Hyaenas in Yorkshire: William Buckland and the Cave at Kirkdale

A geological discovery in the 1820s, writes A.D. Orange, altered the views of scholars upon the Mosaic story of the Creation and the Flood.

Kirkdale, to the north-west of the small Yorkshire market town of Pickering, is a quiet place, even in the age of the motorway. The operations of man and nature have long ago obliterated the hyaena cave which, 150 years ago, brought to the valley a succession of distinguished visitors, including Sir Humphry Davy, President of the Royal Society, William Smith, ‘Father of English Geology’, and, most spectacularly, the Rev. Professor William Buckland of Oxford.

The popular view that scientific discoveries often have their beginnings in ‘lucky accidents’ is an over-simplification. In such situations an unusual circumstance or pattern of events forces itself upon the attention of an observer who is equipped by intelligence and experience to recognize its significance: ‘chance favours the prepared mind’, as Louis Pasteur insisted.

At Kirkdale, the prepared mind belonged to one John Gibson, a manufacturing chemist who, in the summer of 1821, was holidaying in his native county and visiting friends in Helmsley. Passing through the hamlet of Kirkdale he noticed a large pile of stones and bones awaiting employment in road repairs. Inquiry revealed that the material came from a limestone quarry a short distance away in one of the banks of Hodgebeck, a moorland tributary of the River Rye.

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