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Creswell Crags is an enclosed limestone gorge within the central uplands of England, where a cave complex preserves internationally unique evidence demonstrating how early prehistoric populations lived at the extreme northern limits of their territory during the Last Ice Age (Late Pleistocene).
The network of caves and rock shelters within the 0.5 km long limestone gorge preserve rich sequences of archaeology and palaeontology, providing a rare opportunity to illustrate how our early human ancestors responded to long term climatic and environmental change on the geographical edge of their known world.
Rich sequences of sediments have accumulated over tens of thousands of years which are now preserved within the caves. The palaeoenvironmental evidence, in particular the micro- or macro- faunal assemblages, which are absent from most Middle and Upper Palaeolithic Sites, provides important biostratigraphic information concerning the context for human use and adaptation to the landscape as environments changed in response to climate change.
Uniquely, against this environmental back-drop, the gorge and the caves attracted three phases of habitation by small bands of hunter-gatherers, adapted to northern ice age climates, seasonally exploiting their northern hunting territories. The main phases of hominin occupation are:
(i) Neanderthal occupation (60,000 – 40,000 years ago) evidenced through stone tools.
(ii) Modern Human (Gravettian) hunter gatherers (28,000 years ago).
(iii) Late Magdalenian hunters (14-15,000 years ago) who re-colonised the UK after the intense cold of the last glacial period, providing rich archaeological evidence at the edge of human occupation in north west Europe, including the only early rock art in the UK.
Uniquely, Creswell Crags bears exceptional testimony to the adaptive response of Neanderthal and Homo sapiens hunter-gatherers to late Ice Age climatic and environmental change at the northernmost edge of the occupied world in north-west Europe, through a combination of cultural and palaeoenvironmental evidence, in a landscape that enables people to visualise the lifestyle of late glacial peoples.
The principal features and attributes that convey Outstanding Universal Value are:
(i) The outstanding landscape of a narrow limestone gorge containing a complex of caves having long-intact palaeoenvironmental cave and gorge sediment sequences, containingrich cultural archaeological remains as well as diverse animal bone, plant macro- and micro-fossil assemblages. –These sequences reflect cultural changes and the context for human occupation as animal and plant communities colonised, retreated, re-colonised and occasionally became extinct in response to long or short term climatic and environmental change.
(ii) In situ Palaeolithic rock art on the walls and ceilings of caves, dated directly to 13,000 years ago, providing direct cultural associations with Late Magdalenian human groups operating at extreme northern latitudes, who regarded Creswell Crags as a significant location.
These attributes are reinforced by several pieces of portable art (engraved bone) including the only known figurative Ice Age art from the UK, and collections of stone, bone and ivory tools and cut marked bone. Creswell crags is the type site for the Late Upper Palaeolithic Creswellian culture. It is also the type site for the Pin Hole mammal assemblage zone (OIS stage 3) defined by Currant and Jacobi (Quaternary Science Reviews, 2001).
(iii)The wealth and range of archaeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence from Creswell Crags provide a unique testimony to the adaptive response of hunter-gatherer cultures across north-west Europe who colonised extreme northern geographical landscapes during the last Ice Age.
Integrity: Creswell Crags demonstrates a high degree of integrity through intact caves within a limestone gorge which both contain reserves of in situ Pleistocene deposits. All of the site’s attributes are contained within the proposed site boundary which is co-terminous with the Scheduled Monument boundary and largely coincident with the geological Site of Special Scientific Interest boundary.
Significant sequences of in situ deposits, which have yielded Neanderthal and early modern human artefactual and cultural material, alongside faunal remains and palaeoenvironmental data, remain intact and are important scientific resources for future research. However, previous episodes of archaeological and palaeontological investigation have impacted on the integrity of the in situ palaeolithic and palaeoenironmental resource by removing significant sections of cave earth in the 1870s at Robin Hood Cave, Church Hole, Dog Hole, and Mother Grundy’s Parlour, in addition to research in the 20th centuury at Pin Hole and Mother Grundy’s Parlour.
The integrity of the limestone gorge has been enhanced recently through active management of the site and the gradual removal of 20th century accretions, particularly the road and water treatment works that impacted on the visual and aesthetic qualities of the site. These works have subsequently increased public accessibility to the caves and the cultural material they contain.
Authenticity: Authenticity is expressed through the following attributes:
1. The form of the limestone gorge and the network of caves and fissures are intact karst features that provide the protection for and in situ preservation of the archaeological and palaeontological material.
2. The caves preserve intact archaeological and palaeoenvironmental sequences providing evidence of long-term climatic and environmental trends. These correlate with stratigraphies for stone tools and cave fauna and flora identified in earlier excavations and provide opportunities to present key questions about prehistoric human groups as they colonised, retreated, and re-colonised landscapes in response to advancing and retreating ice sheets. Occasionally cave sequences are capped with calcium carbonate (flowstone) layers providing dated sequences back to 380,000 years.
3. Outside the caves intact Ice Age deposits form scree slopes leading from the lower sections of the cliffs with sub-aerial and fluvial deposits on the gorge floor.
4. 25 engraved rock art figures within three caves depicting deer, birds, bovid, horse, and stylised motifs 5 directly dated to c.13,000 years by Uranium Series determinations on flowstone.
No European World Heritage Site provides this unique combination of early prehistoric cultural evidence with a comprehensive palaeoenvironmental record at such a northerly latitude. There are no other examples on the World Heritage List that offer the unique combination of Ice Age archaeological and palaeobiological evidence that is present at Creswell Crags.
Of the seven European Palaeolithic sites on the inscribed (4 sites) and tentative (3 sites) lists, all are from southern Europe (the south of France, Spain, Portugal and Italy). Those rare sites presenting evidence for the adaptations of early human populations to northern ice age climates are currently not represented in the portfolio of European World Heritage sites.
Creswell forms one of only a handful of clusters of Late Magdelenian archaeological sites in NW Europe. With the exception of the cave of Gouy near Paris, Creswell does provide the only evidence in north west Europe where cave art is associated with archaeological deposits.
No other site presents comparable palaeoenvironmental and cultural evidence for hunter-gatherer adaptations to Ice Age climates in one of the most northerly latitudes where such evidence survives, in a landscape that enables the spectator easily to visualise and imagine the lifestyles of late glacial peoples.