Connect with us

Cave

Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Wookey Bones

British Cave Diving Group (CDG) training officer Michael Thomas reports on his find at Wookey Hole—he and his team including his son Robert uncovered a mass of human bones (800 BCE-400 ACE) following the October 2020 flood. It wasn’t his first time.

Published

on

by Michael Thomas 

Header photo of Chamber Three in Wookey Hole by Jason Brown, BARDO Creative

Predive click: “Dem Bones Dem Bones Dem Dry Bones,” by Delta Rhythm Boys

Romano-British archaeological human remains have recently been discovered in Wookey Hole Cave. The remains could be dated to anywhere between the Iron Age (800 BCE) and the Roman Empire (400 ACE). Wookey Hole Cave is situated on the southern flank of the limestone Mendip Hills in Somerset, UK, close to the city of Wells. The cave formation is typical for the region; British cave formation usually consists of streams entering dry caves at the top of a hill—such as Swildonʼs Hole—which reappear in the larger Resurgence cave and join River axe, a tributary of the Bristol Channel.

Humans have interacted with Wookey Hole Cave for centuries. According to early 1900s archaeological excavations, humans occupied the cave from the Iron Age into the Roman occupation period. While cave divers made their first tentative penetrations into the subterranean kingdom of Wookey Hole in 1935 using standard dress diving equipment, they had no idea that the cave was a treasure trove in disguise. A 1946 training dive unearthed three human skulls, several skeletal bones, and a nearly intact Romano-British Pot. 

Since these first artifacts were discovered just upstream of chamber one and the dry cave formation known as the Witch of Wookey, explorers realized that the rest of the system was probably hiding some gems. For the following decade, further diving operations tackled chamber three and into the Resurgence Cave, uncovering even more remains and artifacts. By 1956, explorers had documented eighteen human skulls, a variety of other bones, pottery, and Roman coins.

The divers’ discoveries during this period resulted in great speculation that the human remains found had been sacrificed to the Witch of Wookey! Archaeologists pointed out that if logic prevailed, many skulls were found upstream of the Witch, and were unlikely to have rolled upstream against the flow of the underground River Axe. 

Some bones were located in the sediment silt banks of dry chamber four, prompting archaeologists to propose that the chamber may have been used as a burial site. To further explore this hypothesis, the University of Bristol Speleological Society conducted extensive archaeological work in chamber four between 1973 and 1974 and found significant evidence to support this theory.

The array of bones discovered by Michael Thomas and team. See table below. Photo by Michael Thomas.

The fourth chamber was—in the mid-1700s—the furthest cave area that humans had discovered. This was the case until the middle of the 18th century, when workers from a nearby paper mill built a dam across the mouth of the cave in order to provide a head of water to drive the mill’s machinery. The dam raised water levels by around 1.75 m/5.7 ft and sealed off chamber four, except when the sluice gate was opened, draining the dam, or when it was entered by divers.

Divers entering the Wookey Resurgence on a rare day with good visibility. Photo by Michael Thomas

Modern Day Discoveries

In 1993, when I was a trainee cave diver, Wookey Hole revealed another one of its secrets. While exiting the cave via the Resurgence (spring) after a training dive, my instructor, Robin Brown, spotted the top of a human skull exposed from the silt banks on the cave floor. The skull was recovered at the request of the Wookey Hole cave management team, preserved, and placed in the park’s Cave Museum, where it remains to this day. I was fascinated with the find and the history. 

I learned that, after heavy flooding in the cave, the sediment and silt banks shift before slowly moving back into their normal positions over time once the typical flow is restored. Significant flood events are infrequent, so divers don’t usually have a high probability of finding artifacts and remains. In 2019, while on a training dive with my son, Robert Thomas, we were pleased to find an intact Roman pot just downstream of chamber three. At the park’s request, we removed the pot, and it was eventually dated to the third or fourth century ACE. 

Skull fragment. Photo by Michael Thomas.

This find also resides in the museum. Since 2019, as a result of our find, we have kept an eye open for items of archaeological interest while diving this section of cave. We didn’t find anything of significance until the middle of the Covid pandemic, when on October 4, 2020, a major flood event impacted Wookey Hole cave and the surrounding area. Increase in water levels was record-breaking, at 1.4 m/4.6 ft above average, washing away parts of the river banks both inside and outside the cave. 

Once conditions had calmed down, Chris Binding, Caving Advisor to Wookey Hole Caves as well as Wild Wookey—the award winning caving program filmed at the park—took a walk underground to survey the damage. Upon reaching chamber three, Chris found a human bone on the river bank. Realising that the underwater section of the cave may have changed significantly, Chris asked Robert and me to dive and inspect for any human remains that may have been uncovered. 

After the flood, it took several weeks for the cave to be diveable and in a visible condition but, as winter took hold and cold weather brought drier, colder conditions (and a higher number of Covid cases!), we began diving on behalf of Wookey Hole Cave. The first dive was a confusing mess of buried line and damaged line belays, debris washed into the underwater sections of the cave, and—as we suspected—massive changes in the sediment and silt banks. Upon closer inspection, we started to see many bones under a fine layer of silt or sticking out from the sediment banks. We duly reported our findings and, with agreement from the park, we planned on collecting as many bones as we could, in order to save them from damage—and possible loss—as the silt banks settled back into place over time. 

Thomas sporting the Kiss Sidewinder rebreather. Photo by Paige Swan

Over the years, all of these remains have washed out of the original burial ground in chamber four, and have become completely displaced from their original orientation. On our next dive we had some help from Charlie Read Henry, who diligently removed as much debris and washed-in rubbish from the work area underwater as possible. As a result of his work, we had higher visibility at the site, we could perform line and line belay repair, and we were able to devise a system for collecting and transporting bones out of the cave. 

Over the next three dives—which were all around ninety minutes to two hours long, with Robert and me on CCR, joined by Craig Eley on open circuit—we retrieved a significant quantity of human bones. Some were just lying in the silt, while others required very careful excavation to dislodge them from the sediment banks. Upon surfacing, we surrendered the bones (stored in cave water while awaiting archaeological inspection) to Chris. Throughout these dives, we collected every bone that was visible to us, but the normal winter storms and higher water flow temporarily stopped the project.



Once conditions improved again, our aim was to re-check all of the areas where we had previously recovered bones, just to make sure we’d done a thorough job. The first area heading upstream was just inside the Resurgence at the bottom of the 3 m/10 ft deep entrance slope. Robert headed upstream to check out chamber three. Hanging motionless in the passage looking down at the area, I had just about decided nothing was there when a small, oval mark in the sediment among the rocks caught my attention. Waving the silt and some sediment away, I realised what I was looking at: the  eye sockets on a human skull. 

After 45 minutes of very carefully moving the sediment and rocks away from the skull, it was released from the bank. Robert had rejoined me by this point, and he very carefully lifted the skull and swam it out of the cave for delivery. It’s surprising just how heavy an intact human skull actually is. I also find working with skulls to be a thoughtful time—handling one of the most significant parts of another human being. I had to wonder who they were, what their life was like, and even how they died. Working with human skulls is humbling and invokes the utmost respect.

Human skull fragment between 800-400 BCE. Photo by Michael Thomas.

Chris and I decided to do “Just one more dive.” This time, diving solo, I checked over the Kiss Sidewinder CCR and ran through a pre-dive checklist with my surface support (Thanks Chris!). I set off into the cave again, passing and perusing all of the work sites, finding nothing. Until, on the way out and just upstream from the Witch of Wookey, I noticed a narrow undercut in the passage between large boulders around 2 m/6.6 ft from the dive line. While I wasn’t interested in finding more passages, I thought it was possible that washed-up skeletal bones could have collected there. Wriggling in between the boulders and the wall, I didn’t find much until I looked at a section of wall made up of rocks and sediment at the back of the undercut. 

There I saw a smooth, dome-shaped object amongst the debris. It looked like the top of another intact skull. But, I could only squeeze in far enough to touch it with the fingers on my left hand. I started moving some larger boulders out of the way in order to get in a bit further and work one handed. After nearly an hour of working in zero visibility with one hand, the skull was free and on its way out of the cave. When I surfaced, Chris asked, “How was the dive? Did you find anything?” Slowly, and with great care, I handed over the skull.

It’s extremely rewarding to be involved in project work diving, especially when we can learn from the remains found and educate the public via the museum along the way. After we surfaced with the bones, we had to transport them to a safe place. A large tub was filled with water from the cave, so the bones could be stored in as close to the same environment as possible. This was then taken down to the nearby Wookey buildings and stored in a cool dark office, much to the amusement of the cave staff! Whilst we, the divers, entertained ourselves searching out the bones, Christopher Binding contacted Marta Kobylinska (the official osteologist) and arranged a meeting and work session so that she could identify exactly what we had found. The dead do tell tales.

Following Marta’s archaeological identification, the bone collection was put on display in the revamped Wookey Hole Cave Museum on May 17, 2021. 

Additional Resources:

Trailer for documentary film ‘Wookey by Gavin Newman

Wild Wookey—Adventure Caving at Wookey Hole

InDepth: Meet the British Underground

From GUE’s membership magazine QUEST: “British Cave Diving: Wookey Hole and The Cave Diving Group” by Duncan Price


Michael Thomas’s diving career is now in its 33rd consecutive year, from starting out as an open water diver then a trainee cave diver to becoming the Training Officer of the British Cave Diving Group Somerset Section. He is also a Full Cave Instructor, Sidemount and Tech Instructor with TDI, active mod 3 CCR cave diver, and on the British cave rescue call out list as a diver.  He is heavily involved in U.K. diving projects and training, plus overseas diving and caving. Diving is life or is life diving? 

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Cave

The Taming of the Slough: P3 Edition

Explorer Steve Lambert reports on the latest exploration push at Peacock 3, aka P3, in Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park, enabled by long range scooters, CHO2ptima rebreathers, electric heat, and a deco habitat with scrubber. Having teamed up with Karst Underwater Research (KUR), Lambert and friends have now pushed P3 penetration to 2286 m/7500 ft, at depths to 61m/200 ft with run times in excess of 5-6 hours. Scoop that booty!

Published

on

By

By Steve Lambert. Header image: P3 deco habitat at 6m/20 ft by Fan Ping. Images courtesy of Steve Lambert unless noted.

Peacock Springs in North-Central Florida is almost synonymous with cave diving. Since the dawn of the sport, divers have been exploring the beautiful blue sinks that now make up Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park. Many of the household names in cave diving took part in the exploration of the system in the 60s and 70s, and even more well-known names did the full survey in the 90s. The last significant exploration was done in 2010, when Agnes Milowka and James Toland connected the system with Baptizing springs, adding over 3,084 m/10,000 ft to the total length of the system. 

My first experience with Peacock 3 (P3) was during my full cave course with Reggie Ross, the former training director for the NSS-CDS. I stood near the system map tucked in the corner of the Peacock 1 (P1) parking lot, shivering in my 5 mm wetsuit and kicking myself for being too cheap to fork over the money for a drysuit while listening to Reggie explain what to pay attention to while diving a siphon. I vividly remember the deep tunnel sticking out to me, thinking it didn’t belong with the rest of the park. It was strange to me that a system so big would have such a drastic and seemingly random change in depth. Of course, at that time, I didn’t have a “feel” for what caves do. I just thought it was strange. 

Several years later, in May of 2019, Paul Heinerth and I decided to go for a dive past the restriction at the bottom of Hendly’s Castle. Paul said he hadn’t been back there in years, and it sounded like an intriguing dive to me. Coincidentally, that morning we ran into James Toland while gearing up in the parking lot. He had the end of the line in the deep section and shared with us how to navigate through the restriction and what to expect in the passage below. When I curiously asked him why he turned when he did, he said he wasn’t able to see because of how silty the area was. 

Using Sidewinder rebreathers and trimix, Paul and I swam down to the bottom of Hendly’s Castle and, thanks to James, we were able to find our way through the restriction and into the lower section. The passage was stunning. Incredible Goethite formations blanketed the ceiling, like nothing I had ever seen. Intensified by the subtle narcosis overtaking me, I was awestruck at the unique features of the passage. We swam at an enjoyable pace, assisted by the slight siphon. I was floating along the line with Paul just behind me, soaking up every second of the dive, when all of a sudden I was greeted by a “Saber” arrow at the end of the line. 

I was in disbelief that we had reached such a remote place so easily and unintentionally. Suddenly, James’s words stuck out to me—“because I couldn’t see.” I was hovering there, and I could see. A decompression penalty was piling up and I knew I couldn’t stay long, but I could not pass up the opportunity. I scrambled to tie in my safety reel and set off. James had tied off at what seemed like the end of the passage with the right side tapering off into mud, but the left side looked promising. The flow had to be going somewhere. 

I headed off toward the left where there was a breakdown pile. The silt I knocked up seemed to be sucked into it. I could tell that was where the water was going. As the adrenaline of seeing something new coursed through my veins, I decided to “modify” a few things and see what was going on. I shoved a few pieces of breakdown to the side, stirring up clouds of fine clay silt but opening up a space just big enough to fit my head and shoulders into. I saw black. A hill was sloping upward and above it was only darkness. I wiggled forward, but the scrubber cans of my sidewinder prevented me from getting any further. The silt was beginning to obstruct my view, and I watched as the promise of finding something new was overtaken by a gray cloud of silt. 

Suddenly fear started to creep into my mind—that little voice that says, “think about how far you are from home, and now you are in zero vis in a passage you aren’t familiar with.” Excitement morphed into fear, and I quickly spooled up my safety back to the main line, in a hurry to be back to where I could see Paul. We swam back to the cavern and swam in circles to stay warm as we did our deco. The dive was 5 hours and 45 minutes. I finished cold and tired, but excited for the potential of what might lie beyond the breakdown. 

My Return to P3

During the two years before I returned to P3, that darkness was always in my head. I tried getting several buddies to come with me to take a second look at the area, but my story wasn’t convincing enough to get lazy divers to “swim like a peasant” in a place where DPVs are not allowed. During these two years an important piece of this story was born, Dive Rite created the chest mounted CHO2ptima rebreather. 

 Jefferson Joel Marchand decompressing in comfort. Notice the scrubber canister.

In April of 2021 I was finally able to find a diver who feared neither deco nor swimming; Zeb Lily was in town and I conned him into going with me. Not sure if I had embellished my own memory in the past two years, I anxiously swam back to the breakdown choke. I could see the black hole where I had “adjusted” several large rocks on the previous dive. I persuaded a few more pieces of breakdown to identify as positions to the right and left of their natural state, and with my CHO2ptima, I was able to squeeze through. While in the breakdown, I could feel the flow intensifying and continued to wiggle forward, trying my best to stay ahead of the silt cloud I was creating. At the same time I was memorizing the shape of the passage so I would not panic while trying to find my way back through the restriction in bad visibility. 

The moment I popped out into an absolutely massive room was surreal. Visibility was markedly better than in the passage, and the temperature was noticeably warmer. Even with the improved visibility, from right to left my light did nothing to penetrate the darkness, and I was following an upward slope into the unknown. It was one of those rare moments when exploration goes exactly how you want it to. Instead of pinching off in some sort of death trap, the cave went onward. I savored the moment and did my best to find the way on, but the passage was so massive I was disoriented. I swam in a zig zag until my reel ran out of line, and tied off at 41 m/135 ft on the left wall of what seemed like a massive debris cone. 

I surveyed out and Zeb and I exited, ecstatic that we had found something new in such a thoroughly explored system. Once again I thought of what James Toland had said when he and Milowka connected Baptizing to Peacock back in 2010. “Many divers from the Florida cave diving community are focusing on exploration around the world, but I think it’s important to focus on exploration in our own backyard – a little something I like to call tailgate diving,” he said. “There is still a lot of cave here waiting to be pushed, and with the evolution of dive gear and divers alike comes the ability to do deeper and longer dives. This opens up new and exciting opportunities that were overlooked or never considered in the past.”

More Cave To Go

After Zeb and I discovered that the cave continued, I ramped up my efforts to recruit buddies for exploration at P3. On the next dive, we continued from where I had tied off at the top of the 41 m/135 ft mound and continued downward, back to 55 m/180 ft, where a spring vent was coming out of the wall. I remembered having heard people speculate that Lower Orange Grove was tied to P3, and was very excited. The entrance was too small to go into without advanced planning, so we tied off and surveyed out from there, but the springing passage certainly had our attention. 

On the way out of the massive room, while going back through the breakdown restriction, I noticed that the flow from the newly discovered room and the flow form the previous EOL was combining, and going off in a different direction through the breakdown. I quickly grabbed my reel, and proceeded to empty it into the siphoning passage. I turned the dive with an empty reel and safety spool, extremely excited that we had located the continuation of the siphon, and ended in a large passage. The next dive was going to be good.

The next dive was one of the best I’ve ever had. Adam Hughes and I arrived as the gate to the park opened, and we pushed off shortly after. Worried about what kind of decompression obligation we might encounter, we swam along the 61 m/200 ft passage as fast as possible. Arriving at the end of the line in a borehole passage, we soaked up every moment, as it is a rarity in modern Florida cave diving. We slowed down to a relaxed pace and savored each foot of line that emptied off of our reels. We navigated through a large bedding plane and ended up in a springing passage. The visibility was perfect, but the passage seemed to get smaller and smaller. Eventually we had to tie off, realizing that the passage was probably an in feeder, and not the continuation of the siphon. We surveyed out and completed our decompression for a six and a half hour dive. 

We started our next dive beelining for the EOL. Right before the spring vent, we found where the siphon continued on. We tied in and once again slowed down to enjoy the exploration. The passage was big, and the flow was strong. In a few fleeting moments of perfection, line fell off the exploration reel effortlessly, as the siphon pulled us deeper into the earth. After 244 m/800 ft had disappeared, the passage once again seemed to pinch off. Following the flow seemed to take us to a hole in the ceiling, once again pinched off by breakdown. 

Photo courtesy of Fan Ping.

We pushed and pulled, and rocks began to drop down on our heads. The hole was about 0.6m/2 ft wide, and after a decent workout, we had a mound of large rocks under the hole. I poked my head up and could fit my shoulders through, but because of our “modifications” the visibility was reduced to almost zero. I felt with my hands, and it seemed like once again we had broken into a room, and I was excited to come back to confirm our findings. The increasing flow of the siphon made the journey back to the cavern quite difficult, and I began to realize that at around 1,372 m/4,500 ft of penetration at 55-61 m/180-200 ft of depth, we had come close to the limit of what was possible on a swim dive. Our lungs burned from the hard work we were doing at depth, as well as the long exposure to high PO2. We were going to need help. 

A Little Help From My Friends

I had been talking to Brett Hemphill with Karst Underwater Research (KUR) about the new find, and after explaining our situation, we decided it was time to put the project under the KUR permit. The permit would allow us to continue the exploration and documentation of the system while utilizing more tools to increase our safety and efficiency. The permit would also allow us to stay in the park after hours, as the dives were getting to a length that did not allow us to complete them within the regular park hours. 

Having the backing of KUR, and the tools that come with it, we were able to make quick progress of the exploration. Jefferson Marchand was back in town from the Dominican Republic, and the two of us made the project our priority, diving every weekend we were able. While some dives ended with confusion, most of them ended with empty reels and smiles. 

The cave alternates between borehole passage and large dome rooms choked by breakdown. The passage is mostly in the 58 m/190 ft range, and the tops of the debris mounds in the rooms usually go to around 46 m/150 ft. Each time a room is encountered, divers have to wiggle through breakdown restrictions to get both in and out of the room, which makes the dive technically challenging, especially considering the amount of equipment required to be carried by the divers. 

The author’s dive profile. #Gabe says

There comes a point when a dive has such unique challenges that equipment doesn’t exist to meet them. Luckily, KUR has more than a decade and a half of experience with these kinds of problems, so Jefferson and I were able to draw on their experience to develop solutions and keep exploring. We bought a 1364 l/300 gallon intermediate bulk carrier (IBC) container and turned it into a habitat, which Brett Hemphill helped us to install in the cavern. 

With help from Andy Pitkin, Matt Vinzant, and Daniel Vickers, we built a habitat scrubber, which made the long decompressions much safer. It had the added benefit of allowing us to remove all of our equipment and relax while staying warm. In the habitat we could eat, drink, watch movies, and chat. We also created very large battery packs in case of a flood during the in-water portions of the deco and a two-way telephone system that allowed easy communication between divers and surface support. 

Dive Rite was a very big supporter of the project. Our equipment was built with the aid of their facilities, and in addition to sponsoring much of our gas, they helped with scooters, staged rebreathers, and regulators for safety bottles as well. It would not have been possible for us to acquire the massive amount of equipment necessary for the exploration without their help. 

“The current end of line is around 2,286 m/7,500 ft. At the peak of our efforts, we had over 20 safety bottles staged in the cave and the dives were running up to 12 hours—even with a relatively aggressive profile.”

Unfortunately, Jefferson had to return to the Dominican Republic, and things I had been putting off were catching up to me, so progress came to a temporary halt. We were also having trouble with our staged safety bottles in the back of the deep section corroding much quicker than expected. We lost gas due to corrosion in several bottles after only three months. 

During this pause, we have been formulating a plan to deal with the increasing demands of the dive. This summer of 2022 we are gathering a group of people who have the experience on sidemount rebreathers to do such a challenging dive, and who will commit to the project. We are also hoping to prepare a second habitat to put somewhere around Hendly’s Castle to further increase our safety margin. 

We will be making further attempts to locate the resurgence in the river and push from that end. As the crow flies, there is still almost 2438 m/8000 ft between our end of line and the river, and caves usually don’t go in straight lines. No matter what happens, it is going to be a massive undertaking and will require a full team of push divers and support divers to make the project a success. 

Just like in the 90s when Mark Long was the first person able to explore the system, because he was the first to have tanks big enough to give him the required gas for such an extreme dive, we were only able to continue exploration in this section because of the current diving technology including; long range scooters, removable chest-mount rebreathers, habitats and habitat scrubbers, dry suit heat, waterproof tablets for entertainment, and last but most certainly not least, reliable dive computers that can accommodate multiple gasses and adjustable algorithms was available to us. 

I shudder to think about how little cave might be left in Florida if Woody Jasper and the other incredible explorers who came before us, had access to the equipment we are using today. 

I shudder to think about how little cave might be left in Florida if Woody Jasper and the other incredible explorers who came before us, had access to the equipment we are using today. If all goes well, we will use the incredible tools we have access to today to push the cave until the connection to the river is confirmed.

Additional Resources:

Ezine Articles: The Taming Continues: The Peacock to Baptizing Connection by Agnes Milowka & James Toland

Cavesurvey.com: Peacock Springs

NSS-CDS bookstore: THE TAMING OF THE SLOUGH – HISTORY OF PEACOCK SPRING by Sheck Exley


Steve Lambert lives in North Florida where he works at Dive Rite and is actively involved in the exploration and survey of underwater caves with Karst Underwater Research. He frequently joins expeditions with Beyond the Sump and Hole Patrol. His hobbies include quitting when things get too hard, residential construction, and compiling Kpop playlists.


Enjoying InDEPTH? Consider buying us a coffee so we can continue to provide you with insanely great content!

Subscribe for free
Continue Reading

Thank You to Our Sponsors

Subscribe

Education, Conservation, and Exploration articles for the diving obsessed. Subscribe to our monthly blog and get our latest stories and content delivered to your inbox every Thursday.

Latest Features

Trending