Beyond Buckland

DISCOVERING YORKSHIRE’S ANCIENT BEASTS


By Susan Newell

Susan Newell is a doctoral student researching the teaching collections of William Buckland, the first Professor of Geology at Oxford who taught from 1813 to 1849. She reminds us here about Buckland’s role 200 years ago in interpreting the important Pleistocene discoveries being celebrated this year, and the way that Mary Morland, a talented local naturalist, and many others, contributed to making this new knowledge.


This year marks the 200th anniversary of a great advance in our understanding of the geological past… a story which begins in the nineteenth century, with the discovery of a bone-filled cave in Kirkdale, Yorkshire. 

Uncovered by local quarrymen in 1821, the discovery of the Kirkdale cave and its contents of mysterious bone was the source of much intrigue. When news of the discovery reached William Buckland, Professor of Geology at Oxford University, he decided to travel up North to visit the site. However, by the time Buckland arrived at the cave, local collectors had scooped up most of its contents. Nonetheless, he was able to retrieve and examine some of the cave’s remaining material, which led him to an astonishing conclusion — Yorkshire must once have been home to hyaenas, elephants, hippopotamus and rhinoceros, and what was now known as the Kirkdale cave was once a hyaenas’ den.

W. B. Conybeare, lithograph, ‘The Hyaena’s Den at Kirkdale near Kirby Moorside in Yorkshire, discovered A.D. 1821’. Reproduced by kind permission of Christ Church, Oxford.
This light-hearted reconstruction of the hyaenas’ den shows Buckland illuminating the scene, in every sense. It is thought to be the first visual reconstruction of the pre-human past.

Central to Buckland’s theories were some small white balls that he had found amongst the debris in the cave. Buckland sent these balls to William Wollaston, a celebrated chemist based in London, for analysis.  He also asked Wollaston to visit the zoo at Exeter Exchange in London and show the balls to the hyaena’s keeper there.  Together with the results from Wollaston’s chemical analyses, the keeper confirmed Buckland’s hypothesis — the balls were droppings from animals very similar to modern hyaenas. Meanwhile, the anatomist William Clift was able to identify the bones from the Kirkdale cave as belonging to other extinct species related to those found living in tropical countries today. Buckland concluded that the cave must have been a den for ancient hyaenas, who would drag parts of the dead animals they had found (or killed) inside and, after feeding on them, leave piles of bones and droppings behind.

In order to strengthen his theory, Buckland discussed the behaviour of hyaenas in the wild with army officers connected to Britain’s colonial expansion in India. These officers also sent Buckland fresh specimens captured by local people. When a travelling menagerie visited Oxford in 1822, Buckland took the opportunity to experiment; feeding bones to a hyaena and noting that the teeth marks matched those on the fossilised bones from the cave.

Buckland’s findings were something of a shock to his contemporaries. When lecturing, he employed several different methods to try and convince his audiences that his theories were true. This included presenting fossil specimens and bones from living species for comparison, and showing maps, diagrams and drawings. Mary Morland contributed some of these illustrations, including large drawings of living animals, and technical drawings of bones that were later engraved for use in Buckland’s publications. Mary’s Kirkdale drawings seem to have been the first that she produced for William before the couple married in 1825.

Fossil hyaena jaw in the Museum’s collection, possibly the one featured in the engraving alongside it. Engraving is by James Basire after a drawing by Mary Morland. Published in William Buckland’s article in the Royal Society’s journal (1822) on the Kirkdale cave discoveries. [1]

Buckland’s work on the Kirkdale cave was revolutionary, not least because he was the first to make a scientific study of a cache of bones of this type.  Although similar bones from ‘tropical’ species had previously been found in Northern Europe, people thought that they had been washed up by a catastrophic flood, believed by many to be the biblical Noah’s Flood.  Modern analysis has now allowed us to deduce that the bones date to an Interglacial period when Britain was joined to Europe and had a hot climate, about 120,000 years ago.  

Here at the Museum, Buckland’s collections and archives are as much of a treasure trove as the Kirkdale cave. It is through accessing these archives that we can learn about the surprising range of people who contributed to the emergence of new scientific knowledge from the Kirkland cave — quarrymen, collectors, zookeepers, chemists, anatomists, colonial officers in India, workers in India, and artists like Mary Morland. To find out more about the incredible legacy of the Kirkdale Cave, look out for ‘Kirkdale200 – Lost Beasts of the North’, a symposium organised by the Yorkshire Fossil Festival, 12th March 2022.

Mary Morland, watercolour and gouache, lecture illustration of a hippopotamus, signed ‘MM’.
Hippopotamus bones were found at Kirkdale cave in Yorkshire, but as there were no living hippos to be seen in Britain at the time, this drawing would have been a valuable teaching aid.

[1] William Buckland, ‘Account of an Assemblage of Fossil Teeth and Bones of Elephant, Rhinoceros, Hippopotamus, Bear, Tiger, and Hyaena, and Sixteen Other Animals; Discovered in a Cave at Kirkdale, Yorkshire, in the Year 1821: With a Comparative View of Five Similar Caverns in Various Parts of England, and others on the Continent’, Phil. Trans., 2 (1815-30), 165-167.

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More Than a Dodo

Get in touch with me: eleanor.mckelvey@oum.ox.ac.uk

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