The following article has been extracted from the 1999 book ‘Gibraltar at the end of the Millennium: A Portrait of a Changing Land’ by Clive and Geraldine Finlayson.
One of the earliest named British batteries in Gibraltar was Forbes’ Battery at the
extreme northern end of the Northern Defences, overlooking the north-western corner of the isthmus. It was named early in the 18th century after Lord Forbes, third Earl of Granard, who had been aide-de-camp to the Prince George Hesse of Darmstadt when he landed on Gibraltar in 1704. He was later to briefly participate in the defence of Gibraltar during the 1727 siege but before that he had arrived on the Rock in 1726 when he designed and, with his men, constructed the battery which was to carry his name. The interesting feature of this two-cannon battery was that the guns pointed towards the Grand Battery and not to the isthmus. In other words, should the enemy penetrate that far they would be fired upon from behind. After the 1727 siege the Spaniards admitted that this battery had been the one they had feared most. A barrier which was placed to control the entrance to the garrison between the base of the Rock, below Forbes’ Battery, and the marshy ground and coast to the west was naturally given the name Forbes’ Barrier. During the early and middle of the 19th century significant quarrying took place in this area as described by Edward Kelaart, botanist and medical officer of the garrison, who arrived in Gibraltar in 1843 and published his Botany & Topography of Gibraltar in 1856.
A significant amount of scarping had been undertaken in this area by the British in the early 18th century to prevent infiltration by Spanish troops. A case in point was a cavern below Willis’s Battery, sealed after an attempt by Spaniards to mine it in 1727. This sealed cavern can be seen today from Forbes’ Quarry but it is totally inaccessible, the slope leading to it having been removed in the 18th century. The Reverend John White arrived in Gibraltar as military chaplain in 1756 and remained on the Rock for 16 years.
Captain Edmund Flint, secretary of the Gibraltar National Museum Society which had formerly been the Gibraltar Scientific Society and a contemporary of Kelaart’s, presented to this society a skull on the 3rd March 1848 which had been found in Forbes’s Quarry. This quarry, named after the battery directly above it, had produced the skull of a Neanderthal but its significance was not realised until a long time after and the German specimen, found in 1856, gave this species its scientific name. The 19th century quarrying removed much of the vegetated slope at the base of the cavern. The cave, in which the Neanderthal skull and probably many other interesting remains had been deposited, was almost totally destroyed leaving very little evidence for us to study.
After a speculative attempt in 1989 and 1991 a more formal process of research and excavation of Gibraltar’s caves was commenced in 1994 and these investigations into our prehistory have continued annually to today. The 1994 excavation was, curiously, not in the well-known site at Gorham’s Cave where results could be guaranteed but at an untried and relatively unknown and unnamed site at the top of the old watercatchments on the Great Gibraltar Sand Dune. Many years earlier a sand collection operation had been set up on the East Side of the Rock. The sand that was beneath the watercatchments was extracted and transported along a conveyor belt system to the road below and from there taken for industrial use.
In 1985, when the workers had started to remove the sand from the top of this mound they discovered, what appeared to be the entrance to a small cave. They recovered stone artefacts and bones until they were ordered to stop by Mr George Palao of the Public Works Department. He collected these items and arranged for the cave to be sealed according to his notes found years later in a museum vault. When Prof Clive Finlayson took over the direction of the Gibraltar National Museum in 1991 he discovered a plastic carrier bag in one of the vaults. In it were stone tools made mainly of red jasper and many mammal bones including an almost complete skull of an Ibex, a wild mountain goat. In the bag was Mr Palao’s report so we were able to establish where the finds came from. We investigated the matter further because it was clear to us that the stone artefacts were of Mousterian tradition. An expedition to this cave was arranged the following year where prehistoric stone tools and more bones were found on the surface shortly after arriving at the site. The cave was yet unnamed but would soon receive the name of Ibex Cave after finding the complete skull of an Ibex (wild mountain goat) there. A formal excavation was carried out at Ibex Cave began in 1994.
The combined results of the 1994 Ibex Cave excavation and the subsequent years in Gorham’s and Vanguard Caves are sufficiently detailed now to allow for reconstructions of the environmental conditions around Gibraltar in the late Pleistocene. Gorham’s and Vanguard Caves, like Ibex, are situated on the east side of the Rock but they differ from Ibex in that they are presently at sea level. However, this has not always been the case. Gorham’s had a tradition in prehistory. Captain Arthur Gorham had discovered this cave in 1907, although the sea caverns within one of which lies the cave were known to the 18th century naturalists and historians. In his 1771 History of the Herculean Straits James, for example, describes these caverns filled with wild pigeons and bats which is an account of his time in Gibraltar between 1749 and 1755. It was only in the 1940s that a Captain Alexander discovered ceramic and other artefacts here and conducted a kind of excavation. He did so, apparently, without permission and left Gibraltar without trace and taking the artefacts with him much to the annoyance of the museum committee of the day. As a result the Governor of Gibraltar, Sir Kenneth Anderson, initiated correspondence with the United Kingdom Government to commence a properly-run excavation. It is to his credit that he had the vision to recognise the need to have professionals in such matters. The Gibraltar authorities wanted Dorothy Garrod to excavate the cave and she would have been an ideal person. She had excavated the Devil’s Tower Rock Shelter in the 1920s and had discovered a Neanderthal child’s skull there in 1926. Garrod could not take on the work, however, but she suggested John d’Arcy Waechter of the Institute of Archaeology who was working in Turkey. Waechter came to Gibraltar and excavated Gorham’s, with Spanish labourers, in the course of the 1950s. Despite the crude methods which he employed and the huge volume of sediment which he extracted Waechter was unsuccessful in completely destroying the cave so that when the Museum team returned there in 1989 both Chris Stringer and Andy Currant of the Natural History Museum in London were amazed at the potential which the cave still had. Perhaps surprisingly, Vanguard Cave, about 100 metres to the north had never been excavated and so was in pristine condition.
The evidence which has allowed the Museum to piece together the environments outside these caves comes from a number of disciplines. The Neanderthals and, later on, the Modern Humans who occupied these sites lit fires. The remnants of these fires are still there. By taking samples of charcoal derived from these hearths we have been able to do two things. First, the samples have been radiocarbon dated which gives us a very precise idea of when the particular level was occupied and we have had the structure of the charcoal analysed in other samples which has given us an indication of the plants that were cut and thrown into the hearth. Not only does this tell us when particular plants grew in the vicinity, but also what the nature of the climate was as plants can serve as climate indicators. Radiocarbon dating is a very specialised and expensive technique. However, the method cannot be satisfactorily applied to ages beyond around 40-45 thousand years ago. To go beyond this range other techniques have been applied such as Uranium-Series Dating. His results have revealed that the older levels at Gorham’s go beyond 90 thousand years ago.
The second feature that makes these caves so useful is the abundance of animal remains found in many of the levels – mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, sometimes fish and many molluscs. Together with the plants these remains have allowed us to reconstruct these prehistoric environments of Gibraltar. Some of these animals were clearly brought back to the caves by humans and a number of these show evidence in the form of cut marks or burning. Others may have been brought in by carnivores which, as we shall see, were abundant in the area. Others would have come of their own accord and died in the cave.