This was one of my pleasant daydreams sitting in my comfortable armchair. I seem to have more daydreams these days, as probably many have, since the lockdown. Another recent daydream was of memories of driving down Cheddar Gorge on the B3135 road through the southern Mendip Hills in Somerset on the way to Cheddar Caves. The gorge is an interesting sight itself, one side being near-vertical limestone up to 137 m (449 ft) at its highest point, the other steep grass slopes. At one side a series of 274 steps known as Jacob’s Ladder climbs the steep face. After an Ice Age one million years ago the gorge was formed when water from the melting ice formed a river, it is believed.
On to the caves: Gough’s Cave is well known for “Cheddar Man”, a reasonably complete skeleton found in 1903, of a human male fossil thought to be about 9,000 years old. Gough’s cave is said to be one of the largest in Britain and it contains stalactites, said to take 2,000 years to grow 2.5 cm (one inch) and the opposite stalagmites. These are very beautiful especially in coloured lighting and some of the caverns have been given fanciful names, e.g., “Solomon’s Temple” and “The Chimney”, the latter having been formed by water flowing down for many years. Minerals in the rock faces have leeched out over the years to produce attractive colours. The cave was probably an underground river bed for many years. Since it was found steps and a tunnel have been made for better access. Some Cheddar Cheese is now matured in the cave! The cave has flooded on occasions.
Returning to Cheddar Man, it is not known if he was buried in the cave or died there. The original skeleton is now housed in the Natural History Museum which has carried out DNA tests (by drilling a small hole inside the skull and checking the powder produced). From these they concluded that he was from the Mesolithic (middle stone age) at around 7,100 BC and probably had died violently and may also have been suffering from an infection from a skull bone infection. It is suggested that he may have had dark skin and dark curly hair with blue eyes, aged in his twenties with poor teeth. At this time people were nomadic hunter gatherers and had not converted to farming or drinking milk. No artefacts were found with the skeleton. His origins were likely to have been in Northern Europe, e.g. Luxembourg or Spain. A replica of “Cheddar Man” now resides in the cave where he was found.
I can remember some years ago a television programme which featured “Cheddar Man” and his DNA which brought together many local village people to hear about the discovery. A replica of his head was produced with colouring and hair as suggested by the DNA and local people had given their own DNA for comparison. The speaker said that two good matches had been found in children and one young man. The audience was requested to look around their neighbours and see if they could see a good likeness and one man was agreed by most present that he was a good match! This caused much merriment.
Other sources describe the Mesolithic people like Cheddar Man as being small, lean and slender, with a long skull, hence a long lean almost dainty face. The men were short at about 1.7 metres (5.6 ft) height, women 1.4 metres (4.6 ft). Most died by 40 years, although some may have survived to 70. They wore supple leather clothes, fastened toggles or possibly bone pins.
Gough’s Cave is said to have yielded prehistoric and Roman artefacts, including stone and wooden tools. Some material is 5,000 years old and then there is a gap until spears, bows and arrows and stone axes were found in the caves. It is likely that the first people in Britain came across a “land bridge” from the continent. After the Ice Age, the Channel filled, so successive people must have used some sort of boat.
Of course, as the advertisements often tell us, “others are available” and this goes for caves also. Wookey Hole near to Wells is a limestone show cave on the edge of the Mendip Hills, now a tourist attraction. In addition to the stalactites, etc., of Gough’s Cave it has more recent additions for family entertainment such as the Witch of Wookey Hole and a lake in her parlour, with a boat and a Fairy Garden. I believe it may be open for Weddings!
I was a consistent follower of Time Team on television in their heyday. One episode was a three day visit to Cooper’s Hole, not far from Gough’s Cave but separate and owned by the late Lord Bath, who appeared during filming. The usual team of The late Professor Mick Aston, Phil Harding and Tony Robinson examined items previously discovered in the back of the cave such as horse and cow bones and flint tools. This is now inaccessible after a flood which brought down a huge amount of rock. They were largely restricted to excavating in the cave entrance, where they found teeth from red deer. Dr Carenza Lewis presented a small bone with marks of a stone tool, showing evidence of early habitation.
Another of my day dream memories is of a visit to “The English Riviera”, Torquay, on the south coast of Devon, where we found “Kents Cavern”. This was rather like the Cheddar caves, with parts 350,000 years old, later evidence of early human habitation and a tooth from a woolly mammoth.
To revert to my heading I think it unlikely that Fred Flintstone and Asterix the Gaul would have met! This was a figment of my imagination and sense of humour.
Fred appeared on our screens from 1960 onwards having been produced by Hanna Barbera and his era would have coincided with Cheddar Man. However he progressed over many centuries including his invention of a wheeled vehicle in the agile minds of his creators. Asterix came later, around 50 BC when he fought the Romans invading Gaul. He appeared in comic book form wearing a cross between a Viking and a Roman helmet.
They entertained me and our children over the years as did the cave visits.
Cecil Amor, Hon President of Bridport History Society.