Kirkdale Cave

Kirkdale Cave

Kirkdale Cave (SE678855) lies between Kirkbymoorside and Helmsley. The slit-like entrance is in a cliff at the side of the Hodge Beck. Exploration is not recommended because it is both dangerous and space inside is very limited. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Cave entrance

The cave was discovered in 1821 by workers from a nearby limestone quarry who were filling in potholes in the local roads. They assumed the bones were remains of cattle that had been dumped and removed some of them to use in their repair works. When a local naturalist, John Gibson, visited he realised that the bones didn’t belong to cattle. He notified a local doctor, John Harrison, who in turn contacted Dr William Buckland among others.

Wm Buckland

William Buckland (1784 – 1856), the first professor of geology at the University of Oxford, examined the bones in 1822. They were found to contain bones of a variety of animals which no longer live in Great Britain. The bones included elephants, mammoth, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, hyena, bison, reindeer, giant deer, wild ox, pig and smaller mammals and birds.

Hyena jaw bone Rhino molar tooth
Hyena jaw bone & teeth Molar tooth probably from a Rhinoceras
Bison Ox jawbone
Mandibular ramus fragment of a Bison Part of a jawbone from an Ox

At first it was thought that the animals had arrived by being carried by flood water, possibly by Noah’s Flood as described in the bible. However Buckland established that the entrance was not large enough to admit the larger animals and the roof of the cave had never been open to the elements. He noticed that there was an appreciable amount of fossilised faeces from hyenas. He also found teeth marks on the bones which he was able to identify with the jaws of hyenas and concluded that the bones must be the remains of animals brought into the cave by hyenas using it as a den. He also argued that these animals had lived in Britain in ancient times. It is now known that the remains date from the ice age.

His conclusions upset many in the church. The Dean of York Minster published a stinging attack entitled The Bible defended against the British Association in 1844 while Adam Sedgwick, the famous geologist, rebutted the attack. In time Buckland’s work has come to be regarded as seminal in the field of geology showing that it was possible to determine the Earth’s history through careful observation and analysis.

The Yorkshire Museum also contains some of the remains discovered in the cave, being one their founding collections.