Heather Whelan imagines a link with toolmakers and artists from 50,000 years ago.

The faint light flickered off the cave walls as the woman opened her skin pouch, removed a flint hand axe and passed it to me. It was an eerie feeling, holding a tool that had been made about 50,000 years ago and used in this cave.

Having been born in this area, I wondered if I could be descended from the Stone Age people who had sheltered in this cave.

After we had all hefted the axe - it felt strangely comfortable and familiar, or was that just my imagination? - we returned it to our guide who carefully replaced it in her satchel and we continued our exploration.

We were visiting Creswell Crags in the English Midlands, and compared to our recent experience of being herded through the reconstructed cave at Lascaux, France, it felt personal and authentic. Where else do tourists get to touch the artifacts that were found on site?


Creswell Crags is a limestone gorge which forms the boundary between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire counties. The river that once flowed along the valley is now a peaceful lake having been dammed 200 years ago to power a watermill. Caves are found in the cliffs on both sides of the gorge.

On a warm summer day, it was hard to imagine that the people who once sheltered here were reaching as far north as they could get in a land in the grip of an Ice Age.

This cave complex is unique in Britain, as it is the only place where Ice Age cave art has been found. And although there have been many excavations over the years it was only in 2003 that the engravings were noticed.

Our guide explained that archaeologists had hypothesised that Britain should have cave art, similar to that found in mainland Europe, so a team of Spanish and British archaeologists began searching at the place they thought most likely, Creswell Crags.

After a fruitless and disappointing day they had given up hope of finding anything when one of the team pulled himself up on an outcrop of rock near the entrance to the cave known as Church Hole.

Light from outside illuminated the engraved outline of what turned out to be a stag. The Victorian excavators had removed so much rubble from the cave floor that the engraved Ice Age figures were now high up.

About 90 figures have been identified in the caves. Unlike the cave art of France and Spain these are not paintings but engraved images and three-dimensional bas-reliefs. The figures are mainly animals including deer, bison, horses, bear and birds.

Our guide used a laser light to highlight the outlines of the animals as we craned our necks to see.


It is not known if the figures were once painted and the pigments washed away when the caves flooded. But researchers at the British Museum have found traces of red ochre pigment in the engraved detail of a 12,000-year-old horse's head found on a bone fragment in one of the caves. This engraving is the only known example of such art in Britain.

As well as the cave art there have been many finds at Creswell Crags that reveal what life was like for the Ice Age people.

They were probably hunters from Europe who crossed the land bridge that once joined Britain to France, following herds of reindeer, horse and bison.

The caves would have given shelter, but they may have held a few surprises - jaw bones and teeth of lions and hyenas have been found in the caves as well as bones from mammoths and woolly rhinoceros.

Many of the tools the travellers used to kill the animals were made from flint like the Neanderthal hand axe we had held.

Neanderthals were the first group to use the caves but later early humans occupied them and these were the people who produced the cave art.

Like the Neanderthals, these Stone Age people also used flint tools such as arrowheads, knives and scrapers. A weapon tip embedded in a bone was made from mammoth ivory. Smaller tools, such as needles and awls, were made of bones from the arctic hare, and marrow probes were fashioned from reindeer antler.

One of the strangest things that archaeologists have discovered in the caves is a 5cm tall engraved figure of a man carved on the end of a woolly rhinoceros rib.

The enigmatic figure is shown from the thighs up, complete with penis, a belt-like line round the waist, a skinny arm and a strange head, probably an animal mask.

Habitation in the Creswell Crags caves continued after the Ice Age ended as human skulls from the Bronze and Ice Ages have been found. As the centuries passed, people moved out and eventually the caves were used by a local farmer as a byre for his cattle.

As we strolled back along the lakeside path, heading for a leisurely look at the exhibition and a coffee in the cafe, I wondered again about the likelihood of my very distant ancestors living in the caves.

That is one Ice Age secret the archaeologists will never be able to answer.

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Getting around: By car from the M1 it's four miles (6.4km) east of Junction 30, signposted to Worksop. By train it's about 15 minutes' walk from the station in Creswell village...

Further information: See creswell-crags.org.uk.