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. 

Dive Deeper:

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. Required fields are marked *

Cave

Karen van den Oever Continues to Push the Depth at Bushmansgat: Her New Record—246m

Karen van den Oever recently broke her own world cave diving depth record by a little more than 10m/33 ft at Bushmansgat cave in South Africa. The S.African cave diver conducted the 8 hour 14 min high-altitude dive on open circuit scuba, breathing trimix 4/90 bottom mix, and suffered mild High Pressure Nervous Syndrome (HPNS). Here former world depth record holder, Nuno Gomes who was van den Oever’s cave instructor, offers the details of her record setting dive along with a short history of the women’s depth records.

Published

on

By

By Nuno Gomes. Images courtesy of Karen van den Ever.

Karen van den Oever and her husband Francois Bain

Karen van den Oever, from Johannesburg, South Africa, has dived to a depth of 246.65 m/809 ft. This is equivalent to a dive to a depth of 296 m/971 ft when corrected for an altitude of 1550 m/5,085 ft above sea level. The dive was conducted on October 27, 2022, in Bushmansgat cave, South Africa, and is a new women’s world record cave dive. Karen bettered her own previous world record to a depth of 236.04m/770 ft  (283 m/924 ft correcting for altitude), also accomplished at Bushmansgat cave in 2021.

I actually felt really good after the dive, a little tired but overall, quite good. I felt much better after this dive than the previous one. I’m happy that the dive went well, just thinking about what comes next. I have no definite plans going forward, we are looking into diving some of the caves in Namibia and also exploring some of the caves not yet dived in Zambia but no concrete plans yet.”—Karen van den Oever

Karen and Theo van Eeden, with the signed tag.

Women have been making record deep dives for quite some time. Back in 1981, one of the first deep diving records was made by Sheck Exley’s wife, Mary Ellen Eckhoff (USA). She used a dive propulsion vehicle (DPV) to travel into Wakulla Springs cave, as well as staged tanks for decompression purposes. Mary Ellen dived on open circuit, together with Paul DeLoach and John Zumrick, and they reached a distance of 363 m/1192 ft and a depth of 80 m/260 ft, which was a major dive at the time.

In 1996, Dr. Ann Kristovich (USA), a friend of Jim Bowden, considerably extended the record, reaching a depth of 167 m/548 ft on open circuit at Zacaton cave, Mexico. Ann’s world record dive would remain in place for a long time.

It was not until the year 2000 that another woman, Claudia Serpierri (Italy), would beat the previous record, but this time in the sea (Mediterranean Sea). Claudia would reach a depth of 211 m/692 ft on open circuit, diving from a support ship. This dive remains the deepest sea dive by a woman to date.

Toward the end of 2001, Verna van Schaik (South Africa), was ready to challenge the women’s record. First, she did her deepest dive by reaching a depth of  186 m/610 ft  (223 m/732 ft correcting for altitude), on open circuit, at Bushmansgat cave in South Africa. This was not enough for her, and during her next expedition on October 25, 2004, Verna would go back to Bushmansgat cave to become the first South African woman to get her name in the Guinness Book of World Records by reaching a depth of  221 m/725 ft  (265 m/870 ft altitude corrected), on open circuit. Her deep support diver was the late Dave Shaw (Australia), on closed circuit, who died of respiratory insufficiency at a sub-250 m dive at Bushmansgat in 2005.

View of the surface pool of Boesmansgat cave.

Following Verna van Schaik’s dive at Bushmansgat cave, two women divers died trying to break her record, as follows: 

In May 2010, French diver Brigitte Lenoir, died in Dahab, Egypt during a dive in the Red Sea. The accident took place at 147 m/482 ft while ascending from a 200 m/656 ft, on closed circuit. Her body was recovered with an ROV. 

In September 2017, Bulgarian technical diving instructor trainer, Teodora Balabanova, died attempting a dive to 231 m/754 ft, on open circuit, while her husband, Mihail Balabanov, suffered from decompression sickness. 

Karen van den Oever is a science graduate from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she currently resides. Like Verna van Schaik, who now resides in New Zealand, she is a CMAS diving instructor, and also a former member of the University of the Witwatersrand Underwater Club. 

Her original cave, trimix and blending training was with me. I also trained her husband Francois Bain. 

Unstoppable Karen van den Oever

Karen had previously dived to 201 m/660 ft (241 m/792 ft altitude corrected) on open circuit in Bushmansgat cave in South Africa’s Northern Cape province on February 27, 2020. That dive’s total dive time was 7 hours and 21 minutes. On March 26, 2021, Karen dove to 236.04 m/770 ft (283 m/924 ft), on open circuit, at Bushmansgat cave, using a bottom gas of trimix 6/85. The total dive time was 7 hours and 18 minutes. That dive is the current deep diving Guinness World Record (women).

Karen’s new world record dive, done on October 27, 2022, was made to a depth of 246.65 m/809 ft (296 m/971 ft), in Bushmansgat cave. The dive was done on open circuit, using a bottom gas of trimix 4/90, and with a total dive time of 8 hours and 14 minutes. The dive would not have been possible without a large team of support divers. 

Karen’s dive computer. Actual depth from rope measurements by independent witnesses was 246.56m/809 ft.

Peter Reid was at 209 m/686 ft (251 m/823 ft); this was his personal deepest dive on closed circuit, and his total dive time was 6 hours and 20 minutes. Don Hauman did deep support at 110 m/361 ft (132 m/433 ft). Her husband Francois provided shallow support and surface support, together with the other team members.

Karen’s support team.

Karen’s Total Narcotic Depth (TND) was 48.06 m/158 ft; the Equivalent Narcotic Depth (END) considering nitrogen only was 9.49 m/31.14 ft, and her maximum Partial Pressure of Oxygen (PO2) was 1.03 Atm. Gradient factors: 40/75.

There were no serious incidents during the dive except that Karen suffered some mild High Pressure Nervous Syndrome (HPNS), which ultimately did not prevent her from going any deeper. Karen had some difficulties recovering the evidence tag from her maximum depth because of the tremors that she was experiencing as a result of the HPNS, but in the end she turned the dive mainly because she ran out of bottom time. 

Dive Deeper

InDEPTH: South African Cave Diver Karen van den Oever Sets New Women’s Deep Cave Diving Record

InDEPTH: Diving Beyond 250 Meters: The Deepest Cave Dives Today Compared to the Nineties

InDEPTH: Extending The Envelope Revisited: The 30 Deepest Tech Shipwreck Dives

InDEPTH: Opinion: Don’t Break That Record

InDEPTH: Fact or Fiction? Revisiting Guinness World Record Deepest Scuba Dive


Nuno Gomes is a professional civil engineer, a CMAS technical diving instructor and a commercial diver. He was born in Lisbon, but his family relocated to South Africa during his youth. He now lives permanently in New York with his family. He has dived all over the world.

He used SCUBA (open circuit) to dive to a depth of 321.81 meters (1,056 feet), inclusive of rope stretch, in the Red Sea off the coast of Egypt near Dahab, in June 2005. The total dive time was 12 hours and 20 minutes. The descent took 14 minutes with two minutes spent at the bottom.

He also used SCUBA (open circuit) to dive to 282.6 meters (927 feet) in the Bushmansgat cave, in South Africa, in 1996. The cave is located at an altitude of 1,550 meters (5,086 feet) above sea level, which resulted in a decompression schedule for an equivalent sea level dive to a depth of 339 meters (1,112 feet) in order to prevent decompression sickness. The total dive time was 12 hours and 15 minutes with four minutes spent at the bottom of the cave.

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