1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Dene-holes

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DENE-HOLES, the name given to certain caves or excavations in England, which have been popularly supposed to be due to the Danes or some other of the early northern invaders of the country. The common spelling “Dane hole” is adduced as evidence of this, and individual names, such as Vortigern’s Caves at Margate, and Canute’s Gold Mine near Bexley, naturally follow the same theory. The word, however, is probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon den, a hole or valley. There are many underground excavations in the south of the country, also found to some extent in the midlands and the north, but true dene-holes are found chiefly in those parts of Kent and Essex along the lower banks of the Thames. With one exception there are no recorded specimens farther east than those of the Grays Thurrock district, situated in Hangman’s Wood, on the north, and one near Rochester on the south side of the river.

The general outline of the formation of these caves is invariably the same. The entrance is a vertical shaft some 3 ft. in diameter falling, on an average, to a depth of 60 ft. The depth is regulated, obviously, by the depth of the chalk from the surface, but, although chalk could have been obtained close at hand within a few feet, or even inches, from the surface, a depth of from 45 to 80 ft., or more, is a characteristic feature. It is believed that dene-holes were also excavated in sand, but as these would be of a perishable nature there are no available data of any value. The shaft, when the chalk is reached, widens out into a domed chamber with a roof of chalk some 3 ft. thick. The walls frequently contract somewhat as they near the floor. As a rule there is only one chamber, from 16 to 18 ft. in height, beneath each shaft. From this excessive height it has been inferred that the caves were not primarily intended for habitations or even hiding-places. In some cases the chamber is extended, the roof being supported by pillars of chalk left standing. A rare specimen of a twin-chamber was discovered at Gravesend. In this case the one entrance served for both caves, although a separate aperture connected them on the floor level. Where galleries are found connecting the chambers, forming a bewildering labyrinth, a careful scrutiny of the walls usually reveals evidence that they are the work of a people of a much later period than that of the chambers, or, as they become in these cases, the halls of the galleries.

Isolated specimens have been discovered in various parts of Kent and Essex, but the most important groups have been found at Grays Thurrock, in the districts of Woolwich, Abbey Wood and Bexley, and at Gravesend. Those at Bexley and Grays Thurrock are the most valuable still existing.

It is generally found that the tool work on the roof or ceiling is rougher than that on the walls, where an upright position could be maintained. Casts taken of some of the pick-holes near the roof show that, in all probability, they were made by bone or horn picks. And numerous bone picks have been discovered in Essex and Kent. These pick-holes are amongst the most valuable data for the study of dene-holes, and have assisted in fixing the date of their formation to pre-Roman times. Very few relics of antiquarian value have been discovered in any of the known dene-holes which have assisted in fixing the date or determining the uses of these prehistoric excavations. Pliny mentions pits sunk to a depth of a hundred feet, “where they branched out like the veins of mines.” This has been used in support of the theory that dene-holes were wells sunk for the extraction of chalk; but no known dene-hole branches out in this way. Chrétien de Troyes has a passage on underground caves in Britain which may have reference to dene-holes, and tradition of the 14th century treated the dene-holes of Grays as the fabled gold mines of Cunobeline (or Cymbeline) of the 1st century.

Vortigern’s Caves at Margate are possibly dene-holes which have been adapted by later peoples to other purposes; and excellent examples of various pick-holes may be seen on different parts of the walls.

Local tradition in some cases traces the use of these caves to the smugglers, and, when it is remembered that illicit traffic was common not only on the coast but in the Thames as far up the river as Barking Creek, the theory is at least tenable that these ready-made hiding-places, difficult of approach and dangerous to descend, were so utilized. There are three purposes for which dene-holes may have been originally excavated: (a) as hiding-places or dwellings, (b) draw-wells for the extraction of chalk for agricultural uses, and (c) storehouses for grain. For several reasons it is unlikely that they were used as habitations, although they may have been used occasionally as hiding-places. Other evidence has shown that it is equally improbable that they were used for the extraction of chalk. The chief reasons against this theory are that chalk could have been obtained outcropping close by, and that every trace of loose chalk has been removed from the vicinity of the holes, while known examples of chalk draw-wells do not descend to so great a depth. The discovery of a shallow dene-hole, about 14 ft. below the surface, at Stone negatives this theory still further. The last of the three possible uses for which these prehistoric excavations were designed is usually accepted as the most probable. Silos, or underground storehouses, are well known in the south of Europe and Morocco. It is supposed that the grain was stored in the ear and carefully protected from damp by straw. A curious smoothness of the roof of one of the chambers of the Gravesend twin-chamber dene-hole has been put forward as additional evidence in support of this theory. One other theory has been advanced, viz. that the excavations were made in order to get flints for implements, but this is quite impossible, as a careful examination of a few examples will show.

Further reference may be made to Essex Dene-holes by T. V. Holmes and W. Cole; to The Archaeological Journal (1882); the Transactions of the Essex Field Club; Archaeologia Cantiana, &c.; Dene-holes by F. W. Reader, in Old Essex, ed. A. C. Kelway (1908).

(A. J. P.)