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Somerset Historic Environment Record

24849

Site Name: Westbury Cave, Westbury Quarry, Westbury
Civil Parish: Westbury
Grid Ref: ST 5080 5040 (ST 55 SW)
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Image: Image of HER 24849 - Photo by Somerset County Council (17 July 1980)
  HER 24849 - Photo by Somerset County Council (17 July 1980)

Public access:

The public accessibility of this site is unknown or has not been checked. Please ask locally and do not visit without permission. [Information last updated on 21 May 2003]

Details:

The pleistocene deposits of Westbury were discovered in 1969 when quarry employees found some bones. The deposits were first exposed in the then NE corner of Westbury quarry, and as the quarry has been extended E the deposits are in what appears to be the remains of a cave in the carboniferous limestone, although the roof is not now preserved The site was first described by Heal as a fissure filling. Sutcliffe visited the site in 1972 and commented on the high proportion of carnivores preserved. Stanton described the geology and pointed out the presence of phreatic features on the lower parts of the walls which indicate a closed cave rather than open fissure conditions. Divided the cave sediments into four zones - the basal waterlain sands and groovers, a breakdown zone resulting in major roof collapse, the bedded sequence in which the main bone beds occur, and an upper breakdown zone. Bishop provides the best interpretation and he recorded the presence of worked flints from beds of the upper bedded sequence, and if these are artefacts as they are claimed to be, provide the earliest record of human presence in Britain. {1}

Field work in 1976 to see if the site could be excavated and to check the stratigraphy. Four excavations begun, numbered W to W4. {5}

Further extensive excavations in 1977. The initial excavation at W3 was in beds near the bottom of the middle Pleistocene deposits of cave sediments. The site is situated close to the W wall of the cave and when the section was extended laterally to expose the contact with the wall several new fossiliferous horizons were found. They proved to be very rich with remains of bear and other small mammals. Excavations also in W5 and W2, the latter exposing worked flints. {8}

Three new fossiliferous horizons discovered in 1978 yielding a fauna of 43 species, of which 12 are the first records for Britain and three are new species. Five flint artefacts were also found. The stratigraphy of the complex W end was clarified, providing a section of 31m of sediment with three distinct phases of sedimentation and a total of 16 fossiliferous layers. {10}

In 1969 a huge mud-and-stone-filled pit was intersected in the NE corner of Broadmead quarry (ST50775038, 802ft OD). Starting at ground level it was about 70ft deep. An open cave (Length: 20ft; vertical range: 10ft) blocked by quarry rubble was exposed below it, and other phreatic passages and shafts (Length: 100ft; vertical range: 50ft) were intersected and destroyed 150ft further south (ST50755033, 740ft OD). Further east several up-and-down-stepping phreatic tubes centred on ST50805030 (740ft OD, Length: 150ft; vertical range: 50ft) were progressively removed as the quarry advanced eastwards The pit is a huge unroofed phreatic cave.

U-Series dates on stalagmite near the top of the sequence give ages of >400ka Several hundred millennia of sedimentation are probably represented The fact that much of the pit-filling has been blasted down and removed without study constitutes a major archaeological tragedy. {13}

Active quarrying continues alongside the site but, at the moment, this is not a direct threat. Although natural erosion will inevitably continue to affect the deposits, much of the remaining strata are now covered by a reasonably stable talus. Apart from the enormous importance of this site to Quaternary studies in general, there is the specific archaeological value to be considered: if this is indeed an archaeological site, it would be one of the (or arguably THE) earliest occurrences of human artefacts in Britain. Opposition to J Cook's arguments against human involvement have already been informally voiced. It is clear that this uncertainty will not be immediately resolved. Only if representative deposits are preserved will there be any chance of settling the question should doubts arise in the future. {23}

Detailed publication of the site has failed to completely resolve the crucial questions of a human presence at the cave and the date of the sequence.

The evidence appears to agree with Bishop's original suggestion of a Cromerian date with the final deposits exhibiting the onset of colder conditions at the beginning of the Anglian glaciation. On the basis of this it is suggested that the main sequence of deposition was within Oxygen Isotope Stage 13 (524,000 - 478,000 BP) but it has not proved possible to securely date any specific phase at Westbury.

Cook's extremely detailed examination of the flintwork still suggests to her that the finds are natural for which she postulates that a now completely eroded cretaceous deposit was still eroding during the filling of the cave. Against this is the lack of any evidence for this material from elsewhere and the presence of bones exhibiting cut-marks. Only one of these can be considered unequivical as the others could be caused by trampling of the bones. The dispersed nature of the flints suggests that they are likely to have been eroded into the cave from scatters at the surface over a long time.

Overall the consensus appears to be that the flints are evidence of a human presence which, with other more recently discovered sites such as Boxgrove in Sussex, constitute the earliest evidence of human occupation in the country. {24}

Unpublished re-analysis of finds recovered from Unit 11 (the pink breccia) has shown them to be artefacts of a coarse greensand chert that are unquestionably of human manufacture. {25}

References:

1 Mention - Heal, GJ. A new Pleistocene mammal site, Mendip hills, Somerset. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society  2(2) (1970), 135-6
2 Description - Stanton, WI. Notes on the geology and geomorphology of the Westbury Bone Fissure. Wessex Cave Club Journal.  12 (1973), 289-292
3 Description - Bishop, MJ. A preliminary report on the Middle Pleistocene mammal bearing deposits of Westbury-sub-Mendip, Somerset. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society  13(3) (1974), 301-18. Available online.
4 Description - Bishop, MJ. Earliest record of man's presence in Britain. Nature.  253 (1975), 95-7 [page 95-7]
5 Description - Andrews, P. Westbury-sub-Mendip: Report on the 1976 excavations for the British Museum (Natural History).  (1976) unpublished typescript. Location: HER files
6 Mention - Ottway, BJ. Westbury Sub Mendip, Westbury Bone Fissure. Archaeological Review (CBA Group 13)  5 (1970), 11
7 Mention - Anon. Westbury sub Mendip. In Aston, M. Somerset Archaeology 1974-75. Somerset Archaeology and Natural History120 (1975), 69-80 at 70
8 Mention - Andrews, P. Westbury Middle Palaeolithic Project. In Aston, M and Murless, B. Somerset Archaeology 1977. Somerset Archaeology and Natural History122 (1978), 117-152 at 121-2
9 Measured plan - Andrews, P. Westbury Middle Palaeolithic Project. In Aston, M and Murless, B. Somerset Archaeology 1977. Somerset Archaeology and Natural History122 (1978), 117-152 at 121-2 [specifically 122].
10 Mention - Andrews, P. Westbury-sub-Mendip. In Minnitt, S and Murless, B. Somerset Archaeology 1978. Somerset Archaeology and Natural History123 (1979), 83-104 at 86-7
11 Mention - Andrews, P. Westbury-sub-Mendip. In Burrow, I and Minnitt, S and Murless, B. Somerset Archaeology 1979. Somerset Archaeology and Natural History124 (1980), 111-140 at 121
12 Detailed records - Ordnance Survey Archaeology Division record card. Record ID: ST 63 SW 10 (1966) Location: HER files
13 Description - Barrington, N and Stanton, W. The Complete Caves of Mendip.  (1977) Third edition.
14 Description - Bishop, MJ. The mammal fauna of the early Middle Pleistocene cavern infill site of Westbury-sub-Mendip, Somerset. Special Papers in Palaeontology  28 (1982), 1-108
15 Excavation report - Stringer, CBAndrews, P and Currant, AP. Stringer, C. B., Andrews, P. & Currant, A. P.,. Royal Anthropological Institute Newsletter  30 (1979), 4-7
16 Excavation report - Andrews, P. Westbury-sub-Mendip. In Aston, M. Somerset Archaeology 1976. Somerset Archaeology and Natural History121 (1976), 107-128 at 110-11
17 Description - Collcutt, SN. The Analysis of Quaternary Cave Sediments and its Bearing on Palaeolithic Archaeology with Special Reference to Selected Sites from Western Britain.  (1984) unpublished DPhil thesis, University of Oxford.
18 Excavation report - Anon. In search of the earliest Briton. Report of the British Museum (Natural History)  (1975-77), 25-29
19 Mention - Gamble, C. The Palaeolithic Settlement of Europe.  (1986)
20 Description - Roe, DA. The Lower and Middle Palaeolithic Periods in Britain.  (1981) Council for British Archaeology research report 8.. www.britach.ac.uk" target="_blank">Available online.
21 Description - Stuart, AJ. Pleistocene Vertebrates in the British Isles.  (1982)
22 Description - Sutcliffe, AJ and Kowalski, K. Pleistocene rodents. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History)  27:2 (1976), 33-147
23 Detailed records - Barton, RNE and Collcutt, SN. Westbury-sub-Mendip fissure.  (1986) unpublished Monuments Protection Programme fieldwork report for English Heritage. Location: HER files.
24 Excavation report - Andrews, P, Cook, J, Currant, A and Stringer C. Westbury Cave: the Natural History Museum Excavations 1976-1984.  (1999) Copy held in HER collections.
25 Mention - Barton, N. Ice Age Britain.  (2005), 41.

Record created in November 1985

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