Worth's Cattedown Bone Cave 150m north of Cattedown Wharves


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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Ordnance survey map of Worth's Cattedown Bone Cave 150m north of Cattedown Wharves
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

City of Plymouth (Unitary Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SX 49464 53608, SX 49464 53615

Reasons for Designation

Palaeolithic caves and rock shelters provide some of the earliest evidence of human activity in the period from about 400,000 to 10,000 years ago. The sites, all natural topographic features, occur mainly in hard limestone in the north and west of the country, although examples also exist in the softer rocks of south-east England. Evidence for human occupation is often located near the cave entrances, close to the rock walls or on the exterior platforms. The interiors sometimes served as special areas for disposal and storage or were places where material naturally accumulated from the outside. Because of the special conditions of deposition and preservation, organic and other fragile materials often survive well and in stratigraphic association. Caves and rock shelters are therefore of major importance for understanding this period. Due to their comparative rarity, their considerable age and their longevity as a monument type, all examples with good survival of deposits are considered to be nationally important.

Despite some loss to quarrying and partial excavation of the cave earth, Worth's Cattedown Bone Cave, which includes a number of associated fissures, will preserve intact deposits of Late Glacial (Upper Palaeolithic) origin, which have been shown by excavation to be extremely rich in contemporary remains. The limestone outcrops in the Plymouth area have been almost entirely quarried out and this monument provides one of the few remaining examples where such remains will survive.


The monument includes the surviving remains of Worth's Cattedown Bone Cave, a cave of two similar sized chambers joined by a narrow fissure and with numerous further fissures which extended to the former ground surface above, and to sea level. It lies within a more extensive limestone bluff which has undergone weathering to produce the characteristic fissures and rock formations. The monument overlooks Cattewater, at the mouth of the River Plym on the eastern side of Plymouth Sound, and the cave lies within the face and former floor of the quarry. The quarry floor survives as an isolated rock shelf at the base of the quarry face, part of which has been removed for a railway tunnel and part of which lies beneath some raised consolidation material. Archaeological investigation in the late 19th century, following a reworking of the quarry floor in 1886, included the partial excavation of the main chambers, and a study of bones from the excavated cave earth established the presence within the cave of human and faunal remains which are considered to date from before the end of the last Ice Age. The chambers were partly truncated and exposed by quarrying but most of their cave deposits were intact beneath their quarried roof. Not all of the chamber or fissure deposits were fully excavated nor their depth ascertained, but cave earth was recorded to a maximum depth of over 8m below the quarry floor in the larger northern chamber. Although bone remains were found in the majority of deposits throughout the cave, the northern chamber had the more complex sequence with a stalagmite floor 0.5m thick sealing a stalagmitic breccia containing articulated skeletons; this in turn sealed concreted bone-bearing cave earth in which the bones were more dispersed. The remains of at least 15 individual hominids of both sexes, including children and adults, were recovered from both of the main levels of cave deposit in direct association with the bones of 33 different faunal species, including cave lion, rhinoceros, wolf and hyena. The faunal remains have been classified as being characteristic of the Devensian (last glacial) period (60,000-10,000BP - i.e. years before present); that is within the middle to later Upper Palaeolithic era in Britain, with a closer date of 14,000BP or earlier being considered more probable for the group as a whole. Evidence for the use of tools was provided by a single flint core or hammer stone from which flakes had been struck, which was recovered from the cave earth. Charcoal fragments encased in stalagmite attested to the presence of fire deep within the cave. The quarry floor containing the cave site was left unworked during the 19th century excavations whilst quarrying continued around it and this quarrying evidently did not continue once the cave investigations were complete. The results of the excavations were published in 1887 and the cave later became known as Worth's Bone Cave, after the principle excavator, R N Worth. Over the course of the decades following excavation, the quarry floor, which remained isolated on a rock shelf several metres above the surrounding ground surface, became covered in stone tumble, scree, vegetation, and part artificial consolidation, which served to seal the cave. Its precise location was lost until a survey by the Devon Karst Research Society in 1980 once again determined its position and recorded one of the chamber walls and much of the assemblage from the cave, although damaged by bombing in World War II, and the flint core are retained by Plymouth City Museum. The railway tunnel which passes through the monument from south west to north east is not included in the scheduling, although the ground above the tunnel is included. All fencing and the stone-built triangulation point on the top of the quarry face are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath these features is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Chamberlain, AT, Ray, K, 'Plymouth Archaeology Occasional Publication' in A Catalogue of Quarternary Fossil-Bearing Cave Sites, , Vol. 1, (1994), 30-31
Sutcliffe, Dr A J, Lewarne, B, 'Studies in Speleology' in An Unsolved Mystery: Human Remains From Cattedown Cave, Plymouth, , Vol. 3 part 1, (1977), 43-48
Worth, R N, 'Transactions of the Devonshire Association' in On the occurrence of human remains in a bone cave at Cattedown, , Vol. 19, (1887), 419-37
R N Worth's Cattedown Bone Cave (1886-7), 1980, Unpublished record, DKRS Plymouth


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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