mesolithic period. Typically for the Carboniferous limestone caves of Gower, bone was well preserved, however, and though much of the material in the heavily disturbed upper metre or so of the deposits was modern sheep and rabbit, scattered fragments representing the remains of at least six humans were also recovered, of which two have been directly radiocarbon-dated using accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS 14C) to the Late Mesolithic and two to the earlier Neolithic (the remaining two providing Romano-British and medieval dates). Their associated stable carbon and nitrogen isotope values indicate a significant difference in diet between the two periods (contrary to the results from an earlier excavation in 1997), with marine foods contributing around half of the protein for the Mesolithic individuals and little or none for the Neolithic individuals. The new results are consistent with those from Caldey Island, Pembrokeshire, some 30km to the west. The floor of the cave has still not been reached at around 2m depth; limited investigation of the lowermost levels has yielded a Pleistocene fauna (including reindeer, aurochs or bison and collared lemming) with dates back to approx 33,500 cal bc, though with no definite evidence for human activity so far. A small, dark-stained fragment of human cranium was recovered from what may be pre-Holocene levels, but this failed to produce sufficient collagen for dating. In addition to a marked dietary shift, the combined stable isotope and dating programme provides further support for an equally striking temporal gap of some two millennia between the Mesolithic and Neolithic use of caves for burial.

Résumé

Cet article présente un aperçu des résultats de deux brèves saisons de fouille (2008 et 2010) à la grotte de Foxhole à Gower, dans le Sud du pays de Galles, en les plaçant dans le contexte plus général du milieu du Holocène en Grande-Bretagne. Aucune poterie préhistorique n'a été trouvée et les rares morceaux de silex travaillés récupérés sont attribués à la période du mésolithique. Typique des grottes de calcaire du Carbonifère situées à Gower, l'os était cependant bien conservé. Bien que la majeure partie du matériau de la couche supérieure très fouillée sur environ un mètre ait été constituée d'os récents de moutons et de lapins, des fragments éparpillés représentant les restes d'au moins six humains ont également été retrouvés. Deux d'entre eux ont été datés au carbone 14 comme étant de la fin du mésolithique et deux du début du néolithique (les deux restants dateraient de l’époque romaine et du Moyen-âge). Les valeurs associées de leurs isotopes de carbone et d'azote stables indiquent une différence considérable d'alimentation entre les deux périodes (contrairement aux résultats de fouilles récentes datant de 1997), les aliments maritimes représentant environ la moitié des protéines des individus de mésolithique et très peu ou aucune des protéines des individus du néolithique. Ces nouveaux résultats correspondent à ceux de l’île Caldey, dans le Pembrokeshire, à quelque 30km à l'ouest. Le sol de la grotte, à environ 2 mètres de profondeur, n'a toujours pas été atteint ; des recherches limitées sur les niveaux les plus bas ont révélé une faune du pléistocène (notamment de rênes, d'aurochs ou de bisons, ainsi que de lemmings à collier) datant d'environ 33 500 av. J.-C., mais aucune preuve d'activité humaine définie jusqu’à présent. Un petit fragment d'une teinte foncée provenant d'un crâne humain a été trouvé dans ce qui pourraient être les niveaux antérieurs au Holocène, mais ils n'ont pas produit assez de collagène pour pouvoir être datés. Outre un changement alimentaire marqué, le rapprochement d'isotopes stables et le programme de datation apportent un nouveau soutien envers un écart temporel également étonnant d'environ deux millénaires entre les utilisations de grottes comme sépultures au mésolithique et au néolithique.

Zusammenfassung

Diese Abhandlung bringt einen Überblick über die Ergebnisse von zwei kurzen Ausgrabungssaisonen (2008 und 2010) in Foxhole Cave, Gower, Süd-Wales, und sie setzt sie in den weiteren Kontext von Britannien in der Mitte des Holozän. Es wurden keine vorgeschichtlichen Töpfereifragmente gefunden und die wenigen bearbeiteten Feuersteinstücke sind dem Mesolithikum zuzuschreiben. Das Knochenmaterial war gut erhalten, was für das Kohlenkalkgestein der Höhlen von Gower typisch ist. Bei einem Großteil des Materials im stark beschädigten oberen Meter der Ablagerungen handelte es sich zwar um Schafe oder Kaninchen aus heutiger Zeit, doch es wurden auch die verstreuten Fragmente der Überreste von mindestens sechs Menschen gefunden, von denen zwei mittels C-14 Datierung direkt dem späten Mesolithikum und zwei dem früheren Neolithikum zugeschrieben werden konnten (für die übrigen zwei ergaben sich Daten aus römisch-britischer Zeit und aus dem Mittelalter). Die gleichzeitig erbrachten stabilen Kohlenstoff- und Stickstoffisotopen weisen auf beträchtliche Unterschiede in der Ernährung zwischen den beiden Zeitaltern hin (im Gegensatz zu den Ergebnissen einer früheren Ausgrabung von 1997). Die Menschen im Mesolithikum bezogen etwa die Hälfte ihres Proteinbedarfs von Meerestieren, während dies auf die Menschen im Neolithikum kaum oder überhaupt nicht zutraf. Die neuen Ergebnisse decken sich mit denen von Caldey Island, Pembrokeshire, einer Insel, die ca. 30km westlich liegt. Der Boden der Höhle ist bei ca. 2 Metern Tiefe noch immer nicht erreicht worden. Beschränkte Untersuchungen der untersten Schichten haben eine Fauna aus dem Pläistozen erbracht (einschließlich Rentier, Auerochs oder Wisent und Halsbandlemming), was auf ca. 33.500 v.Chr. (cal bc) zurückgeht, wobei sich bisher noch kein fester Nachweis für menschliche Aktivitäten ergeben hat. In Schichten, möglicherweise aus dem Vor-Holozän, wurde ein kleines dunkel gefärbtes Fragment eines menschlichen Schädels gefunden, das jedoch nicht genügend Collagen für eine Datierung erbrachte. Zusätzlich zum Hinweis auf eine deutliche Ernährungsänderung liefert das kombinierte stabile Isotop- und Datierungsprogramm auch einen weiteren Nachweis für einen ebenso erstaunlichen zeitlichen Abstand von rund zweitausend Jahren zwischen der Verwendung von Höhlen für Beisetzungen in Mesolithikum und Neolithikum.

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Copyright © The Society of Antiquaries of London 2013 

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