Accepted Paper:

A study of the Hell-Fire Caves of West Wycombe: underground deviance and ritual debauchery  

Author:

Aisling Tierney (University of Bristol)

Paper short abstract:

The Hell-Fire Caves of West Wycombe were one of many construction projects initiated by Sir Francis Dashwood in the mid 18th Century. This paper will assess the phases of development of the cave complex and its symbolism, with reference to the archaeological landscape of the region.

Paper long abstract:

Sir Francis Dashwood formed a notorious club in the mid Eighteenth century, known by its members as the Medmenham Friars or the Knights of St. Francis, and only later known as the Hell-Fire Clubs. The Hell-Fire Caves were one of many construction projects initiated by Dashwood in the region of West Wycombe. To date, no archaeological assessment of the cave structure has taken place. Compelling evidence suggests that the caves of West Wycombe functioned as a secretive meeting place for Dashwood and his friends, who were among some of the most famous and influential aristocrats of the time.

This paper will assess the phases of development of the cave complex, including its initial function as a chalk mine and later reconstruction work. Emphasis will be placed on deciphering the layout of the cave structure and claims that it was a purposeful physical manifestation of pagan or satanic symbolism. How the caves served as an autonomous meeting space will be reviewed with reference to its context within the surrounding landscape shaped by Dashwood. Within this framework, theories of liminality, space and symbolism will be addressed. A proposal for future archaeological research is presented at the conclusion.

Panel S20
Going underground: caves, science and theory