In the narrow valley of the Nottinghamshire border, archaeologists went searching for engravings of the British Paleolithic era. In 2003, a team of archaeologists discovered an engraving in a cave near this zone. The Church Hole cave on the Nottinghamshire side of the valley was also the subject of an archaeological intervention.
This cave was north-facing and therefore got very little daylight penetrating the interior, and it was assumed that this meant there were no engravings. Moreover, directly opposite this cave, on the south-facing side of the valley, was another cave – named the “Robin Hood Cave” – where there was evidence of living during the Ice Age period. The arrangement of these two sites – which were inhabited at the same time, around 13,000 to 11,000 years-ago – may provide the key to explain how people related to their valley home.
At the “Robin Hood Cave”, where people used to live, was in sunlight and the large chamber just inside the door provided space for people to cook, prepare hides, and gather socially. In contrast, Church Hole Cave was on the dark side of the valley, reached by crossing a river that flooded the valley bottom, and showed no sign of habitation. People engraved images but did not live there. This suggests the cave was reserved for ritual use, a place of darkness and possibly death.
It was accepted that during the Ice Age people had a shamanic worldview. A shamanic journey often involves crossing water (made while in trance). Another common element of a spiritual/shamanic journey is by entering a long and dark passage, moving along it till one reaches the light. People visiting Church Hole Cave from their base in Robin Hood Cave, would experience both elements of a shamanic journey , symbolically of course. When setting off, they would travel down to the river, which they would need to cross. Climbing up to Church Hole Cave, they would then enter a long, dark passage. While most of the rock engravings found by the archaeologists, were in the front of the cave, there were others further back, where the original artist would have been in total darkness. This cave tunel could have possibly represent the symbology of a shamanic journey to the otherworld, for the people that lived in the area during the Ice Age period.
The archaeologists suggested that the images at the back of the cave, were stylised women, adopting the late Palaeolithic shape for women as tall and slender but with large buttocks. The carvings on the same side of the cave as the stylised women, there are images of triangles which, using analogies with other Palaeolithic sites, may represent female pubic triangles. One even had a trace of another triangle within it, possibly relating to pregnancy. In fact, all the images on this side – the eastern side – of the cave featured images related to females.
At the western side the images were mostly of animals. These included an ibis, a stag, a bison, and a horse, along with other animal shapes. It may represent the animals as prey, but in the context it may represent the spirit animals found on the otherworld during a shamanic journey.
It seems that Church Hole Cave was divided between female images on the right side of the cave ( facing east as it is), and hunting prey – potentially a male realm, on the left side of the cave (facing west). Rituals may have been performed there, with each group using the cave at specific times or both groups visiting and interacting with each other. It is only towards the rear of the cave that the passage narrows and this is where the stylised female figures are located. This may be an inner sanctum visited by only a few, perhaps girls on reaching adulthood, initiating them into the mysteries of womanhood.
The Palaeolithic people who inhabited this place, had massive challenges with hostile weather and a lack of available game. Church Hole Cave may have been a response to this, initiating the young into the roles of adulthood. It might have also been to experience a shamanic journey in the real life, teaching future shamans and preparing them for what they may face in a spiritual journey.