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The Palaeolithic

Overview: c. 100,000 BC - c. 10,000 BC

During the last phase of the Ice Age (the Devensian: 18,000 - 10,000 years ago), glaciers covered the west of Herefordshire as far east as the area now occupied by the city of Hereford. Added to this, Herefordshire is located on slightly acidic soil, which means that very little organic archaeological evidence much older than 20,000 years old survives. Consequently much of the Palaeolithic evidence that has survived here has been found in cave and rock shelters. In Herefordshire we have two important prehistoric caves in the south of the county, Arthur's Cave (HER no. 902) and Merlin's Cave (HER no. 3358).

The modern human species (homo sapiens) first appeared around 35,000 - 40,000 BC, and was occupying north-west Europe in the later Ice Age. The earliest recorded evidence of human activity in the Marches dates back between 50,000 - 100,000 years ago. These early humans developed ways of utilising flint as tools, such as knifes and spears. This meant that they became more successful in their hunt for food and could begin to move further into the more distant areas of the county.

In Herefordshire the evidence for human activity goes back very early, and is concentrated into five small areas: Colwall; Doward; Kington; Sarnesfield; and Tupsley.

Glacial activity and continuous erosion by the River Wye have formed much of the landscape of southern Herefordshire. There are two caves at Doward which provide archaeological evidence; Arthur's Cave and Merlin's Cave have both been extensively excavated and have displayed an almost complete stratigraphic sequence that covers at least 25,000 years. 

In King Arthur's Cave, which was excavated in 1924-7 by the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, the sequence includes animal bones (woolly rhinoceros, giant deer, wild ox, hyena and mammoth), bone tools, a human burial, and flint and stone artefacts. These are currently in Hereford Museum's stores.

At the height of the Ice Age huge ice sheets covered Wales and most of the west and north Midlands. One such ice sheet is thought to have bisected Herefordshire roughly north to south. At this time most of the county would have been completely covered by a thick layer of ice, up to 180m deep in places.

By 17,000 BC the ice sheets had begun to melt and Herefordshire was slowly being uncovered. Southern Britain was gradually colonised by sub-arctic tundra grasses, mosses and dwarf varieties of trees. The growth of these plants in England caused the migration of animals in search for food, and these were eventually followed by small itinerant hunting groups of humans. These hunting groups changed their settlement patterns depending on environmental and climatic changes, so they would go where the weather and hunting were more conducive to survival.

By 12,000 BC the average winter temperature was around -5° centigrade. The hunting groups needed to find shelter to enable them to survive the harsh winter months. This is one explanation for the utilisation of Arthur's and Merlin's Caves at Doward.      

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]