The Bone Caves of the Yorkshire Dales – an Introduction

P.J. Murphy. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Leeds, Leeds, LS2 9JT, U.K. email:

A.T. Chamberlain. Department of Archaeology and Prehistory, University of Sheffield, Northgate House, West Street, Sheffield, S1 4ET, U.K. email:

When referencing this article, please use the following convention:

Murphy, P.J. & Chamberlain, A.T. 2002.
The bone caves of the Yorkshire Dales - an introduction. Capra 4 available at -

The recreational and scientific exploration of the caves of the Yorkshire Dales have proceeded in parallel since the 1840s, the period when Joseph Jackson began his archaeological investigations of the Settle Caves and his colleague, John Birkbeck, first attempted the descent of Gaping Gill. During the course of 160 years of exploration the bones of extant and extinct animal species have been recovered from many of the region's caves, although in only half of these instances have the finds been followed up by scientific study. Much of the scientific interest in the Dales caves dates to the nineteenth century, when eight caves were researched and their contents were described in local and national scientific journals, but this interest waned during the twentieth century despite the upsurge of discoveries by recreational cavers from the 1950s onwards. During recent decades cavers have continued to discover deposits of animal bones in caves, but the finds have been only sporadically reported in the recreational caving literature and in most cases the material has not been studied by archaeozoologists or palaeontologists.

In part, the remoteness of many of the Dales caves may have militated against archaeological and palaeontological investigations being conducted at the less accessible sites, and it is noteworthy that the caves described in the scientific literature are concentrated in the southern part of the Dales, close to the centres of population and the principal routes of communication along the Wharfe and Ribble valleys (see Figure 1). As with other caving regions of Britain, the arrival of the railway brought the Victorian educated elite to within an hour’s horse or coach ride of some of the more accessible cave systems, and proximity to road and rail networks has been a significant factor in determining which sites have received scientific attention (Craven, 2002). Sporting cavers, on the other hand, have not been deterred by surface accessibility and it is geological rather than geographical factors that have influenced the pace and pattern of recent discoveries of new cave systems.

Figure 1. Solid symbols are those caves from the scientific literature, open symbols are caves from caving literature.

The two gazetteers presented here are thus complementary, both in terms of the chronology of discovery and in the geographical distribution of the cave sites. Most of the caves listed in Andrew Chamberlain’s gazetteer were explored prior to J.W. Jackson’s synthesis of British cave archaeology and palaeontology (Jackson, 1962) whereas nearly all of the finds in Phil Murphy’s gazetteer were first described from the late 1960s onwards. This has significant implications for cave conservation because the finds made at some of the sites described in the recreational caving literature are unknown to the statutory authorities who are responsible for nature and heritage conservation. We hope that by publicising the extent of the vertebrate cave resource in the Yorkshire Dales we will make both the caving and the scientific community more aware of the importance of animal remains in cave deposits.


Craven, S.A. 2002. A history of cave exploration in the Northern Pennines, United Kingdom, from 1838 to 1895. Cave and Karst Science 29 pp. 21-32.

Jackson, J.W. 1962. Archaeology and palaeontology. In Cullingford, C.H.D. (ed.) British Caving. London: Routledge, pp. 252-346.

© CAPRA 2002