Grid Reference: ST476586
Aveline’s Hole is a cave in Burrington Coombe, Somerset and was named after William Aveline, a member of the Geological Survey and senior geologist for Somerset (Schulting 2005).The site today presents as an open cave mouth facing onto the road, but according to the story of its discovery in the 18th century, an entrance had to be made via a pickaxe in order to access the cave. The story, as published in contemporary newspapers, goes that it was the chasing of a rabbit, that occasioned the discovery of the cave, and that 30 (the number varies with the reports) bodies were found in a state of disarray, as if thrown into the cave (Boycott & Wilson 2010). How accurate this account is, seems to be in doubt, but the current entrance chamber has been remodelled using dynamite to remove a dangerous vertical drop in the inner part of the outer chamber (Donovan 2005), and would not have been the same cave as experienced by the original users of the site.
Artefacts recovered from Aveline’s Hole during the excavations in 1914 and 1919-31, were stored in the museum of the Bristol Spelaeological Society and this was destroyed in an air raid in 1940, along with many of the artefacts (Jacobi 2005).
After the discovery of the site, there was a flurry of antiquarian activity, both documented and undocumented, with bones apparently removed from the site (Schulting 2005).
Excavations conducted by the Bristol Spelaeological Research Society in 1914 were fairly brief and produced fragments of human skull (Schulting 2005), but resume in 1919 (as UBSS) and carried on until 1930/31 (Donovan 2005). This resulted in a complete excavation of the cave deposits, down to the bare rock floor visible today (Schulting 2005). The death of J.A. Davies, the leader of the investigation, in 1931, and the bombing of the museum and destruction of documents and artefacts, means that the report of the excavation was never published (Mullan & Wilson 2004, 76).
Evidence for red deer and horse was noted, with lengthwise splits consistent with marrow extraction providing evidence for diet.
There was evidence for the ‘stalagmite shelf’ that was sealing the layer of human remains and it seems that the cave itself may have been sealed in Palaeolithic times as no later deposits were found above this layer (Donovan 2005).
Chronology and Current Interpretation
Human remains from Aveline’s Hole have been dated to between 8460 and 8140 cal BC (Schulting 2005), a surprisingly short period but not a single event, meaning the burials date from the Early Mesolithic, but the presence of Cheddar Points may indicate earlier use of the cave, in the Late Upper Palaeolithic – its use as a shelter predates the use as an Early Mesolithic burial site (Jacobi 2005).
Human remains from Aveline’s Hole have been subjected to isotopic analysis, which revealed a diet high in protein, but low in marine protein. Although this is perhaps to be expected in a site far from the sea (Schulting 2005, 222), it suggests that marine resources were not being exploited by this group, and when you consider the finds of periwinkle shells associated with the burials and consider as ‘grave goods’ (Gardiner 2003), the range or contacts of these people must have reached the shores. Perhaps there was enough land-based food resource that fishing was not required.
There is also a suggestion that rock art was engraved inside the cave, in the area now fenced off. This takes the form of engraved crossed lines on a wall, apparently covered by a layer of calcite and showing signs of weathering and age. As the evidence indicates that the cave was sealed in prehistory, it seems likely that the marks are contemporary with the use of the cave as a Mesolithic burial site (Mullan & Wilson 2004).
Totty Pot Swallet Hole
Grid Reference: ST48255357
Totty Pot is a cave in the Mendip Hills, to the East of Cheddar. The modern access to the cave is via a vertical shaft but this is not likely to be the original entrance used in prehistory to access the cave with a less precipitous entrance lower down the hill (Schulting et al. 2010).
Initial discovery and excavation of the site in 1960, by the Wessex Caving Club (Murray 2010), was intended for caving purposes and did not anticipate the discovery of human remains (Schulting et al. 2010). Initially the remains were considered modern and handed to the police, who subsequently destroyed them as being of no interest (Somerset HER 2003). There is no published report of these excavations but a summary was given by Paula Gardiner in her PhD thesis in 2001. Gardiner investigated the mouth of the swallet hole (as the cave now presents as) but with few archaeological remains discovered (Murray 2010).
The remaining fragments of human remains found in the cave have been subjected to AMS dating and returned a Mesolithic date for one individual, but the other five presented as Middle and Late Neolithic (Murray 2010). The Mesolithic date places it contemporary with the latest burial found in Aveline’s Hole (Gardiner 2003, 104).
Chronology and Current Interpretation
The main interpretation of this site is as a later Mesolithic burial site, suggested as providing a comparison to the burial sites of Gough’s Cave and Aveline’s Hole by having a hilltop position as opposed to a cave (P Driscoll pers. comm.). I’m not sure how this comparison bears out if the hilltop opening of the cave was not the prehistoric entrance. I haven’t been able to establish exactly where the suggested prehistoric access was made.
Gardiner considers burial of the dead to be indicative of increasing social complexity, and the findings from Totty Pot (as well as Aveline’s Hole and Gough’s Cave) take this back to the early Mesolithic in time (P. Gardiner 2003). But the continuation of use into the Middle and Late Neolithic indicate that the ‘revolution’ of the Neolithic was not necessarily acceptable in all its facets to all people, and that burial in natural places was still part of life for some people of the Mendips.
Both Aveline’s Hole and Totty Pot share the same liminality of place – between the open air and the inside of the earth. This may have been an important consideration for the site of burial of dead, although if the nomadic lifestyle of the Mesolithic caused a wide range of locations to be used by a particular group, I cannot help wondering how the practicalities worked out: whether other places were acceptable to receive the dead, if someone happened to die away from the cave site, or whether remains were transported back to the cave. The disturbance of both sites by unsystematic investigations may prevent answers to that question being knowable.
Boycott, A. & Wilson, L.J., 2010. Contemporary Accounts Of The Discovery Of Aveline’s Hole, Burrington Combe, North Somerset. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, 25(1), pp.11-25.
Donovan, D.T., 2005. Aveline’s Hole , Burrington Combe , North Somerset : Stratigraphy And Problems. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, 23(3), pp.159-170.
Gardiner, P., 2003. Caught in the act – where is the transition. In L. Bevan & J. Moore, eds. Peopling the Mesolithic in a Northern Environment. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 103-112.
Jacobi, R.M., 2005. Some Observations On The Lithic Artefacts From Aveline’s Hole ,. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, 23(3), pp.267-295.
Mullan, G.J. & Wilson, L.J., 2004. A Possible Mesolithic Engraving In Aveline’s Hole, Burrington Combe, North Somerset. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, 23(2), pp.75-85.
Murray, E., 2010. Totty Pot, Cheddar, Somerset The Faunal Remains. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, 25(1), pp.97-104.
Schulting, R.J., 2005. Pursuing a rabbit in Burrington Combe: New research on the early mesolithic burial cave of Aveline’s Hole. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, 23(3), pp.171-265.
Schulting, R.J. et al., 2010. The Mesolithic And Neolithic Human Bone Assemblage From Totty Pot, Cheddar, Somerset. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, 25(1), pp.75-95.
Somerset HER, 2003. Totty Pot, Cheddar. Available at: http://webapp1.somerset.gov.uk/her/details.asp?prn=10349 [Accessed May 15, 2011].