Recently, I visited the oldest cemetery in Europe. Remarkably, it is right around the corner from my house in a natural gorge called Burrington Combe.
Burrington Combe is a natural geological formation in the Mendip Hills an area riddled with caves and underground caverns, the most famous being Cheddar Gorge. At the foot of Burrington Combe, just a few metres from the busy road, is a cave called Aveline's hole.
Aveline's Hole is credited as being "the oldest cemetery in Europe" as it was used by people back in the Mesolithic era (late ice age, just the climate was warming ) as a place to inter the bodies of their dead.
The cave was closed in antiquity by a landslide, but a hundred years ago two men and their dog pursued a rabbit that disappeared into a hole in the gorge wall.
When they dug in after the rabbit, they discovered a cave and the skeletal remains of 21 people, all preserved by calcium deposits. The bones were later carbon date to between 10,200 and 10,400 years old.
On my first visit to the cave I ran into John Cooper, an amateur cave historian (the gentleman in the photos). John showed me a human tooth and a hand axe embedded in the cave wall by mineral deposits. While we were talking, a small horseshoe bat flitted about our heads.
Remarkably the cave offers free access to the public, although there is now a gate preventing access to the back reaches of the cave where
cave art (rarely surviving in British caves) was recently discovered.
In many other caves in the area feature even older artefacts, such as the fossil remains of hyenas, bears, cave lions and other megafauna long extinct in the British Isles.