Return to the Bone Cave

People often ask why do I blog… well, there are lots of reasons, but the simple one is that I like writing, and blogging is a way of practising, sharing, and having fun with my writing! I often find that things I use here become the basis for something else.

I visited somewhere very interesting which made a big impact on me. I wrote about it a couple of times, and now I have brought those different pieces of writing together and it will form part of something else… Here is the first draft:

The Mendip Hills of Somerset are riddled with caves, potholes, underground streams and lakes, created millions of years ago by the action of water on limestone. … no-one actually knows the extent of the system or systems, but each in its own way is a marvel. Tens of thousands of years ago some of them were inhabited by people; before that animals sought shelter within or came to die or had their bones washed into the caves by torrential rains or melting ice.

The minerals within the hills have been exploited for thousands of years, and in the Banwell area there are seams of yellow and red ochre; the yellow is a hydrated iron hydroxide known as limonite, the red is from iron. It was used as a dye and colouring agent going back to the earliest human activity when people decorated their caves and no doubt themselves with the brilliant colours.

In Banwell, near the end of the Mendip chain, there is a cave open periodically to the public, which is called the Bone Cave. The Bone Cave was called the Bone Cave because of the vast quantity of bones found inside it when it was discovered in 1824; it was an accidental discovery because a nearby cave full of stalactites which had been found fifty years before, was a popular tourist attraction; a charity dig was mounted to open it up into another part of the system, to raise money for the village school; a tunnel was dug and this broke into the Bone Cave.

The stalactite cave still exists but no-one can visit without proper caving. However the Bone Cave can be visited, and as you enter you will see it is just a big, roundish cave, but stacked neatly along the walls are piles of bones from the creatures which had died there. The eighteenth and nineteenth explorers working for the Bishop of Bath and Wells who owned the land, tidied it up for visitors to the caves. Outside there were gardens and buildings, grottoes, an osteoicon (bone house – museum) and tower, were all part of what might be called a Victorian ‘theme park’.

In the cave was found a wondrous mixture of skeletal remains of wolves, wolverines, bison, reindeer, other deer, and a bear; these had arrived quite naturally, washed in nearly a hundred thousand years ago during the Ice Age. Many of them had, as I mentioned, been gathered and neatly stacked to form exhibits for the nineteenth century tourists; however, many thousand upon thousand remain beneath the floor of the cave. The Bishop of Bath and Wells, George Henry Law, had a residence built there and he believed that the bones were evidence of the Biblical flood which had engulfed the world.

When I visited, I was led down into the darkness, treading carefully on roughly hewn steps. The cave is extraordinary, and extraordinarily atmospheric. Some of the bones had been left in a heap and the guide picked some up and I was able to handle and hold them. They were mostly bison and reindeer, but I also saw mountain hares, red foxes, otters and wolverines. These bones give an interesting picture of life then; wolves for example were less hunters as we think of them, and were scavengers; the predominant predator species then was the bear.

The guide handed me a huge, yellowing hip bone; a gigantic bear thought by scientists to be a not a cave bear but a species related to polar bears, and one of gigantic proportions. These creatures could be up to twelve feet tall… imagine that… a twelve-foot tall carnivorous bear…

As I stood in the flickering candlelight, holding this massive hip bone, I had a really curious, almost overwhelming sensation… which I can’t really explain. It was only a momentary sense of something, but I can really understand how people feel that objects contain power. Holding the bear bone in that cave was an unforgettable experience.

© Los Elsden 2017


  1. David Lewis

    Were you wearing furs and pelts like Rachel Welch and maybe your face daubed with yellow pigment. Drums beating while you leaped through the flames of the fire, wailing and writhing and screaming about the power of the bone. Wow I’ve got to stop. Breathless!


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