It’s fair to say that the enormous Gop cairn has been the centre of mystery and myth for thousands of years. Surprising then that the only excavation of the second largest man-made mound in the British Isles has been excavated just the once. In 1886, at the invitation of Mr Pochin, the owner of the Golden Grove estate on whose land Y Gop resided, Professor Boyd Dawkins was called upon to investigate the mound. Suffice to say that after two years of digging about, little of the mystery and myth had been dispelled and a considerable number of further probabilities and maybes had been established.
And in case, it would seem that Boyd Dawkins interest had been swayed away from the cairn by the find of a fox-earth below the Gop. His interest piqued, a poke and a prod discovered a cavern, a history of which was fairly swiftly evident as stretching back to the Pleistocene. From his report of 1901 one gets the amusing impression that on finding the cave, Boyd Dawkin’s barely pauses to chuck his trowel over his shoulder as he clambers down the escarpment towards the cave, with barely a glance back at the Gop cairn. The report on the cairn is a shrug of 2 pages of write up with a further single page of diagrams, while the cave is afforded a luxuriant 17 pages of close study.
Both the Cairn and Cave are visible here - it seems ridiculous to think that the builders of this enormous mound were not aware of the cave a little down the hill.
‘I therefore resolved to explore this, with the assistance of Mr P.G. Pochin. The fox-earth led us into a cave completely blocked up at the entrance by earth and stones and large masses of limestone, which had fallen from the ledge of the rock above.’
Boyd Dawkins, ‘On the Cairn and Sepulchral Cave at Gop, near Prestatyn’ (1901)
The findings of Boyd- Dawkin’s 1886 investigation are still the foundation of all that we know about this cave. Subsequent excavations and investigations throughout the 20th century added to our understanding, without substantially altering the findings of 1886.
In fact, Boyd Dawkin’s initial investigation found what was in truth a rock shelter some 44ft long, 12 ft wide and nearly 7ft in height, along with a passage leading into it from the north east. A subsequent investigation of 1908 led by John H. Morris of West Bromwich and joined by T. Allen Glenn found and opened up a further passage from the north west, which led to a cave within which further findings were discovered. A walled up entrance to this cave was found a little further to the west of the rock shelter and opened up to the surface.
Boyd Dawkins and Pochin worked their way into the cavern through cut drift-ways before beginning the laborious task of clearing the cavern, filled almost entirely with earth and stone. What they found was extraordinary. The cavern was made up of four layers of sediment, stretching from the Pleistocene to the late Neolithic - a truly enormous period of time.
The two deepest layers corresponded roughly to the Pleistocene consisting of thick yellow and grey clays. Within this, the intrepid investigators found a mass of animal bone, some in excellent condition, including the skeletal remains of cave hyenas, bison, stag, roe deer, horse and woolly rhinoceros. They also found the antlers of reindeer, some of which showed clear evidence of the teeth marks of hyena.
Resting on top of the Pleistocene clay was a mixed layer of red earth, broken stalactites and stone. This was identified by Boyd Dawkins as ‘Prehistoric Accumulations’, and contained a mixture of refuse bones of prehistoric age - Neolithic to be precise. Pieces of charcoal, pot-boilers and pottery were also found scattered within the red earth - clearly identifying a human presence in the cavern. Working further into the cavern, the pair discovered a number of fire blackened limestone slabs which Boyd Dawkins identified as an ancient fireplace, a possible hearth. A large number of burnt and broken bones were discovered there, including that of human bone. However, it was the discovery of a rubble wall that was most startling.
The wall was part of a small, man-made rectangular chamber, no greater than 5ft in length on its western and eastern sides, around 4ft in width and 5ft in height - backing up to the inner wall of the cave. Within the chamber the crouched bodies of 14 people were found in various states of articulation, suggesting that they were placed here soon after death. The age of the remains dated, extraordinarily, from the early to the late Neolithic, a period of no less than a millennium. It was this that led to Boyd Dawkins' conclusion that this was a tomb containing many generations of the same family. And in this he is probably correct. At the time, this discovery of a tomb chamber within a cave was unusual, but since this early discovery, it has become clear that Gop Cave is one of several caves in the British Isles that have been used as tombs, manufactured to resemble the more familiar burial in the landscape.
Other than the bodies, a quantity of pottery was found - middle Neolithic Peterborough ware - flint flakes and animal bone, including an abundance of sheep bone. This last is interesting, since sheep are not indigenous to the British Isles and were thought to have been brought to these Islands during the early Neolithic. Their presence here also suggests that land clearance was underway in the vicinity of the Cave and Cairn - sheep graze, after all. However, of the considerable quantity of non-human finds discovered in the Cave, the most striking were the two jet (possibly Kimmeridge shale) belt sliders, probably late Neolithic in date - evidence of some status.
The view from within the cave, from the site of the chamber within which 14 bodies were discovered.
The bulk of the human bone, a quite considerable quantity, was moved to the 17th century dovecote at nearby Gop Farm. At some point before 1912, a Henry Hughes was given permission to remove some of the bone material, apparently to display as part of a showcase he was creating of the newly discovered Gwaenysgor Cave, a little to the west. After his death, the material he had taken was sold to, in Ellis Davies words, ‘an archaeologist resident at Wrexham’. Still there was plenty of bone left in around 1913, it seems, when Davies visited the Dovecote. However, it disappeared soon after, and was apparently thrown down a nearby mine shaft by the then tenant of the farm. Whether this was the same tenant that slighted the remains of Ffynnon Wen is unknown.
The site was further investigated between 1908-1914 by J.H. Morris, joined in 1911 by T.A. Glenn. As stated already, they discovered and began the laborious process of widening an opening in the north west of the Boyd Dawkins cavern. The passage was,
‘Of sufficient diameter to admit a man of average size.’
Ellis Davies, The Prehistoric and Roman Remains of Flintshire
The excavation was done entirely by candlelight, systematically clearing the earth and stone from the emerging north west cave by the sack, pushing the spoil filled hessian through the hole before examining it outside. At some point, probably about 1912, a walled up opening from this cave to the outside was cleared, allowing some light into the cave, making clearance and excavation a little less arduous. Glenn suggested that given the apparent sturdiness of the wall blocking entry from the outside into the cave, it would have been completely unknown to the peoples utilising the rock shelter.
Within this north west cave a further 6 bodies were discovered. Most had been scattered by the burrowing of various animals, although one was uncovered within a recess, protected by a rubble wall. It has been suggested that all the bodies had once been behind such chambers, although this can only be speculation. A variety of domesticated animal bone was also found, though there was no evidence of burning. Perhaps most impressively, however, was the discovery of a superb, perfect and apparently unused axe head, sourced from nearby Graig Lwyd.
Unlike the remains found and largely lost from the 1886 excavations, the remains were kept by Morris until his death in 1947, when they were donated to the National Museum of Wales. There they remain, although not currently on display, it would seem.
T.A. Glenn conducted a further excavation at the Cave, at the invitation of the National Museum of Wales, in 1920-21. The focus was the material in front of the cave shelter, undisturbed by Boyd Dawkins at the end of the 19th century. Again human remains were discovered, though disturbed, along with the ubiquitous remains of ancient animals and some flint and chert implements - microliths, sent on to the National Museum. Excavations between 1953 and 1962 by Stead and Bridgwood centred on developing an understanding of the north east of the cavern, discovering Neolithic charnel remains, possibly the remains of a chamber. These deposits contained artefacts of northern English origin, which seem to suggest a development of contacts. Interestingly, it may be that these contacts are evidence of the beginnings of this area of north east Wales becoming the vibrant and essential Bronze Age centre the growing wealth of evidence suggests.
A view from the Caves to the south west towards Moel Hiraddug.
Something must be said as to the relationship of the Cave with the enormous cairn some 50 metres up the hill. It is, of course, a matter of speculation only, but it seems entirely inconceivable that the builders of the cairn were unaware of the cave. Boyd Dawkins speculated that the cairn was built to mark the burials within the Cave. That seems unlikely, unless of course the people buried within the cave were thought to be so very important as to warrant the favour of the building of the second largest prehistoric monument in the British Isles. And that would be a very interesting thing, indeed.
How distant can we cast our mind’s eye? How very far from our time can we imagine, comprehend? Many thousands of years ago, our ancestors sheltered within this cave, and buried their dead in chambers in the dark. Can you see them, hunkered down beneath the overhanging ledge of limestone, opening up the chamber as it had many times before, placing the body of a loved one amongst the bones of their ancestors? At Gop Cave, you are closer to them than you think.
Davies, E. (1949) The Prehistoric and Roman Remains of Flintshire. Cardiff
Dawkins, W. B. (1901) On the cairn and sepulchral cave at Gop, near Prestatyn. Archaeological Journal 58
Dawkins, W. B. (1912) Certain fixed points in the prehistory of Wales, Archaeologia Cambrensis 6th Series Vol. 12
Ebb, C. Caves of North Wales An Information Resource, http://www.cambriancavingcouncil.org.uk/registry/CoNW/CoNW_04.htm
Glenn, T. A. (1913) Distribution of Neolithic implements in northern Flintshire. Archaeologia Cambrensis 6th Series Vol. 13
Hankinson, R. & Silvester, R. (2014-15) Caves of North-East Wales, CPAT Report 1313