King Arthur's Cave

reprinted from
Tony Oldham, Keith Jones (2003): Caves of the South Eastern Outcrop, Available from: contact
by kind permission of the authors.

WARNING: Beware of used hypodermic syringe needles. Risk of infection.

Tony Oldham in King Arturs Cave, view out of the cave entrance.
© Anne Oldham, with kind permission.

The cave is situated at the foot of a low cliff at the north-western end of Lord's Wood on the hill of Great Doward at Whitchurch near the River Wye. It consists of a broad entrance platform, a double interconnected entrance and two main chambers. The platform entrance lies 300 feet above the Wye and faces the north west commanding a good view of the saddle-back of Great Doward Hill. All of the deposits that have filled this cave seem to be either Late Pleistocene or more recent.

[Mr] Cave, B V refers to a skeleton discovered in 1695. In that year a woman herding goats went into the cave and found a skeleton apparently with the remains of a spear. The skeleton was reported as being of gigantic proportions. The bones were collected and given to a surgeon in Bristol called Mr Pye. Extraordinarily though it seems he took them with him on a sea voyage to Jamaica, but the ship sank and the bones were lost.

Tony Oldham in front of the two big cave entrances.
© Anne Oldham, with kind permission.

The discovery has been linked by some with the early legend of Vortigern, a British prince who fought the advancing Anglo Saxon armies, whilst others say they are the bones of King Arthur. This appears to be the reason that the cave is so named. King Arthur's Cave was partly excavated by the Revd W S Symond in 1871 after some miners had removed some of the deposits the year before (Symonds 1871). He found considerable portions had been disturbed, there were two "cave earths" an upper and a lower separated by a thick stalagmite layer. Finds included, hyaena, lion, cave and brown bear, urus, red deer, giant Irish Elk, reindeer,, and a horse, a typical Late Pleistocene fauna. Many of the bones had been gnawed by hyaenas. Symonds also obtained some flint implements that were later assigned to the Upper Palaeolithic culture. In the upper layers were coarse pottery of Neolithic type and some flint implements. Garrod (1926) has assigned his finds from the upper cave earth to the Upper Palaeolithic; those from the lower cave earth might be Middle Palaeolithic.

Tony Oldham in King Arturs Cave, view out of the cave entrance.
© Anne Oldham, with kind permission.

From 1925 to 1927 members of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society excavated the entrance platform and the passage connecting two entrances (Hewer 1926, Tratman 1928). They found earlier Upper Palaeolithic (or developed Aurignacian) assemblages followed by a Mesolithic assemblage in the platform deposit. Their diagrammatic section (Taylor 1928 Fig 1) shows how the intervening deposits removed by Symonds in 1871 may have been related.

They correlate the upper "Cave earth" of this and Symond's excavation with the exterior basal red-yellow clayey silt on the basis of a very similar fauna and matrix. If their correlation is correct, then the interior earlier Upper Palaeolithic assemblage would be stratigraphically lower than the Later Upper Palaeolithic assemblages.

In 1955 the UBSS resumed work at King Arthur's Cave for a season. They found nothing new and so did not publish the field work (Masterman, personal communication).

In conclusion, this cave was originally one of the richest and most clearly stratified sites in Britain with all phases from Upper Aurignacian to Roman being represented. Regretfully the haphazard digging has caused much valuable information to be lost for ever.

nb This cave is scheduled as an Ancient Monument. Digging strictly forbidden.