Monday, 8 July 2013

royston cave

current C18th entrance

In 1742, Royston workmen digging a posthole for a bench in the Buttermarket hit an unexpected snag when their spades struck stone. Enlarging the hole they discovered a millstone which they removed, only to find that it covered the shaft of a deep cave. The town is built on a layer of chalk, exploited in the past for clunch for building a soft stone easily carved but poor for external work, but it was obviously not a quarry for cut stone, and the rumour of buried treasure cleared the bottle shaped cavern of masses of rubbish, including any archaeological remains. When the bottom was reached, almost eight metres down, the lower walls were found to be carved with religious reliefs and graffiti, but no treasure other than the odd bone, a broken cup and an unmarked fragment of brass, none of which were kept. In 1790 a local builder dug an easier entrance, and opened the cave to the public, since then the curious and the credulous have never ceased their interest, and the internet has only made things worse. 

  looking up to the original entrance on the left
The usual suspects have all appeared, from little green men to stone age earth mother worshippers; well out in front at present seem to be Freemasons and Templars, all with the general presupposition that the carvings have a purpose. From their imagery, they date from about 1400-1550, with the saints Catherine, Christopher and Lawrence definately shown along with several calvaries with John and Mary beneath Christ on the cross. There is a figure with a sword, seemingly marked with a small cross, who could be St.George, but with no dragon to clinch the matter. There is what looks to be an Easter sepulchre scene, with what may be an angel seated on the end of the tomb. There are rows of figures, differing in number from 15 to 9, which have been claimed as the twelve disciples. All of these are normal images that would have been known to everyone in the period in question.
the supposed sheela-na-gig
angel at the tomb, st.christopher, and 15 figures
        Another figure has been seen as a Sheela-na-gig, but does not point to her genitals in the way that these mid C12th warnings against sin do; some such carvings are later than the C12th, but what would be the use of such a warning where hardly anyone would see it? I'm not even going to discuss such self evident tosh as carvings claimed to be of specific kings or queens, or people being burnt at the stake, or people wearing space helmets or having floating crowns and heretics' hats; some people will believe anything. The simplest most practical solutions are generally right, life isn't that complicated and people are lazy.
It must not be forgotten where these carvings are; at the bottom of a dimly lit damp hole in the ground that often flooded. Any official chapel or shrine would have had to have better access, easily dug. Several other holes have been found cut as cellars, and this may have been used in the C13th to store dairy produce for the Buttermarket above. It's not a neolithic flint mine as there are no flints; more could be picked up in the road outside. Footholds were found cut into the side of the original entrance shaft which came into the neck of the bottle shaped cave. A line runs around the cave about half way up, with a row of cupboard sized holes cut about two foot above; this line probably marks the original depth of the cellar, with handy cupboards within its walls. When the cave was cut to its current depth, it may have been because they wanted it to be difficult to get out of; you don't need a hole this deep for a chapel, but you would for prisoners. In fact it's too deep for a practical wooden ladder, and until the current shaft was dug entry was by rope. It has been suggested that a framework of posts rose from the floor to hold another floor up halfway up, but the easiest way to build this would have been to cut joist holes in the walls, and there are none. The Templars were gone by the 1400s; whatever people say nowadays about secret societies the Templars were more like a Christian Al -qaeda, and were effectively disbanded in 1312; but boys like dressing up and claiming that they know special secrets, so modern Freemasons and Templars claim a link, even over a 400 year gap, that has no reality whatsoever. Why anyone thinks that a load of aged ex-knights would want to worship in a damp hole under a busy market place is beyond me. The Templars were bigotted violent men, but not necessarily idiots too. 

These carvings are no great work of art, many are only token figures or overlap each other. Some are little more than scratchings, and many look like prisoners' carvings in the Tower of London. It seems most likely that this is what they are; they only go up as high as you can reach, and are mostly to be found on the area of the north side of the cave where natural light from the lighting shaft made such carving possible. Anyone other than a prisoner doing such a thing would have used a candle, in which case the entire bottom of the cave and even higher would have been decorated.

christ showing wounds ?
So whilst these images are interesting, and some difficult to pin down, having been damaged or never completed, there's nothing magical about this place. Religious imagery was the only type known in the niddle ages, and even farmhouses were painted with such images. What is missing is as interesting as what is carved; why no angels or heraldry, which are everywhere else in abundance ? There are no early C16th images such as the five wounds, or objects from the passion. 

All in all, I think that the date must be in the C15th, and I'd have thought that these were carvings done by prisoners, whether heretics or plain thieves, were it not for the discovery of microscopic fragments of pigment by English Heritage backing up earlier claims that the figures were originally painted. This being the case, it now looks more likely that this must be a pit cut originally for powdered chalk for plastering, perhaps for the mid C12th  monastery, being reused in the C15th by an anchorite, later forgotten, maybe with a period of storage in between. 
It's a lot of "maybe" this and "possibly" that, but this is a case where speculation is almost all that we have, and where keeping it within the bounds of the evidence is one of our most difficult tasks.

More photos can be found at

1 comment:

  1. Chalk was mined locally. The harder chalk known locally as clunch was used I n buildings on its own. I have a block of clinch 2 feet by 18 inches by 9 inches from the site of Bassingbourn castle. I ploughed it up.

    Softer chalk was ground and mixed with clay and straw and possibly dung to form clay bats - again a building material surviving in older local houses. The chalk mine is the most convincing explanation - I've never considered anything else since I went down in the 1960's.