|Regarding the rock shelters, we learned a lot from local archaeologist Angela Muthana, and from Sir Edward Harrison's article 'Oldbury Hill, Ightham' in Archaeologia Cantiana (45, 1933, pp. 142-161), most of which corrected what we had through we knew before. Mesolithic tools have been found around the area, and people may have sheltered under Oldbury Hill's rocks in that period, but the rock shelters are most closely associated with the very end of the Middle Palaeolithic, specifically about 60,000-40,000 years ago, and thus with Neandertals, as there were no Homo Sapiens here at the time.
The discovery was made by Benjamin Harrison (1837-1921), the grocer in the nearby village of Ightham. He had found many ancient tools around Ightham, but realized that they were particularly associated with the hill and its outcrops of greenstone (so coloured because of it contains glauconite, that turns a slight green on exposure to the air). These greenstone rocks overlay a softer sandstone, that, when exposed, were liable to greater erosion than the harder rock above, leading to the greenstone overhanging a space below and forming shelters. In two spots, small caves had been dug into the sandstone as well, though at what period it is difficult to say.
In 1870, Harrison was electrified by seeing the London exhibition of Neandertal finds from Le Moustier, France. He recognized the similarity of the tools to those from Ightham, and reasoned that the rocks of Oldbury Hill may have been home to Neandertals just as the cave of Le Moustier had been. His great discovery, in 1890 with help from the British Association for the Advancement of Science, was a Neandertal flint-scatter at Mount Pleasant, on the slopes the north-eastern side of the hill (the precise site of which has not been rediscovered, despite several archaeological digs), directly below a rocky outcrop that is now much reduced by 19th century quarrying. Here, he found '49 well-finished implements or portions of them and 648 waste flakes have been found at this spot, leading', as he wrote in his report (co-authored by Dr John Evans, father of Sir Arthur, Dr Joseph Prestwich, who lived at nearby Shoreham, and H.G. Seeley), 'to the supposition either that this was the frontage of a rock shelter, or that the material had slipped down from above'.
It is on this basis that Harrison reasoned that the Neandertals, like those of Le Moustier, had made flint tools here and would most likely have sheltered under the rocks. That is the sum total of the evidence: no Neandertal remains have been found at the rock shelter. The rock shelter is on the edge of the hill's plateau (and the edge of the hillfort: the fortifications at this point have been largely destroyed by the 19th century quarrying). There are several other points around the hillfort where there are exposed rocks: some of these may have been shelters as well. A considerable cave (5' high and about 14 or 20 yards deep) used to exist on the south east side of the hill, presumably partly, at least, burrowed out by humans, but this was destroyed by quarrying. However, some of the rocks we see now may only have been exposed when the hillfort was made. What looks like a good shelter, on the right of the path going up to the ramparts from the top of Oldbury Lane, and which could easily be mistaken for an ancient rock shelter, may actually have been exposed only when the path and nearby steps were cut by the Victorians.
Oldbury Hill is within easy striking distance of London. It has impressive Iron Age fortifications, and is closely linked to Neandertals. Who needs Time Machines?
Posted by Anthony Adolph
26th April 2010ce
Edited 26th April 2010ce