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The secrets of Wirksworth’s Dream Cave

PUBLISHED: 00:00 18 January 2019

Molar teeth in the lower mandible of the Dream cave woolly rhinoceros. The tooth at the rear of the jaw is still erupting, suggesting that the animal might have been a relatively young adult

Molar teeth in the lower mandible of the Dream cave woolly rhinoceros. The tooth at the rear of the jaw is still erupting, suggesting that the animal might have been a relatively young adult

© Alex Hyde

Karim Vahed, Professor of Entomology at the University of Derby, details his quest in search of an extinct inhabitant of Derbyshire – one of the Pleistocene epoch’s most fearsome mammals.

Recreation of the moment of discovery of the Dream cave wooly rhino remains in the Dream cave, WirksworthRecreation of the moment of discovery of the Dream cave wooly rhino remains in the Dream cave, Wirksworth

During December 1822, miners excavating a new shaft on a hill above Wirksworth in their quest for lead ore happened upon a natural cavern, which was to become known as ‘the Dream Cave’. As the miners began to remove the infill, they uncovered the almost complete skeleton of a woolly rhinoceros.

I first came across this story during a visit to the Wirksworth Heritage Centre, when I moved to the area 20 years ago. I was captivated by the thought of this time capsule from the ice age and often wondered what had happened to the skeleton and where the Dream Cave was. Last year, I finally decided to find out.

A search on the Derbyshire Caving Association’s online Cave Registry revealed the location of ‘Dream Hole’. The site was on almost exactly the opposite side of the valley to my cottage; without having realised it, I had been gazing out over the Dream Cave’s location for the past 20 years. On a hazy early spring morning, I set off to see the cave for myself. I found, to my delight, that the Dream Cave is set in a magical spot: crowning the top of a grassy limestone knoll overlooking Wirksworth on one side and a small wooded valley on another and commanding distant views down the Ecclesbourne Valley. The surrounding fields are pock-marked with grassy craters, indicating the existence of long-abandoned mine shafts beneath. The reason for the alternative name of ‘Dream Hole’ was clear: surrounded by a rickety wire fence and surmounted by a gnarled ash tree, the site consists of a natural fissure in the limestone, with apparently vertical sides leading into the mysterious, dark depths. A few days later, I returned with Alex Hyde, wildlife photographer, fellow naturalist and an experienced caver. Donning our caving equipment, we carefully picked our way down the muddy slope and descended into the chasm, before crawling through the entrance of the Dream Cave itself. As our head torches illuminated the narrow cavern with its sheer and high walls, I felt an odd sensation of timelessness; in several places the limestone walls bore gouges made by the miners’ pickaxes and it felt as if they might have just downed tools for the day.

My initial attempts to discover the location of the Dream Cave’s bones were less successful. A scientific paper published in 2013 stated that ‘this skeleton has unfortunately long since disappeared’. My luck changed dramatically following a chance conversation with Wirksworth resident Barry Joyce MBE, a fount of knowledge on architectural history and, as it turned out, much more besides. He had tracked the bones down to the Oxford Museum of Natural History. Without delay, I contacted the Palaeontology Collections Manager, Dr Hilary Ketchum, and arranged an appointment to visit the skeleton, which was not on public display.

A vertebra of the dream cave woolly rhino being 3-D scanned at the Oxford Museum of Natural HistoryA vertebra of the dream cave woolly rhino being 3-D scanned at the Oxford Museum of Natural History

An internet search then led me to a paper by Donald McFarlane from Claremont Colleges, USA, and his colleagues. The article, published in 2016, was the first to have described the Dream Cave bones in any detail since shortly after their discovery and revealed, through radiocarbon dating, that they are around 43,000 years old. This paper, in turn, led me to a book entitled Reliquiae Diluvianae; or observations of organic remains contained in caves, fissures, and diluvial gravel, and on other geological phenomena, attesting to the action of an universal deluge written by William Buckland in 1823. On obtaining a facsimile copy, I was excited to see that it contained a six-page-long section entitled ‘Dream Cave, near Wirksworth’.

Buckland (1784-1856) was the first Professor of Geology at the University of Oxford and had a profound influence on the development of the discipline. In his book, Buckland recounts that ‘on being informed of this discovery, through the kindness of my friend Rev. D. Stacy, I set off immediately for Derbyshire.’ Upon his arrival at the Dream Cave in January 1823, he was to find that the majority of the rhinoceros bones had already been extracted, under the direction of the land owner, Philip Gell of Hopton Hall. Buckland noted that the rhinoceros skeleton was almost complete and the bones were in a ‘state of high preservation’, although the central part of the skull was broken, probably as a result of ‘the pickaxes of the miners’. In addition to the rhinoceros remains, Buckland recorded ‘some teeth and bones of a horse’, ‘many entire bones from the legs of a large ox’ (which was later identified as either a steppe bison or aurochs) and ‘many bones of deer from at least four individuals’, together with fragments of antler (later identified as belonging to reindeer). ‘These valuable specimens,’ Buckland noted, ‘have, by the munificence of Mr Gell, been deposited in the Oxford Museum.’

On an unusually hot day in July, Alex and I finally embarked on our pilgrimage to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. We were met by Dr Hilary Ketchum, who guided us through a large oak door to a part of the museum normally hidden from public view. A real treat awaited us: laid out on a very large lab bench, occupying the greater part of Hilary’s office, were the skeletal remains of the Dream Cave woolly rhino. I found it hard to contain my excitement at finally meeting the beast in the flesh, or at least in the bone. My first thought was that the relatively narrow Dream Cave must have been chock-a-block with bones as the miners removed the infill. Hard at work in the same room were a placement student and an intern: Kei Ikeda was cataloguing a collection of animal remains from other caves, while Ben Parker was using a hand-held 3-D scanner to scan each of the Dream Cave rhino’s bones. By doing so, it will be possible to create an articulated virtual 3-D model of the skeleton and even produce 3-D prints of the bones.

Neatly written in ink on many of the specimens was: ‘Dream Cave Wirksworth’. These labels were probably written, Hilary informed us, by Buckland’s wife, Mary. She was an accomplished illustrator and fellow fossil collector and the couple often worked as a team. Lying on the table next to the bones was another treat: an original copy of Buckland’s Reliquiae Diluvianae.

Dr Hilary Ketchum and the author examining the skeleton of the Dream cave woolly rhinoceros at the Oxford University Museum of Natural HistoryDr Hilary Ketchum and the author examining the skeleton of the Dream cave woolly rhinoceros at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

The importance of the Dream Cave woolly rhino is that so much of the skeleton has survived. In the UK, woolly rhino remains have been found in various other sites, such as the caves at Creswell Crags, near Worksop. However, most have been partly eaten by cave hyenas, which brings us back to William Buckland. He was the first person to deduce that hyenas once made their dens in caves in Britain. Why the Dream Cave woolly rhino escaped the attention of these scavengers is most likely due to the steep fissure leading down to the entrance – the same fissure that probably acted as a pitfall trap for the unfortunate rhino.

The Dream Cave woolly rhino skeleton is not the only one to have escaped the ravages of hyenas, however. In Staffordshire in 2002, for example, a partial skeleton of the species was uncovered in a sand and gravel quarry. We know something of the appearance of the woolly rhino from well-preserved remains found in the permafrost of Siberia and a paraffin-wax mine in the Ukraine (the famous Starunia rhinoceros). Cave paintings in France, such as those discovered in 1994 in Chauvet Cave, Ardèche, are also a valuable source of information. It was the second largest land animal in Britain during the ice ages (the largest being the woolly mammoth) and was about the size of a modern African white rhinoceros, although its legs were relatively short, the body was relatively long and it was clothed in dense fur. The first of its two horns was the longest (up to 1.4m long) and was flattened from side to side. It might have been used to scrape frost from the vegetation. Pollen analysis from the stomach and teeth of frozen woolly rhinos suggests that they fed mainly on the grasses and herbs that dominated the largely treeless landscape at the time.

The association of the Dream Cave and its bones with William Buckland means that they are not only of pre-historic significance, but also of considerable historic significance, yet they have rarely been written about. The cave itself does not currently have protected status. The Dream Cave of Wirksworth and its woolly rhino are of international importance and their story deserves to be celebrated.

You can find out more about the Dream Cave and its inhabitants at the Wirksworth Heritage Centre, which moved to new premises on St John’s Street following a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The new café and shop (where you can buy your own woolly rhino) opened last autumn and the exciting new heritage galleries are set to open at the beginning of 2019.

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