In July 1821 limestone quarrymen discovered Kirkdale cave. The quarrymen had been finding odd bones for some time and not really thinking anything of it, discarding them into the beck below. When a local naturalist, John Gibson, visited he realised that the bones didn’t belong to cattle. 40 metres above the riverbed a narrow entrance was revealed which led to a cave network. On closer inspection this was revealed to be littered with animal bones and teeth.
The news of the find was heard by Rev William Buckland, a pioneer in the world of geology and palaeontology. Reverend Buckland came to examine the finds and discovered that the cave contained the disarticulated bones of hippopotamus, rhinoceros, elephant, bison, giant deer and hyena, many with signs of having been gnawed.
At first it was thought that the bones had been carried by flood water, possibly from The Great Flood as described in The Bible. Buckland believed that the cave had been a hyena’s den and that the remains had been dragged there by them. Many of these species were not known to have lived this far north up to this point. It is now known that the bones date from the Ice Age.
The finds within the museum were amongst the first items to be collected by the newly formed Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society.