Annual dig at Gibraltar's Gorham’s Cave

The annual expert exploration of Gorham’s Cave is well under way, but the access to the potential World Heritage Site is an arduous daily trek for the volunteers, as it was for the local media when they were invited to see what was happening down there. 

Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar [Credit: © NHM London]
No less than 350 steep and broken steps, with a rickety handrail, have to be negotiated, followed by about 100 metres across the rockiest beach imaginable – a ragged mix of boulders, smaller rocks, and fossilised sand, with no clear path through, which now cover the former Governor’s Beach, the rubble having been thrown there during tunnel excavations in the last thirty years 

Our Gibraltar Museum guide, Dr Geraldine Finlayson, told the half-heat-stricken press corps that we were lucky, as the volunteer archaeologists not only have to make the journey twice a day, but they also carry their food, water, equipment, and petrol for the generators down with them, and then lug sacks of samples back up. No wonder they opt to spend their lunch break down there in the shade of the cave’s massive entrance. In fact, all food is eaten outside to avoid contamination of the cave floor. 

The entrance to Gorham’s Cave is only visible from the sea, about halfway between Sandy Bay and Europa Point, but the vast opening that can be seen is not the actual Gorham’s Cave. That is a tiny chamber further in, not yet fully explored, which was discovered in 1907 by Captain Gorman, and, as far as can be determined, contains a significant amount of cave art from Neanderthal times, and might even lead into bigger chambers. 

Digging at the cave started in 1989, and then stopped for a few years; but nowadays every August sees a couple of teams of archaeological students and academics donating six weeks of their free time to continue the investigations into the cave and its rich history. The government of Gibraltar provides food and lodging, but otherwise the work is unpaid. 

Director of the Gibraltar Museum, Clive Finlayson, outlined what was going on and introduced the volunteers, which this year include James, a Gibraltarian student, who was working with Peter from Ireland who is studying at Cork University College, both carefully digging and measuring under the guidance of expert Josι Marνa Gutiιrrez, director of the Museum at Villamartνn (Cαdiz). They were working quite near the entrance, meticulously excavating pottery shards and crustacea, the position of every piece being precisely surveyed so that the dig could be reconstructed accurately in the laboratory later. 

Josι Marνa told us that his team were working on the most recent level of occupation, when it was a Phoenician shrine during the last 1,000 years BC. He said that Gorham’s was considered to be an important coastal navigation point, along with other Mediterranean caves. ‘All of the Mediterranean is represented here,’ he said; ‘Lebanon, Greece, Turkey, North Africa, Iberia, every part of the Mediterranean has left its traces in this cave.’ He said that this meant that Mediterranean commerce of the time could be studied with accuracy based on the information revealed by Gorham’s. 

Stone tools uncovered  in 2006 at Gorham's Cave in Gibraltar are thought to belong to Neanderthals living there around 28,000 years ago [Credit: Natural History Museum]
At the rear of the cave, excavations have gone a lot deeper. Richard Jennings, a New Zealander who works for Cork University College, and Paco Giles, retired Director of the Puerto Santa Marνa museum, head the larger team in this area. 

Richard explained that there are four levels under investigation. ‘There are some Phoenician and Carthaginian remains back here but they are scarce and tend to be found mainly at the front of the cave. The next layer down is Level 2, which is Neolithic and shows the cave was used by European farmers, who also knew how to make use of shellfish, and who had made their way to Gibraltar around 5,300 BC. 

‘Below that is Level 3, which shows the occupation during the Ice and Paleontological Ages. Salutrean People lived here up to 23,000 years ago and were adept at making flint tools.’ 

He showed us a stone barbecue in the cave, positioned beneath a natural chimney flue, which they had used to cook on. 

He then pointed out the deepest dig: ‘Level 4 is of greater significance,’ he said, ‘It is very distinctly Neanderthal and we are already turning up a lot of information about them. There is no Neanderthal site in Europe as young as this one, which indicates that this was indeed the last refuge of their race.’ 

He showed us that they too had a fireplace with remnants which proved that the Neanderthals also cooked their food, as far back as 28,000 years ago. 

He said that the food remains included hyena bones and teeth from small deer, which indicate that the climate was favourable even in those days. ‘Further north in Europe you tend to find remains of mammoths near the fire, definitely cold-weather animals; but here they had access to a large number of food sources in the milder climate.’ 

The cave has also been excavated by Oxford University, who simply sank a trial hole near the entrance. 

Samples from the cave are usually analysed by laboratories at Parson’s Lodge and in the Gibraltar Museum; but we were all very pleased that we weren’t carrying bags of samples with us as we jumped and wriggled across the brutal landscape of Governor’s Beach, and then the heart- and lung-challenging climb back up those steep 350 broken steps, in the full blaze of the midday sun. Amazingly, we all survived, except for Panorama’s photographer Grace Torres, who had a slight cut on her arm after slipping on the ruthlessly rugged rocks of the beach. 

Author: Brian McCann | Source: Panorama [August 17, 2012]

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