News: 1960s Mendip dig makes it into print

The entrance to Picken’s Hole now. Photo courtesy of Mike Moxon

Accounts of an archaeological dig on Mendip have appeared in print – 50 years after initial discoveries took place.

Picken’s Hole is a small, partially unroofed cave on Crook Peak, Somerset. It was excavated during the 1960s when significant Palaeolithic faunal assemblages, a small collection of Mousterian stone implements and some human teeth were found.

The site is named after Mr MJ Picken, who discovered some teeth while he was studying the habits of badgers in a small cave on Crook Peak in May 1961. He took the teeth to Peter Bird at Bristol museum, where they were identified as coming from hyaena and woolly rhinoceros.

Bird passed the information to EK Tratman, then president of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society (UBSS). A trial trench uncovered what seemed to be an extensive deposit outside a cave running back into the hillside. More extensive excavations continued until 1966 and these recovered animal bone, human teeth and a number of stone implements.

Arthur ApSimon. Photo courtesy of David ApSimon.

A preliminary report was published in UBSS’ Proceedings in 1964, but Tratman’s death in 1978 and a number of other issues delayed the publication of a more substantial report. This has now been remedied in the new issue of Proceedings (volume 27, number 3), which contains papers focusing on the archaeology and palaeontology of the site. The papers include detailed accounts of the mammalian fauna, lithic tools, stratigraphy, sedimentology, human remains and radiometric dating. Papers looking at the physical geography and geology are planned for the next issue.

Arthur ApSimon, now aged 90, a former UBSS president and archaeology lecturer at the University of Southampton, who was involved in the early digs on the site, said this week: “You know the ridge south of the excavation below Picken’s, it’s a handy place to sit in the sun and watch out for mammoths or whatever walking about the Somerset Levels, about six metres down, roughly a sub-circular area. I think it’s possibly stony but nice. If I was looking for a camp site for Neanderthals, it would be there.”

The UBSS Proceedings, in addition, includes a short account about Scragg’s Hole, also on Crook Peak and sometimes confused with Picken’s Hole. This cave was excavated by the late Willie Stanton while at Sidcot School in the 1940s but has never before been published. This account, brought together by Allan Summerfield and Wendy Russ, includes Stanton’s own memories of the dig, written in 2009.

Copies of the new issue of Proceedings may be obtained by sending a cheque to the Hon. Sales Manager, The Spelaeological Society, c/o Student Union, Clifton Road, Bristol, BS8 1LN. Cheques in sterling for £8.50 (to include P&P) should be made payable to the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society.