The discovery of the Belle Hougue cave

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This article by A E Mourant was first published in the 1983 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

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The official and undoubtedly true story of the discovery of Belle Hougue Cave is well known to Jersey geologists and rock climbers. One day in 1914 Father H Morin was walking at the top of the cliffs at Belle Hougue Point with a party of students, when the hat of one of the latter was blown off his head and into a fissure near the base of the cliff. The owner went down, retrieved his hat, and returned with a report that he had found himself in a cave containing stalactites, hitherto unknown in Jersey. Besides a fragment of stalactite he had collected a mammalian bone, a vertebra, something extremely rare in Jersey caves. Further exploration was carried out but this was soon interrupted by the outbreak of war, and the departure of teacher and students to war service in France.

Finds reported

Father Morin returned to Jersey in 1917 and, early in 1918, he reported his finds and handed most of them over to La Société Jersiaise. These by now included bones and antlers of deer and numerous marine shells embedded in a calcareous cement, and a single probable stone implement. It is significant, in view of what follows, that the specimens were sent by the Société to the Natural History Muesum in London for identification. The wording of a footnote by Father Morin makes it clear that this was done with his full approval.

The deposits from this cave have since been the subject of intensive research by a long succession of specialists over the years. The general conclusion is that the cave was hollowed out by the sea before or during the last interglacial period but one. The sea was then some 18 metres higher than at present, and a deposit of pebbles was then laid down on a shelf at this level in the cave, probably some 300,000 years ago. Then the sea retired far below its present level during the last glacial period but one, and returned during the last interglacial, about 120,000 years ago, to a height of about 8 metres above the present level.

Red deer (Cervus elaphus) were trapped in the diminished island and evolved into a dwarf local sub-species (Cervus elaphus jerseyensis). The shells show that the temperature was warmer than at present.

A study of the cave, now known as Belle Hougue I, and its contents has played an important part in the elucidation of the history of the English Channel in the last few hundred thousand years.

Other caves

I have known the cave since about 1922, and between then and 1931 I explored the whole of the cliffs between Bouley Bay and Giffard Bay in considerable detail. I found three more caves that seemed to be of special scientific interest.

Almost facing the north end of the Long Echet reef in Giffard Bay is a cave with marine pebbles, some 8m above modern sea level, cemented with deposits of stalagmite. In this material, after careful searching, I could find only one small indeterminate specimen of marine shell.

The cave appeared to have an upper storey which Emile Guiton and I explored with ropes, but we found only an unfossiliferous head deposit.

Some 50 metres east of Father Morin's cave is another cave completely filled to its mouth with stratified deposits, consisting of beach pebbles at the 8m level, overlain by clayey rubble of the glacial period, known as head. No stalagmitic deposits are now visible, but such may be present inside.

Facing eastwards, on the cliffs some 100 to 200 metres south of La Colombiere Point, is a fairly large cave containing stalagmite deposits but apparently nothing else. It can be reached, with some difficulty, only at very low tides, and I have visited it only once.

I had missed one important cave, now known as Belle Hougue II, which was discovered in 1965 by R J Speller of the Jersey Rock Climbing Club, who reported it to the Société, saying that it contained raised beach pebbles and stalagmite deposits. This cave is some 30m east of the main cave. A few months later, after George Drew had installed a wooden floor between the slippery and nearly vertical walls, and supplied ropes and ladders, a party of the Société including Mr Drew and myself made a thorough exploration. After Mr Drew had found a deer jawbone with teeth we went on to find numerous jaws, other bones, and antlers, but no shells at all.

It was now clear why I had previously missed this cave. I had seen the lower storey which is entered by the sea, and contains only modern pebbles, but the upper cave has only two small openings, one a fissure only about a foot wide leading to the modern cave below, and another (through which we entered) facing the sea part-way up a sheer vertical cliff.

Cliff structure

The stretch of cliffs between Bouley and Giffard Bays consists largely of rather altered andesite lava, which is the only rock cropping out as cliffs on the Jersey coast which contains any substantial amount of calcium carbonate. In all of Jersey it is only here that one would expect to find (and does indeed find) anything more than traces of calcareous stalactite and stalagmite deposits, and where bones and shells are likely to be preserved from decalcification. The two main known fossiliferous caves are situated in diorite, just north of an east-west major fault, but it is clear that the water that drips through them comes from the lime-bearing lava to the south which forms the main summit of Belle Hougue.

Apart from continuing extensive research on the deposits from the two main caves, the events summarised above appeared to be the end of the tale, but we now know that it is far from being the complete story.

Teilhard de Chardin

Early in 1983 the Societe Jersiaise was invited by David Taylor-Pescod to contribute materials for an exhibition in London on the life and work of Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, to celebrate the centenary of his birth. He was known to have made important contributions to our knowledge of the ancient igneous and other rocks of Jersey, but we were surprised to be asked to supply specimens of fossils. In support of this Mr Taylor-Pescod then sent us extracts from two biographical works. In a letter to his parents dated 10 September 1913, Father Teilhard wrote:

"Sur les 6 heures du matin, nous etions a St Pierre de Guernesey, au milieu de l'archipel aux contours bien connus, et 2 heures apres je retrouvais Corbiere et Jersey. Entre autres choses que je fais ici, je vais fouiller une fissure de la cote nord; je m'y suis rendu avant-hier pour une premiere inspection; Ie site est merveilleux et d'acces peu facile; mais je doute que nous trouvions grand'chose. "

On 22 September he added,

"J'ai surtout ete explorer la fente que j'etais venu fouiller; elle represente une grotte creusee par la mer au temps ou Jersey etait moins exhausse que maintenant; et dans Ie fond de cette grotte il y a encore un depot de graviers laisses par la mer de ce temps-Iii. Ces graviers eux-mernes contiennent des debris de cervides (vraisemblablement rejetes par les lames), et c'est a ceux-ci que j'en voulais. Malgre un fort travail, nous n'avons pas pu recuperer grand'chose, et je ne sais si les deux comes a peu pres completes que nous avons, seront suffisantes pour determiner Ie cerf. La fouille est fort difficile, tant a cause de la durete du depot qui est cimente par du caJcaire qu'a raison de l'etroitesse des fentes OU il est confine; ajoutez qu'il faut travailler a la lumiere."

The mention of debris de cervides, of comes (antlers), and of calcaire (limestone) makes it quite certain that the fissure was one of the Belle Hougue caves, almost certainly the first, but just possibly the second. Father Teilhard was clearly intending to take the antlers back to Paris and to try to determine their species. He presumably did take them back, but is not known to have examined them further. In a letter to the writer, dated 5 June 1983, Dr L Ginsburg states that no such specimens are listed as given by Teilhard to the Natural History Museum in Paris, nor did Father Morin ever give anything to the Museum. If Teilhard had continued to examine them he would probably have recognised them as a dwarf type of Cervus elaphus, and this would have been of considerable taxonomic importance, for Morin's deer specimens remained identified as probably of a Pliocene species until Professor F E Zeuner used them in 1939 to define the new Pleistocene sub-species, Cervus elaphus jerseyensis.

On 11 September Teilhard writes "Au College de Bon Secours (Highlands) j'ai rencontre Christian Burdo", and goes on to give some personal details. On 22 September, after his account of his excavations, which contains no mention of the identity of his collaborator, he writes:

"Je suis alle avec M Burdo, en souvenir de nos peches d'antan, voir monter la maree dans I'immense archipel de recifs de la tour Seymour; c'etait une 'glorieuse' soiree ou tous les rochers se detachaient en rouge sur une mer lisse et nacree."

The unnamed collaborator is thus unlikely to have been Burdo, and there is no indication as to whether Teilhard mentioned Belle Hougue to Burdo, who must in later years, when he was working in Jersey as an archaeologist, have become fully aware of Morin's work and its important consequences. I saw Father Burdo very frequently during those years and I do not remember any conversation about Belle Hougue, though he mentioned Father Teilhard from time to time.

Since Father Teilhard was apparently spending only short periods in Jersey around 1913, it is conceivable that he failed to tell Father Morin about his finds, but when the latter independently published a detailed account of his own discovery, it is difficult to suppose that Father Teilhard did not become aware of this.

Paris

On the other hand we know, and Father Morin probably knew, that Father Teilhard had spent a great part of the years 1912 and 1913 studying palaeontology, largely mammalian, at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Thus if Morin had known of Teilhard's work at Belle Hougue, or had learned of it before he arranged for his own specimens to be sent to London, it would have been natural for him, as a fellow Jesuit and Frenchman, to send his material for expert examination to Paris through Teilhard rather than to London through the Société Jersiaise.

Another question to which we shall probably never know the answer is whether either Teilhard or Morin, or both of them, deposited Belle Hougue fossils or stalactites in the Maison St Louis geological collection which has recently been almost totally destroyed. Teilhard certainly had a great interest in the mineral collection, and he may have deposited stalactites and stalagmites there but, as already mentioned, he probably took the deer material to Paris. I feel sure, however, that Morin must have deposited stalactite material, if not deer bones, at Maison St Louis, though the majority of the deer bones and the shells are now in the Museum of the Société Jersiaise at La Hougue Bie.

Another small fact which may one day fall into the jigsaw came from my brother, the late W E Mourant, who knew the Belle Hougue caves well and had a good eye for rocks. He had visited Highlands College a number of times while it was still in the hands of the Brothers of Christian Education; he told me that there were numerous stalactites, probably from Belle Hougue, used as ornaments in the very extensive gardens. This has since been confirmed to me by a gardener. I first visited Highlands soon after it was taken over by the States of Jersey. Though I searched the whole of the grounds meticulously, I could find not a single stalactite fragment.

We shall probably never know the whole story of the discovery of the cave, but perhaps the most likely explanation of the facts so far established is that Morin never knew of Teilhard's findings and that Teilhard did become aware of those of Morin but did not wish to embarrass him by claiming priority, especially as his own findings were recorded only in letters to his parents, which were not published until after his death.

Teilhard's description of his investigation of the cave almost suggests that some other person had dhown him the cave, rather than that he found it for himself. Thinking of this I remembered that Frank Le Maistre had once told me that the cave had an old Jersey name. I therefore wrote to him and he replied confirming that the cave was known as Cave du Rouoge Creux and that it, and the contained stalactites, had long been known to local people.

Spring

There is a spring half way up the cliff known as Fontaine des Mittes the water of which is reputed throughout the island to have healing properties, especially for eye diseases. The stalactites were supposed to be the congealed tears of the guardian spirit of the spring, and were known as des pendilles. The youths of the neighbourhood would go down to the entrance to the cave but only the bravest would venture inside.

According to the testimonies of two witnesses, passed on to me by Frank Le Maistre and Sir Arthur de la Mare, a body was found in the cave in about 1890. An inquest was held and it was adjudged to be that of a named man who had disappeared some years previously, but neither informant could remember the name. Mrs Jill Keogh, wife of the Rector of Trinity Church, has examined the burial records of Trinity parish for this period, and the one recorded burial which corresponds approximately, though not precisely, to the story, is that which took place on 24 March 1894 of a man described as a cordonnier but not named, who was found drowned among the rocks below Les Platons.

We are thus led to the conclusion that the cave and the stalactites have been known for many generations, that Father Teilhard de Chardin was the first person to find deer antlers and bones in it, but that Father Morin and his students rediscovered everything, apparently in ignorance of all that had gone before, and were the first to carry out a full scientific investigation. The study of this and the other neighbouring caves is, however, by no means finished, and they are likely to continue to yield new and important evidence on the early history of Jersey and the rises and falls of the surrounding sea.

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