Reporter 412, 15 December 1997


Unearthing Bronze Age bones and the ancient art of dating

Cave divers bump into the ancestors

A Bronze Age burial cave has been unearthed by a University technician who is one of the country’s leading exploratory cave divers. Now the story of Phil Murphy’s dramatic adventure is to feature in a television series about burials through the ages.

The discovery of human remains in Rawthey Cave, Cumbria, is of major significance because Phil and his diving partner managed to open up the cave without destroying it in the process. Similar sites discovered in Victorian times were destroyed by excavation.

“Ours is the first non-destructive excavation,” explains Phil, a geologist who works as a technician in the Earth Sciences department.

A passionate cave diver since his youth, he had long hoped to make an important discovery. But when he started exploring Rawthey Cave he was looking for new passages rather than bodies. No cave burial sites had previously been found in the area.

After swimming underwater through a flooded passage first discovered in the 1970s, Phil and his diving partner Andy found another 200 metres of passage.

“Most of the new cave was under water, but at one point we had surfaced in a large chamber with what appeared to be a passage leading off above water,” recalls Phil. “Returning to this chamber we removed our diving gear and began climbing up the steep slope.”

Suddenly there came an excited shout from Andy, who was leading the way: “You’d better get up here Phil, it’s full of bones.”

They found wolf bones and a deer skeleton before identifying human bones and two human footprints preserved in the mud. Samples taken on a later visit were carbon-dated, with a human skull pinpointed to 1530 BC – the middle Bronze Age.

Phil took a team of archaeologists down into the cave in August. It was decided to open a new entrance on the hillside. It is thought this is how the wolves and humans would originally have entered the cave.

Evidence of three human skeletons were found, as well as much carnivore activity. The wolves had clearly lived in the cave before the humans were placed there, as the human bones had not been chewed.

As little material as possible was removed and the cave was re-sealed to protect it. According to Phil, follow-up work on the findings at Rawthey will allow a re-examination of the literature on the sites destroyed by the Victorians.

• The excavation will be featured on BBC2 on January 8 in the first of a series called Meet the Ancestors.

Professor’s cracking tale about a cracking tail

When the University’s resident dinosaur expert suggested that some of his extinct objects of study might once have used their tails to aid their love life, he was only being half serious. But it turns out he might have been right after all.

Computer simulations carried out in the United States have confirmed that some dinosaurs could have caused miniature sonic booms by cracking their tails like bullwhips. It is thought that males competed for the attentions of females by staging contests to see who could crack their tails loudest and longest.

These findings add credence to a suggestion originally made by the School of Biology’s Professor of Zoology Neil Alexander, in his 1989 book Dynamics Of Dinosaurs. He wrote that, while some dinosaurs had tails with spikes or knobs that were clearly designed to be used as weapons, others had very thin tails more suited to making a terrifying noise.

“Actually, my tongue was pretty much in my cheek when I wrote that,” explains Professor Alexander. “But it seems to me that it is fun to think that two males had tail-cracking matches over females, in the way that two stags will have a roaring match. I would have thought that a more likely explanation than hitting.”

He is pleased to find that this explanation fits with the results of computer simulations carried out in the USA by Nathan Myhrvold, head of research at Microsoft.

Inspired by Professor Alexander’s off-the-cuff suggestion, Myhrvold carried out a study based on dinosaur fossils which showed that a wave travelling down the length of a sauropod’s tail could reach the speed of sound and indeed result in a loud cracking noise.

Sauropods were plant-eating dinosaurs with long necks and long thin tails, such as the diplodocus.

Nathan Myhrvold explains: “Males whipped their tales to get a date.”

Bargain hunter finds prehistoric treasure

An amber ring bought at an Ilkley fair for just £12 has been found to contain a tiny fly which could be up to 40million years old. Catherine White brought her ring to the University and ULIS has been investigating its ancient contents.

Biology research technician Dave Blakeley has identified the fly as probably belonging to the family Heleomyzidae, due to a distinctive feature on its wings. An expert from the Natural History Museum confirmed the rarity of the find. Although around ten per cent of all amber contains insects there have only been seven recorded finds of flies belonging to this family.

“It’s incredible to think that this little fly would have been buzzing around with the dinosaurs,” said Catherine, who is studying for an Earth Sciences degree with the Open University. She realised the find might be significant: “I knew the ring would be rare as soon as I saw the fly.”

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