Carsington Pasture Cave
A National Site of Significant Archaeological Importance
2021 heralds an excess of twenty-years (1998) that the Pegasus Caving Club has been exploring and excavating Carsington Pasture Cave. During this time the cave has been visited and examined by archaeologists from several different Universities and Scientific Establishments including the iconic television series ‘Time Team’ in 2003 which further generated much interest in the site.
Why do archaeologists continue to visit the cave and why are they so eager to further laboratory study both old and new finds in such scientific detail? Dr. Tom Booth’s article below, sets out to answer these questions and is a fascinating read that clearly establishes the national importance of the cave and the finds that it has produced so far in the study of evolution and the history of disease. The latter, I find rather ironic that I should be writing this during the current World COVID-19 pandemic.
The Pegasus Caving Club continue to explore and dig Carsington Pasture Cave in tandem with archaeologists and it will be interesting to see what further important finds turn-up from which further scientific secrets may be revealed.
Enjoy the read.
Malcolm Scothon, February 2021
Carsington Pasture Cave
Current Archaeological Summary
Dr. Tom Booth (© February 2021)
The remains of both humans and non-human animals have been retrieved from the three chambers of Carsington Pasture Cave periodically over the last twenty years. The cave was originally explored and excavated in 1998 by members of the Pegasus Caving Cub and archaeologists from the University of Sheffield, revealing three successive chambers joined by near-vertical passages. More recent explorations by Pegasus Caving Club over the last few years have produced further finds.
The original entrance to Carsington Pasture Cave, now closed off with access via the shaft in the roof of the entrance chamber.
Photo: © Time Team 2002
Most of the human bones were recovered from the floor of Chamber 2, although some were excavated from sediment within the passage between Chambers 2 and 3. The human remains have been subject to a range of analytical techniques which have improved our understanding of when and how the cave was used to inter the remains of the dead. However, as these analyses have formed part of broad and disparate projects addressing national-scale questions, there has been no up-to-date narrative which consolidates these disparate research strands into a coherent narrative of the site. Research projects which have included the Carsington human remains are still ongoing, but I will try to sketch out what has been done so far, give a sense of what we know about the history of the deposition of human remains at the cave, and maybe indulge in some forthright speculation about what might have been happening.
Projected vertical section through Carsington Pasture Cave. The original entrance enters the cave at floor level of the entrance chamber.
At least 20 people were represented amongst the human bones recovered from the cave in the late 1998, although further human bones have been recovered since then. In general, the human remains from Carsington Pasture Cave were found in an incomplete and disordered state. This was in part due to movement and collapse of cave floors which served to jumble up the skeletons, but there is also some evidence that bits of bones, partial skeletons or bodies had been placed in the cave originally. For instance, cut marks were found on two human femora (thigh bones) which probably belonged to the same person, suggesting that their body was dismembered soon after they had died before their leg bones at least were deposited deep within the cave.
Other skeletons were found in some degree of completeness and anatomical order. A partially complete skeleton of an adult male (who came to be known as ‘Sven’) found in the 2nd Chamber broadly had all his bits in the correct place. In addition, a deposit of neonatal infant skeletons found together in a discrete section of the 2nd chamber were also partially complete and in order, indicating that these infant bodies had been placed in the cave intact.
Scaffolding and wooden shoring at the top of the dig between the entrance chamber and chamber two. Photo: © Time Team 2002
I first worked on the Carsington Pasture Cave assemblage in 2010 as a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, where I was supervised by Profs Andrew Chamberlain and Mike Parker Pearson. My PhD project investigated variation in bacterial attack to the internal microstructure of archaeological bone to see what it might tell us about past funerary treatment. A couple of years earlier, another PhD student, Lorraine White, had produced microscope slides (thin sections – tiny slithers of bone a few microns in thickness that can be examined under a standard transmitted light microscope) from a selection of the Carsington human bones for a similar project, and I added to this collection during my time at Sheffield. We both found that levels of internal bacterial attack in the human bones from Carsington were highly variable. In 2014 I was hired as a post-doctoral researcher by the Natural History Museum on a Wellcome Trust project which was aiming to use DNA extracted from ancient human remains to understand how people in Britain have adapted genetically to dietary change and disease. The bacteria that tunnel through internal bone microstructures eat away the organic matter, including potentially informative biomolecules including proteins and DNA. I was primarily hired onto the Wellcome Trust project as my experience looking at patterns of internal degradation in bone would give me some insight into which bones would contain well-preserved DNA. However, soon after starting at the NHM, another research group at Trinity College Dublin found that the petrous portion of the temporal bone, the bones that form the parts of your skull that surround your ear, preserved DNA exceptionally well. After this discovery, my insight bone degradation ended up being a bit redundant. However, as my microscopic research had suggested that some of the bones from Carsington Pasture Cave showed excellent preservation, this was one of the first assemblages I visited to collect samples for DNA analysis. I’ve been involved with DNA analysis and radiocarbon dating of bones from Carsington ever since.
Table 1: Results of the radiocarbon dating and genetic sex analysis of human remains from Carsington Pasture Cave performed so far.
An initial round of radiocarbon dating was undertaken in 2001 on three human bones and the bone of a wild cow at the Accelerator Mass Spectrometer (AMS) in Oxford University. It later emerged that a technical issue at the Oxford AMS meant that some of the bones that were analysed around this time produced dates that were too early. Therefore, these initial dates from Carsington should be taken with caution as they may be a bit too old. Ten further radiocarbon dates have been acquired from the human remains at Carsington Pasture Cave since 2001 as part of various research projects (Table 1). These dates show that there were three distinct periods when the remains of the dead were deposited at Carsington. Each of these periods of funerary activity were separated from each other by at least 1000 years.
Figure 1: Plot of the radiocarbon dates undertaken on the Carsington Pasture Cave human remains so far showing three episodes of deposition at c.3800 BC, c.2000BC and c.500 BC.
The first phase of interment took place between 3800 and 3300 BC with the deposition of at least two adult males. One of these adult males was the mostly complete ‘Sven’ skeleton. The completeness of this skeleton suggests whole bodies were left to decompose in the cave. The other dated bone was a femur showing pathological changes not seen in the rest of the ‘Sven’ skeleton, suggesting it came from a second person. This assessment has since been confirmed by DNA analysis (discussed below). The DNA analysis also suggested that this second bone had probably come from a male. A third bone comprising a section of cranium has also been dated to the same period. This bone may come from the body of a third adult but it also could have come from one of the male skeletons that had already been identified, as its radiocarbon date is very similar to those from ‘Sven’ and the additional femur. The dates we have so far suggest that this earliest funerary activity at Carsington was relatively short-lived, 100 years at most and probably substantially less than this.
These radiocarbon dates fall within the Early Neolithic period, a time when we see the first farming practices develop in Britain and associated cultural traditions including building of funerary monuments such as megalithic tombs. However, interment of the dead in caves was also a relatively common practice in various parts of Britain during this period, and it is likely that this was a formal type of Early Neolithic funerary treatment afforded to particular people. For instance similar relatively short-lived episodes of Early Neolithic funerary activity have also been identified nearby in other caves in the Peak District as well as in the North Yorkshire Dales.
There is no further evidence for the interment of the dead at Carsington for the next 1500 years. The second episode of deposition takes place between 2000 and 1800 BC, in the Early Bronze Age. This phase includes the two cutmarked adult thigh bones that were recovered from the excavation between Chambers 2 and 3. This thigh bone was originally dated in 2001, but was redated more recently because of the possibility that the date was anomalously old due to the technical problems at OAU. The new date was younger than and incompatible with the first date. This second date is taken as more likely to be correct given the issues at OAU in 2001.
DNA analysis suggested that these two thigh bones had belonged to a male. This evidence for dismemberment seems to suggest that funerary behaviour at Carsington during the Early Bronze Age was of a different character to what we see in the Early Neolithic, involving the deposition of defleshed bones and body parts rather than complete bodies. In addition, an isolated adult temporal bone was also dated to the Early Bronze Age. The radiocarbon date of this temporal bone was different enough from the date of the cutmarked thigh bone to suggest that it had come from a second individual. This was confirmed by the DNA analysis which indicated that the temporal bone had belonged to a female. The temporal bone was entirely disassociated from the rest of the skeleton but it was free from cut marks, and so it is not possible to say whether it also came from a body that had been dismembered. More formal analysis of the radiocarbon dates suggests that, like in the Early Neolithic, Early Bronze Age funerary activity at Carsington was relatively short-lived, probably lasting around 100-300 years. While most Early Bronze Age burials found in the archaeological record comprise cremation or inhumation burials, there is evidence for a great deal of variability in funerary treatment in including cave deposition. Therefore, while most of the dead were probably not interred in caves during the Early Bronze Age, the evidence for cave deposition at Carsington Pasture Cave is not so unusual.
A selection of excavated human and animal bones displayed in the Time Team Tent on site at Carsington Pasture
Photos: © Time Team 2002
A third period of funerary activity is in evidence at Carsington 1000-1500 years later, in the Early-Middle Iron Age. Most of the bones associated with this phase date to c.400-150 BC. One bone dates to 700-400 BC, however, this bone was dated as part of the first programme of radiocarbon dating at Oxford and may be erroneously early. It is possible that all of these bones relate to a single phase of funerary activity dating to 400-150 BC. Bones dating to this phase mostly come from the group of semi-ordered neonatal skeletons found together in a discrete area of the second chamber. All of the dated neonatal infant skeletons from Carsington fall in this phase and it is likely they represent a particular rite enacted during the Middle Iron Age. However, Iron Age deposition of the dead at Carsington was not reserved exclusively for the remains of neonatal infants; two adult disarticulated cranial bones from the 2nd Chamber, established by DNA analysis as coming from a male and a female, also dated to the Middle Iron Age. The adult bones were completely disarticulated when they were discovered but, as discussed above, the completeness and anatomical order of the neonatal infant skeletons suggested that these infants had been interred in the cave intact soon after they had died. Again the funerary treatment and the emphasis on neonatal remains particularly suggests that the Middle Iron Age funerary behaviour at Carsington was different again from what we see in the Early Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. Formal modelling of the radiocarbon dates again suggest that funerary activity could have been fairly short-lived probably lasting somewhere between 40-300 years.
Histological analysis has been conducted on limb bones from eighteen individuals from Carsington Pasture Cave to investigate the way in which the internal microstructure of the bones had been attacked by bacteria. Surveys of archaeological bones and some real-time experiments with bones from pig carcasses, have suggested that the extent of bacterial attack in bone is associated with how a person’s body was treated soon after they died. For instance, bones from butchered animal bones tend to show very little or no bacterial attack, whereas bones that formed part of complete intact bodies more often show high levels of bacterial alteration. This may be because the majority of bacterial activity which affects the bone is related to soft tissue decomposition. Butchery separates bones from soft tissue soon after death, whereas burial of bodies intact soon after death would ensure bones were surrounded by decomposing soft tissue, promoting high levels of bacterial attack.
Most of the human bones from Carsington that have been examined showed quite high levels of bacterial attack, which is explained most simply by them having come from intact bodies that were interred in the cave soon after death. None of these bones have been directly dated by radiocarbon dating, and so it is not possible to know whether this evidence for interment of complete bodies took place during one or multiple phases of funerary activity, but it certainly supports other strands of evidence from the Early Neolithic and Middle Iron Age remains that funerary behaviour at different times involved the deposition of whole intact bodies.
A selection of excavated bones displayed in the Time Team Tent on site at Carsington Pasture
Photos: © Time Team 2002
Three of the human bones (two adult and one juvenile) were completely free from bacterial attack, suggesting that they had not been exposed to soft tissue decomposition. This group included one of the Early Bronze Age human thigh bones that showed cut marks indicative of dismemberment. Dismemberment of the body soon after death would have separated bones from the soft tissue before decomposition commenced, and so this treatment may explain the absence of bacterial attack in the bones. The other adult bone showing no bacterial bioerosion was the Early Neolithic human femur. Unlike the Early Bronze Age thigh bone, no modifications were found on this bone which would suggest that the body has been dismembered or defleshed. It is possible that this bone came from a body that had been defleshed or dismembered, but that this activity left no mark on the bone. Other processes which could have affected exposure to bacterial soft tissue decomposition include excarnation - exposure of the body outdoors where soft tissues can be lost rapidly through the activity of skeletonising invertebrates. It is possible that this kind of activity took place in the entrance of Carsington Pasture Cave before certain bones were selected and brought further inside. This potentially complicates the interpretation of the Early Neolithic funerary treatment at Carsington, which may have involved excarnation of some bodies at the entrance before the remains were moved further into the cave. Similar processes of excarnation and dismemberment could have been responsible for the absence of bacterial attack from the juvenile long bone, but as this bone has not been radiocarbon dated directly, we cannot link it with a particular period of funerary activity.
Finally, two bones taken from the deposit of partially articulated neonatal skeletons dating to the Iron Age were also entirely free from bacterial attack. The completeness and state of articulation of these remains mean that it is unlikely they were excarnated or dismembered. So, what explains the lack of bacterial activity in the bone? A larger scale study of archaeological bone from Europe found that half of bones from neonatal skeletons remain free from bacterial attack. This may be because these infants were stillborn or had not lived long enough to have developed intrinsic gut bacteria that help to drive bacterial attack in bone. Therefore, somewhat speculatively it seems possible that the infant-centric Middle Iron Age depositional practices were focussed on the remains of stillborn infants specifically.
Firstly, it should be noted that DNA preservation in bones from Carsington Pasture Cave is tremendous! We know generally that cave environments tend to preserve DNA quite well in cases where the depositional environment is relatively cool and dry. However, even by the standard of cave assemblages, the DNA preservation at Carsington is pretty exceptional. There have been hundreds of ancient genomes published from Britain, but up until very recently, the highest quality ancient genome we had from any time period came from the Early Neolithic ‘Sven’ skeleton.
The episodes of deposition identified so far by the radiocarbon dating at Carsington Pasture Cave occur quite soon after major episodes of genetic ancestry change in Britain. These national-scale shifts in genetic ancestry are reflected in distinct differences in ancestry among the human remains that have been analysed from Carsington. The two bones radiocarbon dated to the Neolithic have substantial ancestry from people who lived in Anatolica c.8000 BC. These populations of early farmers migrated across Europe over a period of c.2000 years, mixing with local populations descended from Mesolithic hunter-fisher-gatherers along the way. Groups carrying this Anatolian ancestry eventually migrated to Britain, probably from several different parts of continental Europe, in the centuries around 4000 BC. In contrast to regions of continental Europe, there is very little genetic contribution to the Neolithic populations of Britain from preceding Mesolithic (9600-4000 BC) groups. This is reflected in the estimates of genetic ancestry for the remains of two Early Neolithic adult males from Carsington. While both have genetic ancestry from populations who inhabited continental Europe during the Mesolithic, this does not include any detectable genetic legacy from the Mesolithic population of Britain specifically. It is difficult to say exactly why the genetic legacy of local Mesolithic populations is so scarce in the Neolithic populations of Britain, but it may be that population densities were fairly low in certain regions of Britain during the Late Mesolithic.
The Early Neolithic adult males from Carsington Pasture Cave were not close genetic relatives (within 1st- 3rd degree relatives). Very little can be said about the influence of genetic relatedness in deciding who was buried at Carsington based on just two people, but these results do suggest the cave was not used exclusively for people who were genetically related to one another. However, it is likely that the people who were interred in the cave did consider themselves kin in some way which was not associated with biological relatedness.
The quality of the DNA obtained from the Sven skeleton was good enough to attempt to predict eye, hair and skin pigmentation based on genetic markers in modern people that are associated with these traits. Sven was predicted to have had brown eyes, dark brown or black hair and dark-intermediate skin pigmentation (Fig. 2). This combination of traits is quite typical for Neolithic inhabitants of Britain and Europe more generally. There are two genetic variants that are highly associated with reduced (pale) skin pigmentation in populations from northern Europe today. It was assumed that these variants became common quickly once humans began inhabiting higher latitudes, as paler skin allows for more efficient absorption of UV light to synthesise vitamin D and avoid vitamin deficiencies. However, archaeogenetic studies, including the results from Sven, are showing that this story is not quite so straightforward. Both variants were absent from Mesolithic populations of Britain and Europe. One of these variants was common in the early farmers who migrated across Europe, and these groups were responsible for introducing this variant to Britain. The second variant arrives in Britain even later in the Chalcolithic-Early Bronze Age.
Figure 2: Facial reconstruction of the ‘Whitehawk Woman’, an Early Neolithic burial recovered from the Whitehawk causewayed enclosure in Brighton, Sussex. DNA extracted from the Whitehawk Woman skeleton was of too low quality to be able to predict probable physical characteristics and so the DNA data from the Carsington Pasture Cave ‘Sven’ skeleton, as the best quality ancient genome we have from Neolithic Britain, were used to inform the reconstruction. These physical characteristics were likely to have been fairly typical of the Neolithic inhabitants of Britain, The reconstruction is on display in the Elaine Evans Gallery at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery (copyright Brighton Museum).
Between 2450-2100 BC there was another substantial shift in the ancestry of the inhabitants of Britain coinciding with the development of cultures associated with the ‘Beaker’ phenomenon. This genetic shift was instigated by movements of people into Britain from parts of continental Europe. These Beaker groups carried ancestry related to populations who lived in the Pontic-Caspian steppe around 3000 BC. Migrations of people from the Pontic-Caspian steppe had introduced this ancestry into Eastern and Central Europe between 3000-2500 BC. These population movements into Britain over several hundred years are responsible for a >90% shift in genetic ancestry in Britain.
Genetic ancestry in both Early Bronze Age bones from Carsington Pasture Cave reflect this national-scale change. Both skeletons carry substantial ancestry deriving from populations who lived on the Pontic-Caspian steppe around 3000 BC. About 10% of the ancestry of the Early Bronze Age interments is estimated to derive from the populations similar to those who inhabited the area in the Neolithic, again reflecting the national-scale pattern of genetic ancestry change. These two people were not close genetic relatives, suggesting, as in the Neolithic, that genetic relatedness did not inform whose remains were deposited in Carsington in the Early Bronze Age.
Three adult human skulls from chamber two, complete apart from the lower jaw bones. Photo: © Time Team 2002
The DNA analysis has been particularly useful for developing our understanding of the Middle Iron Age deposits of neonatal infants. Looking at the shape of particular adult bones can help us to estimate biological sex of ancient people. However, the same techniques cannot be applied to infant remains. The DNA however, provides an estimate of biological sex by identifying whether a person carried a Y-chromosome. The DNA analysis showed that there was no sex bias in the neonatal remains from Carsington. Perhaps surprisingly, out of the six infants that have been subject to DNA analysis, none were closely related genetically. Nor were any of the sampled remains close genetic relatives of the two adults whose remains were also interred in the cave around the same time. Carsington Pasture Cave was not used for the interment of the dead by a particular person or family group. In fact, genetic ancestry estimates for the neonatal infants found that their ancestry was remarkably diverse, certainly indicative of ancestry from outside the local region, but potentially also from outside of Britain. Given these infants obviously could not have made their way to Carsington by themselves, these results propose quite a startling scenario whereby people from different parts of Britain, and possibly also from outside Britain travelled to Carsington Pasture Cave in order to bury the remains of their stillborn infants. An alternative, although still convoluted explanation is that Middle Iron Age communities who chose to deposit neonatal infant remains at Carsington were relatively genetically distinct from one another. However, currently it is difficult to see why there should be such notable variation in genetic ancestry amongst communities who inhabited the Iron Age Peak District.
Only a small fraction of the human bones recovered from Carsington Pasture Cave have been analysed intensively, but a clear narrative of the history of deposition at the site is beginning to emerge. To summarise, the first phase of funerary behaviour at the cave took place in the Early Neolithic and involved the deposition of the remains of at least two adult males. It is likely that whole bodies were interred in the cave or allowed to decompose a short while in the entrance before they were redeposited in a deeper chamber. The two males were not close genetic relatives, and their genetic ancestry was quite typical of Neolithic Britain, with little genetic relationship to the groups who had inhabited Britain during the Mesolithic.
Around a millennium later in the Early Bronze Age the remains of at least two people, an adult male and female, were deposited in the cave. The remains of the male at least had been dismembered before they were deposited, and it may be that only parts of both of these people were interred at Carsington. They were genetically unrelated to each other and their ancestry was typical of other Early Bronze Age burials. Only around 10% of their ancestry could be related to populations who had inhabited Britain during the Neolithic period, including the two earlier burials from the same cave, reflecting the substantial ancestry shift that had taken place in Britain between 2500-2100 BC.
Again, there is no evidence for funerary activity at Carsington until over a millennium later in the Middle Iron Age when funerary behaviour is focussed mainly (although not exclusively) on neonatal (potentially stillborn) infants. This included the remains of both male and female infants, none of whom were close genetic relatives. The heterogeneity of genetic ancestry in these infant burials suggests that either people came to Carsington from quite far afield, possibly from outside of Britain even, to inter the remains of stillborn infants, or the Middle Iron Age populations of the Peak District were quite ancestrally diverse. Either way it would seem that Carsington was a focal point of funerary activity for multiple Middle Iron Age communities in Britain.
From the evidence we have so far what strikes me is how infrequently Carsington Pasture Cave seems to have been used for deposition of the dead. Future radiocarbon dating might reveal that deposition of the dead was more continuous than what is apparent from the dates we have so far, but at the moment, while there is evidence for at least three phases of funerary activity in the cave, these were relatively short, lasting probably two or three centuries at the most and separated by over a thousand years. There is no reason to think that the cave was inaccessible between these periods, or that the broader region was uninhabited for extensive periods of time.
Caves are often discussed as natural places in which prehistoric communities may have thought to inter their dead due to their connections to the underworld or status as liminal places. However, it seems that most of the time local prehistoric inhabitants of the Peak District chose not to inter their dead at Carsington. It seems that it only became an appropriate place for funerary ritual at specific points in time, presumably when changes in local systems of belief and ritual encouraged it. Changes in the perceived relationship between Carsington and the dead is also apparent in the funerary evidence. Each episode of deposition involves very different patterns of funerary behaviour. This is expected given the communities who interred their dead here are separated by at least a thousand years and that those periods of time included substantial changes to the people who inhabited the area as well as their cultures, beliefs and practices. It is likely that local knowledge of earlier human remains in Carsington Pasture Cave may have instigated new episodes of deposition, but in no way were these episodes continuous with one another. The distribution of these episodes of deposition between major periods of ancestry change in prehistoric Britain means that Carsington Pasture Cave gives us an important time transect of genetic information showing how the same processes which affected the country on a broad scale played out similarly in a single place.
Booth, T.J. 2016. An investigation into the relationship between funerary treatment and bacterial bioerosion in European archaeological human bone. Archaeometry, 58(3), pp.484-499.
Booth, T., 2014. An Investigation into the relationship between bone diagenesis and funerary treatment (Doctoral dissertation, University of Sheffield).
Brace, S., Diekmann, Y., Booth, T.J., van Dorp, L., Faltyskova, Z., Rohland, N., Mallick, S., Olalde, I., Ferry, M., Michel, M., Oppenheimer, J. et al. 2019. Ancient genomes indicate population replacement in Early Neolithic Britain. Nature ecology & evolution, 3(5), pp.765-771.
Chamberlain, A.T. 1999. Carsington Pasture Cave, Brassington, Derbyshire: A prehistoric burial site. Capra, 1, p.1.
Chamberlain, A.T. 1996. More dating evidence for human remains in British caves. Antiquity, 70(270), p.950.
Olalde, I., Brace, S., Allentoft, M.E., Armit, I., Kristiansen, K., Booth, T., Rohland, N., Mallick, S., Szécsényi-Nagy, A.,
Mittnik, A., Altena, E. et al. 2018. The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe. Nature, 555(7695), pp.190-196.
Dr. Tom Booth
Senior Research Scientist
Pontus Skoglund Laboratory
The Francis Crick Institute
1 Midland Road
‘We study ancient DNA to understand human evolution, mobility, and disease in prehistory.
The human species and the diseases we encounter are the products of millions of years of evolution.’
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Ancient Genomics Laboratory Click Here