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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.

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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? 

Cave

Andy Torbet: The Swiss Army Knife of the Diving Community

In this era of heightened stress, dive engineer and content producer, Carlos Lander thought it useful to speak to someone who manages prolonged stress in extreme situations. That man is Andy Torbet, a former British special forces officer, cave diver, freediver, rock climber, sky diver, BBC host and producer and DAN Europe Ambassador. Oh did I mention he’s Daniel Craig’s stunt double in the new 007 movie, “No Time to Die.” Here’s what Torbet advised.

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by Carlos Lander. Photos courtesy of Andy Torbet

The COVID-19 pandemic has created new stressful situations  that have raised our awareness of the impact of stress on our mental and physical health. I was, therefore, enthusiastic to talk with Andy Torbet, someone who has—in the past and present—successfully managed prolonged, extreme stress in survival situations.

In his former life, 45-year old Andy Torbet was a bomb disposal officer and maritime counter-terrorism agent for the British Army. When he made the leap to civilian life, he remained within the realm of extreme adventures, becoming one of the finest Briton underwater explorers; he’s a professional cave diver, skydiver, free diver, climber, TV presenter, and filmmaker. His most notable programs include BBC’s The One Show, Coast, Operation Iceberg, Operation Cloud Lab, Britain’s Ancient Capital, The People Remembered

He co-produced the children’s BBC series Beyond Bionic, which was adapted into a computer game:  “Beyond Bionic—Extreme Encounters.” Torbet’s first book, Extreme Adventures, was published in 2015, and he became a host on Fully Charged in April 2020. More recently, he can be seen in the new James Bond film, No Time to Die. He’s obviously a guy who excels in many fields, so he’s familiar with stress and has some ideas about how to cope with it.

Torbet’s prolific diving career memorably includes the Britannic expedition in 2016 for a BBC documentary. He was also involved in “The MV Shoal Fisher—The Mystery Shipwreck,” about a wrecked World War II merchant ship in the English Channel. Andy himself admits his solo exploration of The Cave of Skulls, Scotland’s deepest pot hole system, was “probably the most hardcore” of his adventures. That dive involved crawling through tight and flooded passages, getting stuck, and finally releasing his breath hold just enough to squeeze out of trouble. His book vividly details the harrowing dive and takes readers on a spine chilling adventure, as it did me.

When thinking about Torbet, a Swiss Army Knife comes to mind—an instrument designed to be useful in many situations. Another analogy might be Tony Stark without the Iron Man suit. Or, perhaps, a modern-day Sir David Attenborough. When presented with these options, he happily chose the knife comparison. Mr. Torbet has a compelling set of tools to call upon: He’s a loyal family man, has a sense of purpose, is resourceful and righteous, a teacher, and a risk management expert who can compartmentalize, communicate, and be playful. Oh, and he’s humble.

Torbet began his journey in the beautiful Scottish highlands. Born in 1976, he was an outdoor kid, climbing trees and playing in the lochs with his brother, who has joined him in many adventures over the years. At 20 having finished his university degree in zoology, Torbet joined the Army, inspired by  his brother who had enlisted when he was 16. Torbet also admitted that joining the military was a way to see the world—it appealed to his desire for adventure—and to “make some decent money.” According to Torbet:

“Anyone can have a desire for exploration, but desire won’t get you there; action will. That doesn’t mean being reckless. It means taking the time to build discipline and to acquire the skills and knowledge you need to do whatever you do safely, also balancing the risk with sometimes needing to say, ‘Fuck it, here I come!”

The Torbet Method for Managing Stress  

Mr. Torbet has three favorite sports: diving, skydiving, and “Esoteric Climbing” (where the bedrock is likely to be loose, fragile, and crumbling). Andy explained that, while climbing, he does not need to look down, because he knows how much distance he’s covered. “Even in this type of climbing, when I’m not or I don’t feel entirely in control, I don’t look down,” he said. “It won’t do any good.”  

Why? Sometimes we can’t change an external situation, and that shouldn’t affect our emotions. What is important is how we react and how we reframe it. As Torbet put it:

“What we choose to do and how we choose to act is what counts, and this is all within our power to influence. In fact, sometimes when injuries are crippling us, time is against us, the weather is beating us back, and our kit is failing. Our attitude—the mindset we hold as we walk through the world—is the only thing we can control.” 

Although Torbet has been in many military incursions, he prefers cave diving as an example of managing stress since, in his opinion, underwater caves are the most hazardous environments available to us. “[Underwater caves are] an alien world here on earth, and from a psychological point of view, very oppressive,” he explained. “It’s dark, isolated, cold, and claustrophobic. Therefore, we must deal with those realities long before we enter the cave.” 



There are a few things that Torbet believes we should do to manage stress. First, evaluate the “what if” scenarios familiar to the diving community. Second, gain and maintain proficiency in the skills needed to manage those situations. Third, have the proper equipment and make sure it has been tested. And last, we must be mindful of what we are doing at all times. He also posits that, in an emergency, having fewer choices is better than having many; it reduces the time needed to choose a plan of action and allows us to more easily draw on our training and preparation. Not all situations can be foreseen. As Torbet explained,

“Do not lose yourself in emotions. Be present. I could be a mile from the cave exit; it does not matter. My concern is with the moment.  I know that because I prepared myself, I have a proper plan for contingencies. Something random that I did not expect may occur, but I remain calm, focused on making my way out. I do not succumb to emotions, and I am focused because I prepared myself mentally and physically for this. You don’t save your life at that moment, you save your life in the days, months, and years before that.”

In this way cave diving is reduced to managing a sustainable level of pressure during prolonged periods of time, while maintaining concentration on techniques. 

A Team of One?

Solo diving is a reality of exploring caves in the U.K. Paths are often so narrow that sometimes divers need to crawl, and more than one person will not fit. In tight spots, you’re on your own to handle difficult situations. 

Torbet’s experiences have taught him that, even during team dives, sometimes you need to focus on yourself without distraction and without accepting responsibility for others; Andy experienced this in his Cave of Skulls explorations. Everyone needs to make their own decisions, trust their own gut feelings, and be vocal when things aren’t okay. 

In his case, the Army trained him to put fears aside and get on with the job at hand. Andy specifically wrote in his book that, in the armed forces,  the only option is to man up. When his teammates experienced difficulties during the Cave of Skulls dive, he decided to continue his adventure alone. [Ed. note: Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) does not sanction solo diving.]

“In situations like these—that not only require technical skills but also are potentially dangerous—it is easier to just look after yourself. But, in the vast majority of dives, you’re better off having a teammate. Being alone isn’t just less fun, but it also requires resilience that only a select few—and highly-trained—divers have.” 

After he reached the end of the cave, Andy felt a moment of quiet satisfaction and peace. But, of course, his adventuring didn’t stop there. Andy’s current project and focus? Becoming a stunt double. 

Stunt Doubles 

Managing stress as a stuntman requires individual concentration while your safety is in the hands of others. Torbet’s a bit uncomfortable placing responsibility for his safety in a crew, but he is learning to accept it. He said that he has a great deal of respect for this community, and it was a wonderful opportunity to work on a variety of films. “My last project, James Bond as 007 in No Time to Die, was an incredible experience.” I asked him if he could elaborate, but he said he was under a non-disclosure agreement and couldn’t say more.

Torbet is eager to keep doing these kinds of projects, and he explained that stunts in an action movie require a lot of rehearsal and coordination between different teams, performers, cameramen, and safety crews. It is all extremely streamlined, like a dance between crews. Any stunt person, whether in a blockbuster movie or a documentary, will report that planning is required in order to prevent life-threatening peril. Nothing is left to chance. For all these circumstances, preparedness is key (physically and mentally). Timing and self-confidence are paramount. And, like Torbet’s observation about diving, you save your life long before you start. 

Why does he love being part of the stunt community? 

“They are a real brotherhood, it’s a family atmosphere, and they look after each other. They are extremely motivated, talented, and self-disciplined people who want to get the most out of life. Although they are super adventurers, they also have the skills and bring their game up. On top of all that, everyone that I’ve met is a thoroughly decent human being.” 

A Perspective on life 

 Torbet is constantly in motion, always growing. He recently got his master’s degree in Archaeology. His plan is to write his doctoral dissertation on studying caves. His diverse interests and activities are always driven by passion. He teaches that adventure is personal and that even by walking on the path others have taken, it is still possible to own your journey, to fill it with new experiences and feelings.

“Everyone is different, and what works for me does not necessarily work for you,” Torbet advised. For him, compartmentalizing is a way of dealing with his life experiences. What happened in the armed forces stayed there, and he doesn’t share it with his family or mix it up with his other activities.

I think Torbet’s secret is focusing on the moment. Taking pleasure from his job at hand, filling his time with projects and family. Teaching his kids about the pleasure of nature and freediving when he has spare time. As he told me on more than one occasion, “Your happiness is dictated by the people you surround yourself with.”  

Additional Resources:

Fourth Element Wetnotes: My First Time-Andy Torbet

Read about Andy’s past adventures as well as his current projects at Andy TorbetProjects | Andy Torbet 

Amazon: Extreme Adventures by Andy Torbet

Rising: Meet The Man Who Dives 100m Deep Into Caves One Kilometre Underground

Dive Odyssey—A meditative journey into the depths of water and mind

Beyond Bionic Andy Tornet TOP 3: Andy Torbet from Beyond Bionic tells us his top 3, like his favourite foods, memorable moments and inspirational people!

Find Andy Torbet’s “close call” story in Close Calls by Stratis Kas.

I want to thank Andy for his openness and candor with me and the diving community. He was kind to me, letting me pick his brain. He is truly a gentleman. I really enjoyed our conversations. I hope we can drink a pint or two in an Irish pub in the future and go diving. 



Carlos Lander—I’m a father, a husband, and a diver. I’m a self-taught amateur archaeologist, programmer, and statistician. I think that the amateur has a different mindset than the professional, and that this mindset can provide an advantage in the field. I studied economics at university. My website is Dive Immersion.  You can sign up for my newsletter here.

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