Castlepook cave was first excavated by Richard J Ussher and his team in 1904 to 1913 over the summer months of each year. Ussher's excavations produced an estimate of some 50,000+ animal bones and fragments, but only a small portion of these animal bones remain within the collections of the National Museum of Ireland. Ussher first named this cave Mammoth Cave, due to the first bone he found belonging to a Woolly Mammoth, and their numerous remains.
Dr Richard Jennings, Liverpool John Moores University, lead this 2022 excavation, funded by the Royal Irish Academy. Co-principal investigators, Helen Lewis and Ruth Carden, were present, along with a small team of experienced archaeologists - Phil Kenny, Clare Ryan, Louise Callahan and Keziah Warburton.
We worked with the members of the fantastic Cork Sepeleological Group (Speleological Union of Ireland), who put in all safety requirements, led us through the cave and provided assists throughout the cave for our team of archaeologists to transverse.
As we followed Ussher's footsteps some 109 years later, we discovered there is still some original cave sediment left in areas where he excavated. Our highly experienced small team of cave archaeologists took soil micromorphology samples to read their profiles and ascertain the finer layering of the cave sediment through time. We excavated four cuttings in different locations of Castlepook cave in May/June 2022 for two weeks.
Sediment samples were also taken from inside the cave at various locations for ancient sediment DNA analysis. Mapping of the internal portions of the cave is ongoing by a team from the Cork Speleological Group and a large section of the cave internal map will be completed by June 2023. The remaining mapping shall be completed thereafter.
Surface bone finds were collected as well as excavated and sieved from cave sediment samples, yielded bones and teeth of brown bear, reindeer, Arctic lemming, Irish hare and some bird bones. 3D internal laser scanning and drone photogrammetry of the external cave were also recorded, with computer processing still ongoing due to high volumes of data recorded.
Our two weeks on site for our first season of funded archaeological excavation at Castlepook cave were excellent and exciting, and we are delighted to see still existing cave sediment and new passages that Ussher never excavated from before too. There are still secrets to be told by this cave on Irish prehistory life and Quaternary palaeo-ecoystems. Our research work shall continue in this cave for years to come, with more fieldwork planned for 2023.
We are grateful to the Royal Irish Academy for funding this work and the collaborative relationship we have established with the members of the Cork Speleological Group. We also thank the landowner for her support and permission to access this cave.
We will let our cave suits dry for the next cave excavation adventures!