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Whitcombe's Hole

By Vince Simmonds

An archaeological investigation of Whitcombe’s Hole, Burrington Combe: a summary report of the 2011 field work.

Introduction

The excavation at Whitcombe’s Hole involves an investigation of the cave sediments for evidence of any possible human use of Whitcombe’s Hole and whether any indicators of past environmental conditions occurring in the Burrington Combe area can be found at the site.

Permission to dig at the site was granted by the landowner, Sir David Wills on 29th March 2011, subject to a number of conditions, the present permission is to extend to the end of November 2011.

Whitcombe’s Hole is located in Burrington Combe at NGR ST 47635827.  The site has previously been excavated in c.1860 by William Boyd-Dawkins who recovered an unornamented blackware urn that was attributed to the Early Iron Age along with various bones and teeth attributed ox, deer, goat, wolf, fox, badger, rabbit, hare and birds (Sanford and Boyd-Dawkins, 1864, p.169).  A recent visit to the cave appears to indicate that there has been little disturbance of the cave sediments since that time. 

Balch (1937) in his publication – Mendip: Its Swallet Caves and Rock Shelters described Whitcombe’s Hole as an old outlet cave or as a passage that once fed into Aveline’s Hole.  He makes reference to the excavation work at the site by Boyd-Dawkins stating that very little debris was removed and that a complete excavation was not carried out.  Balch adds “there is some deposit on the floor, which will repay excavation” (p.89).

Whitcombe’s Hole is situated at the northern end of a ridge of high ground formed by three valleys; West Twin Brook and East Twin Brook are on either side of the ridge and the cave overlooks Burrington Combe on the northern side.  Both the West and East Twin Brook valley’s run south onto the higher ground of Blackdown, the lower reaches of Burrington Combe have a north-south alignment before heading sharply to the east at the promontory where Whitcombe’s Hole is located.  All of these valleys may have been used as corridors to gain access to the higher Mendip Plateau perhaps to hunt grazing herds at particular seasons. 

To the southwest of Whitcombe’s Hole is found Goatchurch Cavern at a similar altitude overlooking West Twin Brook, north of Whitcombe’s Hole is Aveline’s Hole at the valley bottom of Burrington Combe.

Geology

According to the geological map (BGS: Sheet 280) of the area the site is within the Black Rock Limestone of Carboniferous Age, the strata here has an inclination dipping 60O to the north-northeast.  To the south the strata comprises Lower Limestone Shale, to the north is a small outcrop of Dolomite then Burrington Oolite, these strata are also of Carboniferous Age.  These limestone strata together represent the lower part of the Dinantian sequence.  To the west of the site is an outcrop of Dolomitic Conglomerate of Triassic Age, this particular rock type features as interdigitations along both the northern and southern flanks of the Mendip Hills.

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Figure 1.  Looking into the ‘daylight’ zone of Whitcombe’s Hole, Burrington Combe

Excavation of the ‘daylight’ zone.

Work at the site commenced during April 2011 when a survey of the cave was conducted and photographs of the site were taken.  Following this it was decided that the first task was to investigate the entrance chamber, the ‘daylight’ zone. 

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Figure 2. Cave survey with the approximate areas of excavation conducted within the ‘daylight’ zone shown.

Trench 1: initially the area was thoroughly brushed clean of surface material that comprised mostly moss, leaves, sticks and frequent coarse angular to sub-angular gravel and cobbles of limestone with very rare slate.  There were some fragments of glass and an empty bottle [flagon] that possibly once contained cider and has been attributed to circa 1960s – 1970s.  Some recent animal bones had been noted on the surface during a previous site visit.  As the excavation proceeded the soil removed is described as fairly dry, non-cohesive/non-plastic brown silt/clay with high organic content including abundant root growth and earthworms.  The few finds in these early stages included bone fragments, acorn shells and black decayed wood.  With increasing depth the soil became slightly more cohesive and moist, there appeared pockets of lighter orangey-brown to brown-red clay and yellow-brown, possibly ochreous material (cave earth).  The organic content did not diminish and the extensive root growth and movement of earthworms appeared to have caused considerable mixing of the sediments.  Clearance of the soils revealed limestone bedrock forming the cave floor.

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Figure 3. Trenches 1 and 2 of the 'daylight' zone after excavation.

Trench 3: is located to the rear of the ‘daylight’ zone and could be said to lie within a transitional area between light and increasingly dark zones. Trench 2: was a forward extension of Trench 1 and the soil, similarly, comprised of dry, non-cohesive/non-plastic brown silt/clay with coarse angular to sub-angular gravel and cobbles of mainly limestone with occasional sandstone, also abundant organic content (roots and rootlets) and earthworms.  It has a thickness of 25mm to 100mm and overlies the continuation the limestone bedrock floor.  There were no finds of note and it is likely that these sediments represent more recent, probably wind-borne material as they are relatively close to the cave entrance/exit.

The surface layer of this Trench consisted loose coarse angular to sub-rounded gravel and cobbles of mainly limestone with occasional red sandstone and some now degraded flowstone material.  Below this a red-brown silt/clay with fine to coarse angular to rounded gravel of mainly limestone and occasional sandstone.  There was a pocket of blackened coarse rounded gravel with a number of blackened bone fragments and teeth.  The black coating is possibly due to manganese.  

The organic content remained high and included root growth up to 15mm in diameter and much bioturbation caused by earthworms.

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Figure 4. Some of the blackened bones and teeth from the rear of the ‘daylight’ zone.

The soil became a mixture of brown organic soil and pockets of light red-brown silt/clay with frequent fine to coarse angular to sub-rounded gravel of limestone, sandstone, calcite and quartz pebbles.  The brown organic soil is non-cohesive/non-plastic.  There were more faunal remains recovered mostly bone fragments and teeth, rather disappointingly broken glass was also uncovered, it was from this location that a single flint flake was found.

The soil continued to be a mix of brown organic soil and red-brown silt/clay with gravel and cobbles as described above.  Throughout this Trench were frequent finds of black decayed wood with rare small lumps of charcoal.  With depth the light red-brown silt/clay became more frequent and this material has been described as ‘cave earth’.  Even with increasing depth shards of broken glass were still appearing among the other finds that consisted mostly of small mammal bones.  These mixed soils were found to be overlying yellow (ochreous) sandy clay with abundant medium and coarse sub-rounded to rounded gravel of mostly red sandstone with some infrequent quartz and limestone.

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Figure 5. The single flint flake recovered from the rear of the ‘daylight’ zone.

Discussion

The single flint flake (pictured above) has been compared to a collection of flint on public display in the Balch room at Wells Museum and bears some similarities to those flint flakes attributed to the Mesolithic period.  It should be noted that a single flake recovered from Whitcombe’s Hole might be a residual find and does not, at this stage represent any evidence of occupation.  It is hoped that further excavation within the cave might reveal more finds of this type and provide more information leading to a better interpretation of the site.

     The faunal remains recovered mostly consisted of bone fragments and teeth that initially appear to fall into two categories, those stained black (possibly due to manganese, as mentioned previously) and paler bones.  The blackened bones and teeth appear to be from a pocket that had rounded gravel (pebbles) and included a relatively large canine tooth from badger or fox and teeth might originate from domesticates perhaps sheep/goat.  On average the blackened bones appear to slightly larger than the paler bones.  Some initial identification of the bones and teeth has been carried out and more work is required on further identification of the bones and species types.

There are some anomalies, for example, in all trenches a black material was found, as yet unidentified that adhered to the bedrock and cobbles and also present as lumps.  In a flotation experiment this material sank, whereas carbonized wood/charcoal floated.  This material requires further consideration before an interpretation is possible.

There has been a quantity of broken glass found during the excavation of the ‘daylight’ zone and this is most likely due to prolific root growth, bioturbation and the result of other mechanical means most likely excavation.  When the disturbed mixed layers were excavated to reveal the cave sediment layer it was apparent that passing through the cave sediment layer was a ‘cut’ line and this is has been interpreted by the author as representing the line of a previous excavation possibly that of Boyd-Dawkins original 1860s dig . 

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Figure 6. Some of the paler bones recovered from the rear of the ‘daylight’ zone, mostly of small mammals.

This report presents a preliminary summary of the field work; the evidence collected to date remains inconclusive and further work will be required.  The disturbed sediments are unlikely to provide any tangible evidence so sieving is not believed to be warranted at this stage.  It is thought that the further investigation of the site might reveal undisturbed sediments that will provide some context and possibly the recovery of more diagnostic artefacts and other evidence and enable an interpretation of Whitcombe’s Hole.

Brown organic soil withgravel

Line of previous excavation

Yellow (ochreous) cave earth

Figure 7. The finished excavation showing the boundary between the organic soil and cave earth. The line of previous excavation is also evident.

Throughout the excavation in addition to field notes and sketches, a photographic record has been maintained.  In addition to the images used in this report there is a gallery containing more photographs of the excavation that can be accessed via the website: www.mendipgeoarch.net

References

Balch, H.E.  1937.  Mendip – Its Swallet Caves and Rock Shelters.  Second Edition 1948.  p 89.  John Wright and Sons Ltd. Bristol.

Boyd-Dawkins, W. 1874.  Cave Hunting. pp 140-141

Barrington, N. and Stanton, W.  1977.  Mendip: the complete caves and a view of the hills.  Cheddar Valley Press.

British Geological Survey, 1978.  Geological Maps of England and Wales, 1: 50 000 Series, Wells, Sheet 280 – Solid and Drift Edition.  Natural Environment Research Council.

Ordnance Survey, 2004.  Explorer Map, 1:25 000, Cheddar Gorge & Mendip Hills West: Wells and Glastonbury, Sheet 141.  Ordnance Survey, Southampton.

Sanford, W.A. and Boyd Dawkins, W.  On the Caverns of Burrington Combe in Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society Proceedings, Volume 12 (1863 – 1864) pp.161-176.