The Caves of Prehistoric Man, Whitepark Bay

The bones represent three females.
A girl of 16, a young woman of 20 and an adult female.

Report on an excavation of Portbradden Cave by A. McL. May
Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 1943

Around 8000BC, shortly after the retreat of the last great ice sheets, man first set foot on the island of Ireland. Where they came from is still not certain, but these Mesolithic hunter-gatherers made their homes in such places as Mount Sandel in the Bann valley and also along parts of the Antrim coast. Evidence of their occupation still exists, mainly in the form of microlith tools which were worked from the abundent coastal supplies of raw flint.

On my journey to photograph the sea caves of Antrim, I have often imagined how prehistoric people might have used these places: perhaps as shelter, perhaps as places of worship, perhaps even as tombs. In this chapter, I set out to photograph the caves of Whitepark Bay. These caves can be linked to prehistory through the excavations and reports made by prominent local archaeologists in the early 1900s. Let's dig a little deeper.

Portbradden Cave

The story starts on the west side of Whitepark Bay, in a rather dark and damp basalt cave near Portbradden. Like some of the other caves I have photographed, this is an example of a non-active sea cave. This cave would have been carved out by the ocean around the time of the last ice age. As the glaciers retreated, the relative sea level dropped, leaving this cave stranded 16 feet above the present-day high water mark. Relict sea caves like these would have made good shelter for a Mesolithic community. On my first visit to this cave I noticed the vague outline of an excavation trench. There was also evidence of the spoil heaps outside the cave. Who had been digging I wondered? And what did they find here?

Portbradden Cave
The excavation trench can be seen on the left hand side
© Andy McInroy

I started to research the history of Portbradden cave and came across some fascinating archaeological papers. I discovered that the trench in the cave had been dug by a prominent local archaeologist by the name of Andrew McLean May. His excavations were carried out over a period of several years in the 1930s. In 1943 he published his findings in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology. May had dug into the floor of the cave by as much as 7 feet. Each layer he removed was a time capsule, providing clues as to how the cave was used through each time period. As he dug deeper through the ancient levels he eventually struck the wave worn beach pebbles of the original cave floor, evidence that the sea had indeed carved out this cave all those millennia ago.

Excavations at Portbradden Cave
Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Volume 6
A. McL. May, 1943

Portbradden Cave flints
A. McL. May, 1943

In all the layers which May unearthed, he discovered evidence of human occupation. In the layers near the top he found iron objects, one being the barrel of a muzzle-loading pistol. In deeper layers he found pottery, bone combs and flint tools. Some of the primitive flint tools were found to show Mesolithic characteristics (flints numbered 2 and 3 in the illustration). In the deepest layers near the pebble beach he found evidence of fireplaces, shells and animal bones. May had unearthed the entire history of the cave in just 7 feet of excavation.

Perhaps most interestingly of all, in one of the deeper layers, May found partial human remains. These were examined by Professor Thomas Walmsley at Queens University, Belfast who concluded that the bones belonged to three females: a girl of 16, a young woman of 20 and an adult female. He noted, "most of the bones have primitive features which are not likely found together in post-medieval time; and there are some characteristics which suggest an epi-palaeolithic inheritance".

With the development of modern radiocarbon dating techniques, it may now be possible to accurately date these human remains. Unfortunately the whereabouts of May's excavated cave bones remains a mystery and they lie undated. Were these remains simply the result of a more modern deep grave dug in the cave? Or was Professor Walmsley correct in placing these bones back into the early Mesolithic timescale? If so, these human remains would be the oldest ever discovered in Ireland. So where are the bones now? Perhaps they are lying in the depths of some scientific archive, ready to be dug out once more.

Ballintoy cave clay figure
J.W. Jackson, 1933

Whitepark Bay Cave

Portbradden cave is not the only cave on this stretch of coastline that has yielded prehistoric artifacts. Caves at Ballintoy just east of Whitepark Bay have yielded Neolithic flints, pottery and an intriguing mother goddess type figurine (Jackson, 1933). Unfortunately, some of the Ballintoy caves have been destroyed due to cliff slippage and it is no longer possible for me to photograph them. However I did visit another cave in Whitepark Bay which may have been a good candiate for habitation.

Of all the relict sea caves I have visited and photographed, this one is perhaps the most homely. To a prehistoric family this would have been a cave of luxury. It appears that this cave still provides a good shelter for modern-day cavemen. The debris of recent campfires and barbecues litter the floor. This cave is positioned high above the sea and is perfectly dry inside. In contrast to the dark and damp basalt caves like Portbradden, this one has formed in well drained chalk and is bright and airy. As I sat comfortably inside, taking my photographs, I tried to imagine a family of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who perhaps made this their home.

Whitepark Bay Cave
© Andy McInroy

Throughout this project I have tried to connect my cave photography back to Antrim's rich cultural history. Linking my photography back to stone age prehistory has been a much more difficult undertaking and it is all too easy to let the imagination take over when the facts are scarce. However, thanks to the pioneers of Irish cave archaeology, I have a new way of telling the stories of these remarkable places, stories which are still buried deep below these dark cave floors awaiting rediscovery.

Chapter List
1. The Ghost of Cathedral Cave
2. Portcoon Cave
3. Mermaid's Cave
4. The Stalactite Cave of Larrybane
5. Into the Depths of the Grand Cave, Runkerry
6. The Caves of Rathlin Island and the Hunt for Bruce's Cave
7. The Caves of Prehistoric Man, Whitepark Bay