The New Oban Cave

W. J. Lewis Abbott

Natural Science 5-95

[330] Although the former treasures of the English caves are admired, it is so long since anything new has been disentombed, that cave-hunting is regarded by some almost as a lost art. It is, however, probable that many of the gaps still existing in our geological history will be filled by the study of cave-deposits. The more microscopic methods of examination now coming into vogue have already revealed much that was previously overlooked. Thus, as in the case of the rich finds of the Ightham fissure, we have been able to add to our Pleistocene fauna numerous small, but none the less interesting, species. However large the cave may be, pickaxe and shovel should never be used, except for the removal of fallen rock or the breaking through of stalagmite: every particle of the uncemented material should be removed with a knife, or, at the most, by a small hammer or trowel; it should then be sifted through six or eight sieves fitting into each other, and after having been carefull). examined for friable things, washed through the sieves, with a judicious application of acid when such seems necessary. The last sieve should be fine enough to stop an ostracod, the gall of a Cynips, or a Chara capsule.

Between the discoveries of Dr. Hicks in the Welsh caves and the publication of a list of the contents of the Ightham fissure, a long rest intervened. But the succeeding twelve months have been far more fruitful.. Other fissures further south have been worked, and, so far as the investigations have gone, have proved quite as interesting. That part of the fissures as yet examined. is not older than the Kitchen Midden period; but the closer examination of, the material has revealed whole sets of tools, perhaps the most delicate ever used by man. The British Association made a grant last year for the furtherance of these researches, and the results will shortly be published.

On the top of these comes a most interesting discovery in Scotland, where the later chapters of geological history are somewhat different from our own. There, for instance, the old Palaeolithic man, whose remains are entombed in almost every rod of gravel from the Wash to the English Channel, is unknown; while Kitchen Middens, which were practically unknown in the South till those just mentioned were discovered, are quite plentiful in the North. A few years ago a cave of some interest was found at the back of Mr. J. W. Higgin's whisky distillery at Oban. Recently Mr. McArthur, while blasting rock on his property in Oban Bay, broke into another cave of great promise [331] and interest. It 's the object of the present note to give some few particulars of this cave, and for them I am mainly indebted to Mr. J, W. Higgin, the secretary of the Exploration Committee.

One of the first features to strike the eye of the casual visitor to this charming bay is the raised beach, some 35 ft. above the present one. It was upon this level that the quarrying operations were proceeding when the observant eye of Mr. McArthur fell upon a shell-bed. He immediately informed Mr. Higgin, who recognised the importance of the discovery, and, although rumour has it that many of the earlier finds were thrown away as having no connection with man, still the numbers in which they appeared soon showed that they could not possibly be mere freaks of nature. Upon exhibiting to the Archaeological Society of Scotland one of the bone harpoons discovered, Dr. Anderson induced that body to supply the funds necessary for a thorough investigation. With this the severe winter interfered, but the following general facts may prove of interest.

The cave opens to the N.E., and, at its mouth, is about 20 ft. wide; it extends back about. 30 ft. The roof was covered with stalactites, which, together with the overhanging rock, have all been cleared away, leaving the floor for examination. The mouth of the cave was artificially stopped by huge pieces of rock, which were placed right across it in the lower part, and subsequently occupied two-thirds of its width. The explorers have made two deep longitudinal trenches and one transverse one, and have removed some fifty cartloads of material. The excavations have revealed- the following section

1. Rock-debris and humus 3 ft.

2. Shell-bed 12 to 26 in. .

3. Beach gravel 3 ft.

4. Shell-bed 3 to 26 in.

5. Stalagmite. sand, bones, etc. 1 ft. 8 in.

6. Bed-rock at 12 ft.

1. The accumulation of this extensive deposit indicates a considerable lapse of time since the deposition of the underlying shellbed. At the close of this period, a stray visitor appears to have crawled in and made the cave his last resting-place, as his skull is there to testify.

2. This layer is extremely interesting. It seems to be the equivalent of the ordinary Kitchen Midden material, since it consists of the shells of the limpet, quantities of the large Pecten so plentifully found in many of the Scotch glacial deposits, oysters, mussels, cockles, snails

(Natica ?), winkles, crabs, and other edible species. The limpets are said to bear evidence of having been roasted before being eaten. The various species are often found in heaps, and not irregularly mixed with other shells as on a shore. Dispersed through this bed are also the bones of fish, birds, and mammals. The latter are in the hands of Sir Wm. Furness for determination: some

of the deer antlers are of very large dimensions, suggestive of [32] Megaceros. Bone and flint implements are also found here: the former are very numerous and include some beautifully double-barbed harpoons, one of which, 61-in. long, with nine barbs and a rounded pierced end, was probably used as a detaching harpoon; another, not pierced, which was evidently hafted, measures 4-1/2-in. in length and has four pairs of barbs, being very similar to a tool found in the

Victoria cave. There are numerous fragments of these tools, and a quantity the use of which. is not quite clear ; but the repetition of the same types determines their human origin however unable we may be to decide what was their use. Some of the bone tools are of chisel form and others are suggestive of arrow tips. So preponderating are these bone tools that one might assign the deposit to a "bone age," were it not probable that the extensive use of this material is to be attributed merely to the absence of flint in that part of the country, for in the Hastings Kitchen Midden reverse conditions have produced reverse results. Flint implements have, however, been found, and this is all the more interesting from the fact that the nearest locality for this form of silica is probably Mull.

3. This bed of beach-gravel is evidently of marine origin, and was deposited by the sea when it rose to this height, or when the land and sea had a relative difference of some 35 ft. as compared with the present configuration of the country.

4. The succeeding shell-bed is another relic of human habitation; and although greatly affected and decomposed by the overlying bed and the conditions under which the latter was accumulated, it contains a large number of precious remains in the form of bone and flint implements, animal bones, and, above all, the bones of the men themselves. The human remains include one skull, two lower jaws and several limbs. Exact details concerning these will be impatiently awaited; it is, however, reported that the cephalic index of the skull from the upper layer is 75, while that of the skull from the lower bed is considerably less. During this tenancy it seems that the land was sinking and the sea rising; so that against the incursions of the tide the troglodytes endeavoured to build a wall right across the mouth of the cave. But their efforts were in vain, and man was driven forth from the cave, unable to return until after the re-elevation of the land and the deposition of three feet of shingle. How long a period this represents we cannot say until a full report has been made on the contents of beds 4 and 2 respectively; and it is to be hoped that every inch of the former will be carefully examined, for it may yield many more human bones.

5. Even this lower stalagmitic layer contains treasures sealed up in it, and these may carry us back to a period of whose remoteness we have as yet no idea. This, however, we can say, that since man made the attempt to stem the incoming tide at Oban, that part of Scotland has been elevated some 35 or 40 feet.