Railway workers in Guildford, UK have discovered a sandstone cave and what is believed to be a shrine dating back to the 14th century while conducting land stabilization repairs on the hill alongside the tracks. The walls of the cave are covered with evidence of writing and ornamentation carved into the soft stone. Archaeologists’ initial assessments are that the cave was once a shrine or hermitage associated with St. Catherine’s Cathedral, the ruins of which now sit atop a nearby hill. The shrine may also have been used for earlier cult activities—before the cathedral, St. Catherine’s hill was called Drakehull, or “the hill of the dragon,” and archaeologists say that the site has long had religious and spiritual significance.
What remains of the cave is small—0.3 to 0.7 meters high—but archaeologists say that the cave was likely much larger before the installation of the railway in the early 1840s destroyed the better part. The cave is divided into seven or eight niches, all of which have writing and gothic artwork chiseled into the walls and ceiling. A layer of black dust partially covers the floor of the cave, which researchers believe to be soot from lamps. The remains of two assumed-to-be firepits were also found inside, and archaeologists say they hope to use radiocarbon dating to discover the actual time period that the cave was in use. A spokesperson from Archaeology South East says:
“The cave contained what appear to be shrines or decorative niches, together with carved initials and other markings. The old name for St Catherine’s Hill is Drakehull ‘The Hill of the Dragon’, so this has obviously been a site of ritual significance long before the construction of the church on the top of the hill in the late 13th century.
Work is underway to analyse soot and charcoal found inside the cave, which will hopefully tell us more about how and when it was used.”
Mark Killick, Network Rail Wessex route director acknowledged the significance of the “unexpected and fascinating discovery.” He says:
“A full and detailed record of the cave has been made and every effort will be made to preserve elements where possible during the regrading of the delicate and vulnerable sandstone cutting.”
It isn’t stated whether the cave and shrine will remain in place or if the sandstone blocks will be cut up and moved. Either way, it’s hard to justify the risk of a train taking a tumble so some weird old dragon cult keeps their secret hideout. They won’t be using it any time soon.
While it is unfortunate that sometimes sites like this are at odds with safety repairs on infrastructure, at least it will be preserved in some capacity. When this railway was first run through this hill, most of the shrine was destroyed without any documentation or preservation at all. At least now there’s some effort being made to preserve and document this find. After all, you don’t want to anger any dragons that may still be hanging around.