Return to Kent's Cavern

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New excavations in Britain’s oldest Scheduled Ancient Monument

In the first half of the 19th century John MacEnery’s excavations in Kent’s Cavern produced objects that seemed to challenge the Bible’s version of creation, leaving the excavator grappling with the meaning of his findings. Now Paul Pettitt and Mark White have returned to the cavern to make sense of the early excavations, and discoveries of their own.

Today, Kent’s Cavern lies in the middle of Torquay, at the northern end of Tor Bay on the south Devon coast. One of the most important Palaeolithic cave systems in northern Europe, Kent’s Cavern is one of the earliest caves used by humans in Britain, as well as Britain’s oldest Scheduled Ancient Monument.

Surveying the steep slopes of Wolf's Cave, a north-eastern gallery deep inside Kent's Cavern. Photo: Paul Pettitt

Nestled on the slopes of Lincombe Hill, Kent’s Cavern commands an excellent view over a small valley that links two bays. In the Pleistocene this valley would have allowed access to the vast plains of the Channel River, which probably served as a major route for dispersing carnivores and herbivores when the climate was mild enough to allow their return to Britain. We can assume that the animals were of dietary importance to the cave’s occasional residents — including Neanderthals and Homo sapiens — and funnelled into the narrow valley, where they could be easily hunted. This situation probably explains why, over the course of the Upper Pleistocene, the easily accessible large chambers of Kent’s Cavern saw repeated occupation by small groups of hunters.

Since 2009, we have been conducting the most major investigations at Kent’s Cavern since those by Arthur Ogilvie in the 1920s-1940s. The cave still contains tons of unexcavated sediments and, no doubt, plenty of Pleistocene archaeology and palaeontology. As most excavations in the cave occurred during the pioneering days of archaeology, and were of poor quality by today’s standards, many questions remain about the environments and behaviour of the cave’s earliest inhabitants. With this opportunity in mind, our excavations targeted three areas of the cave where we suspected Pleistocene sediments survived intact.

Our goals were to reassess the earlier excavations, as well as recover fresh faunal remains, especially microfauna, which could be radiocarbon dated and provide a bio-stratigraphy for the cave and region. We also wanted to establish the extent to which undisturbed archaeology survived. This could provide valuable information about the local environment at the time the cave was occupied, and establish the extent of hyaena denning and other carnivore activity near the cave’s two entrances.

Pioneering palaeontology

The limestone of the Kent’s Cavern area was deposited at the bottom of a tropical sea, just south of the equator, around 385 million years ago. As Britain endured a succession of warm and cold periods, the caves and passages were carved out by water dissolving the limestone. A distinctive, hardened mineral floor surface was formed over time by stalagmites shattering in the intense freezing temperatures of the cold periods. This process of stalagmite formation and shattering should have sealed evidence of the cave’s occupation in sequential layers on the cave floor.

In the 19th century, the fertile archaeological ground of Kent’s Cavern played an important role in the demonstration of human antiquity and the development of Palaeolithic archaeology. Since the early 19th century, at least four major excavations have been undertaken in its breccias (areas of broken rock cemented together by matrix) and cave earths and it has been estimated that the main cave — with over 250m of accessible galleries — has yielded over 80,000 fossils and artefacts.

Following in Pengelly's footsteps, the latest investigations have uncovered extensive evidence of the animals that once lived in these caves, including the first signs of hyaena denning to be excavated in Britain in modern times. Photo: Paul Pettitt

The most important of these excavations were conducted by the Rev John MacEnery in the 1820s and by the local tutor and geologist William Pengelly between 1865 and 1880. Unusually for the times, MacEnery left records of his excavations, while his discovery of flint tools in deposits below the stalagmites on the cave floor was one of the first major challenges to Biblical chronology. It was widely derided at the time as contrary to Bishop James Ussher’s dating of the Creation to 4004 BC.

The total number of finds made by MacEnery is unknown, but Pengelly recovered over 7,000 finds from the cave, including 1,400 lithics. Later excavations by Ogilvie unearthed 200 or so more. Sadly, only about a third of the artefacts from Kent’s Cavern can now be confidently traced, and faunal collections, however large, have been distributed among numerous museums. As discussed in CA 261 most caves excavated in the infancy of archaeology were poorly recorded. Sadly Kent’s Cavern is no exception.

Despite this, Pengelly was a careful excavator for his day, kept detailed notebooks and reported to an overseeing committee, which boasted such A-list scholars as the geologist and lawyer Sir Charles Lyell. Received  archaeological wisdom attributes the development of excavation recording to General Pitt Rivers, yet Pengelly used a simple line and grid system in his excavations at Kent’s Cavern — a technique he developed in Windmill Hill Cave at Brixham, on the other side of Tor Bay. It seems highly likely that Pitt Rivers got the idea from Pengelly. All of Pengelly’s finds were allocated to ‘prisms’, or one foot -by -three foot boxes, which were arranged along a line projected into each part of the cave he excavated.   Because of this recording system, and Pengelly’s notebooks, we can still determine where he dug to within a foot or two. Knowing where he worked also allows us to identify areas where promising sediments might still exist.

Extinct animals

These early excavations uncovered traces of carnivores such as hyaenas, wolves, and the rare scimitar-toothed cat Homotherium, along with Middle Palaeolithic lithics indicative of Neanderthals, and finally Upper Palaeolithic lithics indicative of Homo sapiens. Yet as so many Middle and Upper Palaeolithic artefacts from the cave have been lost, it is impossible to estimate how many were originally found. This hampers attempts to gauge the intensity of activity. Was Neanderthal occupation frequent? Should the cave be regarded as a pivotal site in their activities in the south west, or was their presence ephemeral — perhaps no more than a few, fleeting visits? At least 50 Middle Palaeolithic flint and chert artefacts are known from the cave, including handaxes, scrapers, flakes and cores. While this reveals that Neanderthals were at least occasionally knapping inside the cave’s south entrance in The Great Chamber, nothing in the archaeology demands an intense occupation of the cavern. We suspected that, like most British caves, Neanderthals only visited briefly.

The presence of Homo sapiens during the late Palaeolithic seems equally ephemeral. A few flint artefacts attributable to the Early Upper Palaeolithic culture probably signal a very short stay — perhaps only a single, brief visit – around 35,000 years ago.

New excavations

Our excavations targeted the Great Chamber, Passage of Urns and Wolf’s Cave areas, where carnivore and human activity seems to have been greatest. As we know that the early investigators did not uncover thick archaeological horizons, it follows that if human occupation of the cave was extensive it should be laterally extensive, and we should find it.


This is an extract.  The full article can be found in issue 262 of Current Archaeology, on sale now.


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