Cave and Karst Science Vol 50 No 3: Biology, Archaeology and … Muons!

The latest edition of the BCRA’s Cave and Karst Science contains six main papers, some shorter forum pieces, including meeting reports and photo features; it begins with a retrospective appreciation of Gerald Wilford.

Many will not have heard of Dr Wilford, but the effects of his work reverberate throughout the work of the BCRA. Without his work, it may have been a long time before British cavers made the trip to Mulu and discovered the amazing caves there.This work still continues and, indeed two papers in this edition are part of that.

Roman Hapka and Thomas Arbenz report on burial caves in Nagaland (India) and in Southeast Asia. The observation of monoxylous (one-log) coffins in two caves, along with several secondary cave burial sites in the Indian state of Nagaland, 1000km distant from those located in Myanmar and Thailand, is remarkable and opens up new avenues of research. This is especially true because the tradition of burials in Naga Clan Caves has persisted until recently. Even though the Christian religion was introduced in the region during the 19th century, in many remote rural areas Christianity was only adopted in the 1950s and 1960s. Therefore, ethnology might be able to help answer archaeological questions. Furthermore, the finds in Nagaland are adding evidence to the possibility of Neolithic migration from Southeast Asia to Northeast India, an assumption supported by archaeological data interpreted by archaeologists such as Peter Bellwood and Georg van Driem.

Back to Mulu and Don McFarlane, Joyce Lundberg and Ellen MacArthur report the first record of the Eulipotyphlid insectivore, Echinosorex gymnura, from a subterranean context. In 2018, two individuals of the species were observed in Deer Cave, Gunung Mulu National Park, Sarawak. During 2020–2021, the species was documented on 19 separate occasions by automated camera traps. The repeated presence of this small vertebrate at locations as much as half a kilometre into the cave establishes this as a troglophilic, not trogloxene (accidental), species.

In Britain, Matt Rowberry, Tomáš Trčka ansd Vladimir Mikluš have been testing portable muon detectors in the British Cave Science Centre. Every square metre of the Earth’s surface is bombarded by thousands of muons every minute and they are able to penetrate many hundreds of metres of rock. This report describes two CosmicWatch muon detectors that have been built for testing in the British Cave Science Centre. Each detector incorporates a slab of plastic scintillator instrumented with a silicon photomultiplier and a printed circuit board, which amplifies and shapes any signals from the photomultiplier, along with a microcontroller, which measures the peak voltage and assigns an event timestamp. Muon counts have been obtained for twenty-four hours at four monitoring points in different parts of the cave and it can be seen that both the total muon counts and the highest peak voltages correlate strongly with depth below the surface. Although building and testing these detectors appears to represent a realistic aim for many undergraduate students and enthusiastic hobbyists, a number of potential pitfalls are outlined. Finally, it is suggested that muon counts could be used to approximate depth below the surface in situations where other survey techniques cannot be applied.

Andrew Chamberlain and Graham Mullan report three new radiocarbon dates on human material from Mendip caves. Two cranial specimens from Stoke Lane Slocker date to the Early Bronze Age and the third, from Brownes’ Hole, to the late Pre-Roman Iron Age. The newly dated specimens are considered briefly in relation to other similarly dated cave finds from Mendip caves.

David Gill, in the second contribution from Sarawak outlines a proposal to establish the Spirits River Cave Nature Reserve, Ayat Karst Area. During the Gunung Buda Caves Project and the Forest Department Sarawak 2000 Expedition to Gunung Buda, Sarawak, Malaysia, a small karstic “inlier” was discovered in the floor of a heavily overgrown depression that was surrounded by a proposed oil-palm estate development area, just outside the Gunung Buda National Park. The base of the depression revealed limestone with access to a complex cave system (subsequently named Spirits River Cave), within which more than 5km of passages were entered and mapped, with many passages remaining unexplored. It is suggested that the cave and its geological setting have the potential to provide a valuable Nature Reserve, necessarily within an encircling buffer zone. This short Report presents brief details of the major considerations underpinning the proposal.

Back in the UK, Terry Reeve gives a brief summary of archaeological and historical research concerning deneholes and chalkwells. Enigmatic, in some cases controversial, deep excavations into rocks of the Late Cretaceous Chalk Group are present across parts of the Chalk outcrop and shallow subcrop in southeastern England. Such cavities are generally known as deneholes (sometimes daneholes) or chalkwells. Few of them remain open and accessible, many having been filled-in intentionally or simply by encroachment of natural superficial materials, but a relative few have been mapped, described, and discussed. Of those that remain open, some are fitted with grids to allow access and provide some measure of protection for roosting and hibernating bats, while also providing shelter for other creatures. Whereas the locations of some blocked sites are recorded, many more undoubtedly exist, and unrecorded examples are commonly involved in the development of slow or rapid (sinkhole) subsidence or, more rarely, sudden catastrophic surface collapse, whether in open country or beneath modern roads and building developments.

The Forum section includes some meeting reports, Abstracts from the BCRA’s 2023 Cave Science Symposium, the second and third parts of Martin Laverty’s photo feature on the caves of the Glamorgan Heritage Coast and an interesting if controversial piece on karst terminology by David Gill, which your reviewer believes will provoke further comment.

Cave and Karst Science is published three times a year and is free to paid-up members of the British Cave Research Association. Members can also read it online here. Non-members may obtain copies for an annual subscription of £40 (plus postage for non-UK destinations), or online access for only £30. A discounted student subscription is available. The publication contains a wealth of information and represents excellent value for money for anyone with an interest in the science of caves. It is well-presented throughout, with a clear, attractive layout and numerous high-quality illustrations.