On the hyaena’s den at Kirkdale near Kirby Moorside in Yorkshire, discovered in A.D. 1821.


William Conybeare

Recited by Brigid Christison.

Trophonius, ’tis said, had a den,
Into which whoso once dared to enter
Returned to the daylight again
With his wits jostled off their right centre.

But of all the miraculous caves,
And of all their miraculous stories,
Kirby Hole all its brethren outbraves,
With Buckland to tell of its glories.

Bucklandus ipse loquitur.
Ages long ere this planet was formed,
(I beg pardon, before it was drowned,)
Fierce and fell were the monsters that swarmed,
Roared and rolled in these hollows profound.

Their teeth had the temper of steel,
Skulls and dry bones they swallowed with zest, or
Mammoth tusks they despatched at a meal,
And their guts were like Papin’s Digester.

And they munched ’em just like Byron’s dog,
Tartar’s skulls that so daintily mumbled ;
Horns and hoofs were to them glorius prog
Ecce Signa— see how they’re all jumbled.

I can show you the fragments half gnawed,
Their own Album Graecum I’ve spied,
And here are the bones that they pawed
And polished in scratching their hide.

So unbreeched Caledonians wear out
Each milestone they pass as they go,
So the lip of the pilgrim devout
Has kissed off St. Peter’s great toe.

Some may love potted venison and hare,
Potted char may of some stir the blood,
But no dainty to me is so rare
As hyaenas’ bones potted in mud.

I know how they fared every day,
Can tell Sunday’s from Saturday’s dinner ;
What rats they devourèd, can say*,
When the game of the forest grew thinner.
*For rats and mice, and such small deer,
Had been Tom’s food for many a year.

Your elk of the bogs was a meat
That each common hunt might obtain ;
But an elephant’s haunch was a treat
They could only hope now and then.

In scarce winters they sliced up each other,
So gaunt mariners, struggling with ruin,
Cast lots for each famishing brother,
For particulars, vide Don Juan.

Mystic cavern ! the gloom of thy cell,
Shedding light on each point that was dark,
Tells the hour by Shrewsbury clock
When Noah went into the ark.

By the crust on thy stalactite floor,
The post-Adamite ages I’ve reckoned,
Summed their years, days, and hours, and more,
And I find it comes right to a second.

Mystic cavern ! thy charms sublime
All the chasms of history supply ;
What was done ere the birthday of time
Through one other such hole I could spy.

William Conybeare - 1822

A painting of a big family group of hyenas sitting in the mouth of Kirkdale cave. Some are eating or fighting over bones, cubs are playing on their mum, and others are generally doing hyena things. The floor of the cave is littered with bones. Outside the mouth of the cave, a watering hole is visible, and there are large animals like crocodiles and elephants just visible.
Guest art © James Mckay

When a hyena den was discovered by workers near Yorkshire, UK, in 1821, Geologist William Buckland was called in to investigate and describe it. William Conybeare was inspired by what was found in the cave, and was moved to write poetry and draw a sketch (scroll down).

The natural history of this poem

William Conybeare’s poem begins by describing the fossil site called Kirby’s Hole, more commonly known now as Kirkdale Cave. The cave is located in North Yorkshire and contains the fossil remains of many different large mammals from the Pleistocene Epoch, most notable are the remains of elephants, hippopotamuses, bison and the subject of this poem, hyenas.

William goes on to describe the hyenas in the caves, especially their diet which included the “half-gnawed” bones of other animals in the cave. Hyenas are well known to chew on bones to break them open and eat the marrow, sometimes even eating whole bones. William comapres their stomachs to “Papin’s Digester”, or steam digester, a type of pressure cooker from the 17th – 19th centuries that could melt down bones.

Overall, William’s poem recounts the work of William Buckland, a British geologist who investigated the cave and determined that it was likely a den where hyenas would bring ptheir kills to eat safely. Earlier he believed that the remains were washed into the cave during the great biblical flood, which at the time was considered by many scientists to have been the event that made most fossil organisms go extinct. This cave however, had no entrance large enough for which the animals could have washed in during a flood and very clear evidence of hyena feeding, such as gnawed bones and fossilized hyena dung (coprolites).

An 1800s sketch of an Englishman crawling into a cave with a candle in one hand. He has a shocked expression as he comes face to face with four scrawny, vicious looking spotted hyenas with bulging eyes and sharp teeth. The hyenas look even more shocked than he does to see a human entering their domain, where animal bones litter the floor.
An illustration of the hyena cave by William Conybeare. His friend William Buckland enters the cave holding only a candke, and is astonished by four large hyenas and a floor littered with bones.

William Conybeare

William Conybeare – by Katrin Emery kemery.ca

Though not much is known about William Conybeare’s personal life, he lived in an exciting time for the fields of geology and palaeontology. Born in London in 1787, William was a contemporary of many palaeontological giants. Most notably, he described a plesiosaur skeleton found by Mary Anning, though he omitted her name from the description in a deliberate attempt to discredit her expertise. Like many 19th Century geologists, William was a clergyman, and an advocate of gap creationism. William was on the forefront of the earth sciences during his time; he was one of the first to use geologic cross-sections to explain the geology around him.