Deep Time in Kents Cavern: Kents Cavern, Devon, Is Famous throughout the World for Its Wealth of Archaeology and Geology. August 2003 Marks the Centenary of Ownership by Four Generations of the Powe Family. Margaret Powling Investigates the Cave's Prehistoric Past and Looks towards Its Future. (Frontline)

Article excerpt

A LARGE SOLUTION CAVE within a limestone rift system, Kents Cavern, on the west side of Lincombe Hill, Torquay, is a natural treasure chest of forgotten remains and one of Europe's most important ancient sites. Implements found there include some that date back almost half a million years, and many flints associated with the Neathderthals, while a human jawbone uncovered in 1927 is 31,000 years old, providing the oldest evidence of modern man (Homo sapiens) in northwest Europe.

According to the Devon-born historian W.G. Hoskins (1908-92), 'In Kents Cavern ... we have the oldest recognisable human dwellings in Britain. Here Neanderthal man sought a winter refuge from the cold of the last Ice Age, and here have been found a quantity of Mousterian implements deposited round about a hundred thousand years ago.'

By the eighteenth century, Kents Hole, as it was then known, had acquired something of a local reputation for mystery: it was a place where bones and pieces of pottery could occasionally be found. The brave and the curious crawled in through the dark passages, some leaving graffiti as evidence of their visit. But increasingly people came for scientific reasons and from the 1820s Kents Cavern was seen by some as providing evidence that man could have existed for longer than the 6,000 years implied by the Bible.

The first excavators were amateur enthusiasts and collectors, such as Father John McEnery, who had come to Torquay from Ireland in 1822. He recovered a large collection of artefacts from the cave including skulls of cave bears and the remains of hyenas and wolves. On a visit to Torquay, future prime minister William Gladstone met Father John, noting in his diary of September 19th, 1832, 'Spent some hours at Kents Cavern ... in digging and hammering ... and we brought home some specimens.'

Around this time a young teacher William Pengelly (1812-94) moved to Torquay from East Looe, Cornwall, where he set up a private school. His interest in natural history made the cave a focus of fascination. In March 1865 he began excavations with the approval of the Cave's then owner, Lord Haldon. A grant was awarded by the British Association to help pay for the work.

During the next fifteen years Pengelly removed more than 80,000 different objects from the cave, carefully identifying each one by a special code number. Animal bones and flint tools were sent by Pengelly to museums and collectors around the world, but by far the greatest number was kept at Torquay's new Natural History Museum (now Torquay Museum), which he also funded (by the 1860s he was being employed to teach the children of several European royal families). …