Visit date: 13th January 2013

Weather: Cold, but clear and sunny.


The field trip started at Kents (the traditional spelling (D. A. McFarlane & Lundberg 2013)) Cavern itself, where we had a guided tour from one of the Cavern employees. We then walked down the Illsham valley beside the cave system and discussed the formation of caves and the significance, or lack of, of the situation of the cave near a valley (Paul Rainbird pointed out that you would expect to find such caves near what is now a valley, as that’s the kind of geology they occur in!). We walked to the promontory called Hope’s Nose, to see the raised beach (Figure 1) there and then headed back to the cars. Hope’s Nose will not be discussed here, as although it is obviously evidence of sea level alteration appropriate to a discussion of the Palaeolithic, it is primarily of geological, not archaeological, interest.


Figure 1: Raised beach at Hope's Nose. Jan 2013. Source: K Bragg.

Figure 1: Raised beach at Hope’s Nose. Jan 2013. Source: K Bragg.

Kents Cavern

Grid Reference:  SX 934 642



Figure 2: Map of Torbay showing the location of Kents Cavern. Source White & Pettitt 2009 :Fig.1

Figure 2: Map of Torbay showing the location of Kents Cavern. Source White & Pettitt 2009 :Fig.1


Site Overview

Kents Cavern consists of slightly under 1km of passageways formed in the Middle-Upper Devonian Torquay Limestone karst of Lincombe hill, Torquay (Lundberg & D. A. McFarlane 2008 :1-3). It is of interest not only for the geology, but also for the, admittedly contested (M. White & P. Pettitt 2012), claim to have produced the earliest remains of modern humans (T. Higham et al. 2011), a claim that will be considered further later.

Kents Cavern was formed by the weak acid in rainwater slowly dissolving the limestone via fissures in the non-porous rock and slowly etching out the passages we see today. The resulting water percolating through the rock picks up additional mineral content and deposits this in the form of stalactites and stalagmites within the cave, making impressive formations. One of these resembles a face (Figure 3).


Figure 3: The 'flowstone' face. Jan 2013. Source: Author.

Figure 3: The ‘flowstone’ face. Jan 2013. Source: Author.


Investigation History

Year Investigation type Investigation Details
1824 Excavation Northmore begins to excavate Kents Cavern, after reading Buckland’s Reliquiae Diluvianae (Kennard 1945 :156), and in search of a ‘Mithratic Cavern’ (Schulting et al. 2012).
1824 Excavation Sir William Trevelyan dug in Kents Cavern and discovered the teeth of rhinoceros, tiger and hyena, along with jaws of fox and bear (Kennard 1945 :183).
1825 Excavation William Buckland makes a find of a flint knife. Later that same year, Buckland, Northmore and MacEnery discover a rhinoceros tooth and what would seem to be a further flint blade (Kennard 1945 :185-6).
1825-1829 Excavation At the behest of the geologist William Buckland (M J White & P B Pettitt 2009), Father John MacEnery excavated within Kent’s Cavern periodically from 1825 to 1829 (Mihai et al. 2010). Among his finds were flint tools sealed in a deposit below a flowstone floor, in association with the remains of extinct animals. At the time, the idea that this therefore proved the antiquity of man, was rejected by Buckland and others as contradicting the biblical understanding of the history of the human species, and the publication of these findings suppressed (P. B. Pettitt & M. J. White 2010), although it is also suggested that the cost of publication was the prohibitive factor (Pengelly 1868).MacEnery’s excavations were important to development of the discipline of archaeology, as the discoveries made at Kents Cavern helped to prove the antiquity of the human species and the co-existence with animals now observably extinct (M J White & P B Pettitt 2009:767).
1865-1880 Excavation Pengelly undertook a more comprehensive excavation of Kents Cavern, greatly enlarging the space within the cave as he discovered passages and chambers that had been filled with sediment (Proctor & Smart 1989).Aside from the artefacts discovered during excavation, the importance of Pengelly’s work at Kents Cavern lies also with his systematic excavation methodology (Figure 4), a methodology that may have influenced General Pitt-Rivers in the development of modern archaeological techniques (P. B. Pettitt & M. J. White 2010). Pengelly used a system of ‘prisms’ to systematically record where in the cave the artefacts were located, raising his work far above that of most contemporary Victorian antiquarians (D. A. McFarlane & Lundberg 2005 :40). Further work has found errors with his survey (Mihai et al. 2010), errors that can possibly be forgiven when one considers the candle-lit and cramped conditions under which he would have been working.
1926-1941 Excavation During excavations between 1926-1941 (Hilts 2012 :13), Dowie and Ogilvie discovered the KC4 Maxilla fragment in 1927, belonging to what is claimed as an anatomically modern human (D. A. McFarlane & Lundberg 2013). The dating of this find has been a source of controversy as Higham et al. (2011) have claimed a date of 44.2-41.5 ka cal BP for this tooth fragment, based not on direct dating –  as too little collagen remained, but from the radiocarbon determinations of faunal remains in close stratigraphic proximity (P. Pettitt & M. White 2012 :382). Pettit and White argue that the assumption that the deposits in which all the artefacts were located were undisturbed, is problematic, demonstrated by the dating for material found above the maxilla returning an older date, meaning that the contexts were disturbed. Even from the point of view of the geology, establishing stratigraphic relationships for sediments deposited in caves is problematic (Lundberg & D. A. McFarlane 2007 :207).The implications of the claimed date would be that modern humans were present in the British Isles much earlier than previously thought, and therefore that technologies previously attributed to Neanderthals based on date determinations, are now possible attributable to modern humans instead and that the possibility of interaction between Neanderthal and Modern Humans is greatly increased. (P. Pettitt & M. White n.d.). This obviously would have implications for our understanding of tool development and knowledge transmission, and possibly even exchange of artefacts between the different groups, and would have the potential to rewrite the story of the Palaeolithic in Britain entirely, so the controversy over both the species and the dating is of quite some importance.
1934 Survey Kents Cavern was surveyed by P. M. B. Lake in 1934 and a plan produced that represented the layout of the cave but not the elevation (Proctor & Smart 1989).
2009 Excavation Using Pengelly’s notes and diagrams, Paul Pettit and Mark White sought out unexcavated cave sediments, in search of artefacts that could provide dating evidence, environmental evidence, and to reassess the earlier excavations (P. Pettitt & M. White 2012a :16).


Figure 4: The Pengelly Excavation System. Source: D. A. McFarlane & Lundberg 2005: Fig.1

Figure 4: The Pengelly Excavation System. Source: D. A. McFarlane & Lundberg 2005: Fig.1

Chronology and Current Interpretation

The earliest use of the cave seems to be as a hibernation site for cave bear Ursus deningeri/speleaus, whose occupation seems to date to the Marine Isotope Stage 12 or 11 (D. a. McFarlane & Lundberg 2013 :1629). Acheulian flint tools were found by MacEnery and have been suggested to be around 500,000 years old. From their condition, it is suggested that they actually originated outside the cave and were washed in (Lundberg & D. a. McFarlane 2007 :220). The small number of Aurignacian artefacts found is probably representing a brief occupation, rather than residence (P. Pettitt & M. White 2012 :406).

The KC4 Maxilla, as discussed above, demonstrates the presence of what are purported to be anatomically modern humans in the cave, sometime during MIS3 (P. Pettitt & M. White 2012 :382). There is some doubt as to whether the sample is a modern human, and may well be a later Neanderthal, owing to some ambiguity in the morphology of the specimen when compared to the rules used to distinguish between the two (P. Pettitt & M. White 2012a).

Mesolithic bone fragments have also been found in the cave, including part of an ulna from the Sloping Chamber, excavated by Pengelly (Schulting et al. 2012). A radiocarbon assessment of this bone yielded an early Mesolithic date (OxA-20588: 7314–7075 cal BC at 95% confidence). This bone was broken at around the time of death, and also exhibits cut-marks suggestive of removal of flesh, possibly as part of a ritual to transform the body, or anthropophagy, which Schulting et al. appear to gingerly express a preference for as the interpretation (Schulting et al. 2012).

As most of the finds from Kents Cavern have since been lost or distributed to private collections, it is impossible to assess what was originally found and its potential meaning. The artefacts from the cave span from Middle Palaeolithic tools assumed to be of Neanderthal manufacture, to Upper Palaeolithic tools indicative of modern humans. In either case, extended occupation within the cave is not thought to have happened and the artefacts are as a result of seasonal occupation associated with hunting. It is suggested that the situation of the cave beside a narrow valley afforded an opportunity for hunting wild animals by corralling them into the valley and then picking them off, and explains the use of the cave (P. Pettitt & M. White 2012b).


Higham, T. et al., 2011. The earliest evidence for anatomically modern humans in northwestern Europe. Nature, 479, pp.521–524.

Hilts, C., 2012. First modern human in Britain? Kent’s Cavern Controversy. Current Archaeology, (262), pp.12–13.

Kennard, A.S., 1945. The early digs in Kent’s Hole, Torquay, and Mrs. Cazalet. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, 56(4), pp.156–213. Available at: [Accessed April 30, 2013].

Lundberg, J. & McFarlane, D.A., 2008. Kents Cavern: a field guide to the natural history, William Pengelly Cave Studies Trust and Kents Cavern.

Lundberg, J. & McFarlane, D.A., 2007. Pleistocene depositional history in a periglacial terrane: A 500 k.y. record from Kents Cavern, Devon, United Kingdom. Geosphere, 3(4), p.199. Available at: [Accessed January 15, 2013].

McFarlane, D.A. & Lundberg, J., 2013. On the occurrence of the scimitar-toothed cat, Homotherium latidens (Carnivora; Felidae), at Kents Cavern, England. Journal of Archaeological Science, 40(4), pp.1629–1635. Available at: [Accessed January 15, 2013].

McFarlane, D.A. & Lundberg, J., 2005. The 19th century excavation of Kent’s Cavern, England. Journal of Cave and Karst Studies, 67(1), pp.39–47.

Mihai, S. et al., 2010. Pengelly’s legacy reconsidered: a GIS approach to spatial analysis of palaeontological and archaeological collections from Kents Cavern, England. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, 121(3), pp.319–325. Available at: [Accessed March 12, 2013].

Pengelly, W., 1868. The literature of Kent’s Cavern, prior to 1859. Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature, and Art., 1, pp.469–522.

Pettitt, P. B. & White, M. J., 2010. Cave men: Stone tools, Victorian science, and the “primitive mind” of deep time. Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 65(1), pp.25–42. Available at: [Accessed April 28, 2013].

Pettitt, P. & White, M., Ancient Digs and Modern Myths: The Age and Context of the Kent’s Cavern 4 Maxilla and the Earliest Homo sapiens Specimens in Europe [Online]. Maney Publishing. Available at: 28/04/2013.

Pettitt, P. & White, M., 2012a. Early Homo sapiens in Kent’s Cavern. Current Archaeology, (262), pp.20–21.

Pettitt, P. & White, M., 2012b. Return to Kent’s Cavern: New excavations in Britain’s oldest Scheduled Ancient Monument. Current Archaeology, (262), pp.14–19.

Pettitt, P. & White, M., 2012c. The British Paleolithic: Human Societies at the Edge of the Pleistocene World, Abingdon: Routledge.

Proctor, C.J. & Smart, P.L., 1989. A new survey of Kent’s Cavern, Devon. University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, 18(3), pp.422–429.

Schulting, R.J. et al., 2012. A Cut-marked and Fractured Mesolithic Human Bone from Kent’s Cavern, Devon, UK. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. Available at: [Accessed April 28, 2013].

White, M J & Pettitt, P B, 2009. The demonstration of human antiquity: three rediscovered illustrations from the 1825 and 1846 excavations in Kent’s Cavern (Torquay, England). Antiquity, 83, pp.758–768.

White, M. & Pettitt, P., 2012. Ancient Digs and Modern Myths: The Age and Context of the Kent’s Cavern 4 Maxilla and the Earliest Homo sapiens Specimens in Europe. European Journal of Archaeology, 15(3), pp.392–420. Available at: [Accessed April 10, 2013].


Written on January 13th, 2013 , Diploma Year One

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

archaeo.log is proudly powered by WordPress and the Theme Adventure by Eric Schwarz
Entries (RSS) and Comments (RSS).


Notes from a field