The Demonstration of Human Antiquity: Three Rediscovered Illustrations from the 1825 and 1846 Excavations in Kent's Cavern (Torquay, England)

By White, M. J.; Pettitt, P. B. | Antiquity, September 2009 | Go to article overview

The Demonstration of Human Antiquity: Three Rediscovered Illustrations from the 1825 and 1846 Excavations in Kent's Cavern (Torquay, England)


White, M. J., Pettitt, P. B., Antiquity


Introduction

Kent's Cavern, Torquay, England (NGR SX 934 642: Figure 1) is one of the most famous sites in the history of archaeology, principally for its early role in the advocacy of a deep human antiquity. Yet remarkably, and despite the fact that major excavations in the cave spanning at least 21 years between 1824 and 1880 involved leading figures such as Buckland, Cuvier, Lyell and Pengelly, no plan, section or other illustration of the nineteenth-century investigations--other than one sketchy section drawing - has ever been formally published, and up to now none was thought to exist. Here, we report on the rediscovery in 2009 of three drawings of the interior of Kent's Cavern, published for the first time with a discussion of their historical significance for our understanding of this site.

Kent's Cavern. nineteenth-century excavations and literature

Kent's Cavern first came to the attention of the scientific world in 1824, when Mr J. Northmore, inspired to search for 'Mithraic temples', investigated the cave in September of that year, and reported his findings of fossils of extinct and exotic mammalian species to the eminent Oxford geologist William Buckland (Pengelly 1868; Kennard 1945). Buckland, who had by this time already established the presence of extinct animals at Kirkdale Cave, Yorkshire and the Goat's Hole cave at Paviland, Gower (Buckland 1823) was quick to recognise the palaeontological significance of this new site and following his own (and others') brief explorations encouraged another interested cleric, the Rev. John MacEnery of Tot Abbey, to undertake fuller investigations.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

MacEnery's excavations, probably intermittent, spanned November 1825 to August 1829 (Pengelly 1869; Kennard 1945), winding down two years before Darwin sailed on HMS Beagle. MacEnery amassed an enormous collection of fossils and a number of Palaeolithic stone tools from different parts of the cave. He recognised very clearly that his work established the co-occurrence of human artefacts with extinct animals (Kenrick 1861, reproduced in Pengelly 1878: 157), contradicting the accepted biblical teaching on human antiquity, yet in the case of Kent's Cavern he was unable to demonstrate deep human antiquity to the wider world. The extent to which Buckland--or a combination of Buckland and Cuvier--suppressed MacEnery's discoveries is debatable. As Grayson (1983: 77) notes, "in the archaeological literature, Buckland has been seen as a retrograde force, retarding the progress of prehistoric archaeology, at least in England,' something usually blamed on his institutional background (Oxford, the Church of England's foremost intellectual establishment). Buckland was committed to reconciling biblical teaching on creation with the newly-emerging geological evidence for the antiquity of the Earth, and to upholding the prevailing 'progressivist' theory that the Mosaic deluge was the last of a series of floods. Extinct fauna had already perished in earlier floods as the world 'developed' into a form in which it was ready to receive humans. Because of this background, therefore, Buckland remained an opponent of arguments claiming an association between humans and extinct animals, and it has even recently been claimed that he wilfully ignored evidence supporting the contrary position (Weston 2008).

Polarised views such as this conceal greater complexities underlying Buckland's position, and do little justice to the man. Grayson (1983: 77-8) notes that it was in fact as a result of Buckland's work that discoveries of humanly-made artefacts and fossil animals were found in British caves in the first place, and that Buckland was understandably cautious of the dangers of cave stratigraphy and what today would be described as stratigraphically intrusive objects and fortuitous associations of items of different ages. Nor did opposition to the notion of human antiquity disappear with Buckland's generation; as Grayson (1983: 77) notes, even more vociferous objections to human antiquity were forwarded by his uniformitarian successors such as Lyell. …

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