Volume 40 Number 1 Article 2
Peter Ashmead 1938-1977
Peter Ashmead was a prominent member of the Red Rose, and was heavily involved in the early exploration and surveying of Easegill. This article was written to mark the 25th anniversary of his death. (Ed.)
June 2nd 2002 was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the tragic early death of Peter Ashmead. Any caver who is active in the Easegill-Lancaster Hole System will be familiar with his name: even those who did not meet him in person will know of his work on the first comprehensive survey (1) or his chapter on Casterton Fell in "The Limestones and Caves of North-West England." (2) But many members of the Red Rose will be unaware that he was also a very competent amateur archaeologist and the driving force behind one of the most important discoveries ever in the prehistory of north west England.
Peter Ashmead in Kirkhead Cave
Peter was one of those rare people, the true autodidact: a self-taught amateur speleologist, geologist, cave archaeologist and industrial historian who was interested in and undertook original research in all these fields, despite living in near poverty for most of his adult life. In my opinion he was very much in the fine tradition of the Lancashire working-class scholar, a type of man so vividly described in the chapter "Humble Scholars" in C. Aspin's book "Lancashire, the First Industrial Society." (3) His particular interest was the Morecambe Bay area.
I remember Peter and his wife Veronica turning up to join the RRCPC at one of the regular Friday night meetings in the club's private room at the Moorlands Hotel in Lancaster; his trademark, a folder full of cave maps and notes, under his arm. That must have been in 1960 or 1961, and already by the early 1960s, (I moved overseas in 1966 so I can testify to this time scale), he had formulated his theory that Upper Palaeolithic man had reached north west England. This was contrary to what was universally accepted at that time. There was no known evidence for it, but, as Peter believed and pointed out, that might be because no-one had looked. This kind of thing seems to happen in science: an idea becomes and remains the accepted wisdom and is not challenged until some "young turk" comes along and looks. Anyway, Peter seems to have come to this conclusion because of his familiarity with The Dog Holes on Warton Crag. He had carefully read Wilfred Jackson's reports on the excavations and, as he told me, realised that the excavators had dug down until they had reached barren glacial deposits and stopped there. Due to the state of knowledge of late Pleistocene geology back then, the possibility of evidence of man in deeper sediments had not occurred to Professor Jackson.
Peter's great ambition was to see The Dog Holes re-excavated. This was never to happen because it is an important scheduled site and it was impossible for any amateur to get permission to dig there (I suspect that, if and when it is done, his prediction will turn out to have been accurate). But another site, Kirkhead Cave, Cartmel, was available and it is clear from the report that similar thinking prompted the re-examination of this location:...
"The fact that so many finds... (had been) ... recorded, and because the work was not completed, prompted us into carrying out further investigations." (4)
Peter, Dr. R. H. Wood and the newly formed Lancaster Cave and Mine Research Society began excavations at Kirkhead in 1968, and in the second season a small assemblage of flints was uncovered...
"Although the majority of the flints could, typologically speaking, belong in either a Palaeolithic or Mesolithic context, the shape and technique of one of the tools ... is rather strongly suggestive of a Palaeolithic date. If future discoveries bear out this diagnosis the cave will constitute the most north-westerly evidence for Upper Palaeolithic occupation in Britain, and will therefore be of considerable importance." (5)
These flints are now on display at the Lancaster Museum. But Kirkhead Cave never yielded further evidence and the final proof was still needed.
I remember Peter telling me that he felt that if it were possible to show a high degree of competence at this dig, then credibility and acceptance by the professionals would result in permission elsewhere - perhaps for The Dog Holes. There is no doubt that the dig was done to the highest standards. Dr Chris Salisbury was later to pay tribute to it with the following words... "Ashmead was an amateur archaeologist but he overcame the prejudice usually associated with that status by carrying out the work in a highly professional manner." (6) Unfortunately because the evidence uncovered at Kirkhead was inconclusive, the findings could be and were vigorously attacked, especially by Dr. Steven Gale. In the cut and thrust of academic debate this was legitimate, but it is very sad that through no fault of his own, other than perhaps a degree of naivete about the way science and scientists really work, Peter was not given the archaeological credibility that he so much deserved.
In fact, sadly, he was never to see his theory fully borne out. This had to wait until ten years after his death. Dr. Chris Salisbury arrived in the area, took up the baton, and in 1987-89 excavated Lindale Low Cave at Grange-over-Sands where he confirmed the presence of Late Upper Palaeolithic man. By 1992 Chris was able to write confidently: " ... we cannot ignore one simple fact, namely, that man was exploiting the region during the last ice-age." (6)
We can speculate how much further our knowledge of the Old Stone Age in the north-west would have progressed by now had the results at Kirkhead been just a little more definitive, or had Gale been more measured in his criticism, but we will never know. What cannot reasonably be contested is that without Peter Ashmead it would not have progressed so far as it has. It was largely due to him that eventually others did look. And, in the final analysis, he was right and the doubters were wrong.
(1) Eyre, J. and Ashmead, P. 1967. Lancaster Hole and the Ease Gill Caverns. Trans. CRG 9 (2): 61-123.
(2) Ashmead, P. 1974. Development of the Caves of Casterton Fell. Chapter 14 in Waltham, T (ed.) The Limestones and Caves of North-West England, BCRA, David & Charles. pp. 250-272.
(3) Aspin, C. 1969. Lancashire, the First Industrial Society. Helmshore Local History Society, Preston. 190 pp.
(4) Wood, 1969. Kirkhead Cavern. North-West Speleology, 1 (2), pp. 19-21.
(5) Mellars, P. A. 1969. Report on the Flints from Kirkhead Cavern. North-West Speleology, 1 (2) p. 23.
(6) Salisbury, C. R. 1992. The Pleistocene Exploitation of Cumbria: A Review of the Evidence. Trans. Cumb. West. Ant. Arch. Soc. XCII pp. 1-6.