Scrambling, slipping, sliding, slithering. The entrance to the cave dropped us past a last green of moss, of fern, and into mud and darkness. A crowded huddle of a living space, but this is where it seems people lived, here in these first few yards where daylight could still slide in, like us, through the cave’s narrow mouth. A packed-earth floor, clay filling the foot-trapping spaces between boulders, a campfire’s charcoal found here and only here in all the long twisted digestive system of the cave. Deeper in, and would that fire-warmth and fire-light become a quiet smothering death? So here, here they lived and died, or maybe here they slept? And living and working and being together happened out there, where the dale dropped in deep folds below High Wheeldon, where the sky stretched into wide horizons, where the world spread its life before the watchers on the hillside.
We slid further in, clambering, the caves lubricating us generously with a saliva of pale sandy-coloured clay that I still find in the treads of shoes and the folds of coats. Deeper, darker, swallowed. And thrilled. The clay floor reveals itself in handfuls of the finest bones. The accumulated residue of centuries of fox droppings. Mice, voles and water voles, their incisors like over-eager chisels, far too long for such small animals. Digestion pauses. Torches off. Crouch on a boulder and listen to the silence. Perch on a boulder and feel the darkness. Water seeping through the limestone to drip. Each drip only magnifies the absence of other sound. A candle breaks the darkness. This is the real cave, this cold world touched by a glimmering light, this enchantment. This is Foxhole Cave.
That alimentary canal splits, a side-stomach. A bear cave. A bear butchered here. It had to have been here first, who would have – could have – dragged it down here to dismember it? Hibernating? Was it caught and speared? These are bear caves, the homes of cave bears. Their skulls and our skulls resting together in the darkness. What bound us, bear to human? Anything beyond a pendulum swing of predator and prey? That cave enchantment? That’s what I want – the rumbling power of a bear totem in the depths of the cave. The song of Grandmother Bear in the clapping of hands, the stamping of feet, voices singing under the glittering night-sky, by the cave-fire, here in the deepest darkness.
But I don’t know. We don’t know. The story speaks to me, lures me into words and poems and the endless enchantment of skull and stone, but the evidence lies in bones in boxes, lies buried under the accumulated debris of a dark cave, lies in the tiny shard of chertz discarded on the cave floor.
The afternoon reclaims us with sunlight and grass and unconcerned sheep and the cave’s mouth closes quietly and firmly around its darkness and its secrets. We are covered with cheerful, triumphant clay and I am full of stories.
1. Useful reference:
Edmunds & Seaborne, Prehistory in the Peak, Tempus, 2001, ISBN 0-7524-1483-6
2. A thousand thanks to Paul Mortimer of the National Trust for letting us muscle-in on his reconnoitre of the cave for later public visits.
3. This wasn’t really a Collections activity but the event will feed into the work of both Richard Johnson and myself in Buxton Museum's Collections in the Landscape project. This project is expanding public access to the Museum’s Collections both in the museum by redeveloping the Wonders of the Peak Gallery and through school and public activities and enabling access to the Collections through virtual resources
4. Cave Bear: no, the skull in that photo was not awaiting us in Foxhole Cave. You can go and visit it at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery
Once again to Paul Mortimer for bearing with a group of over-excited artists and educators with grace and charm
John works at Hilton College in South Africa who supported his visit - helping us all inspire and reinvigorate each other!