The nineteenth century brought huge changes to Kents Cavern as early explorers began to find their way into the caves revealing treasures that had been locked away for thousands of years...
Over thousands of years Kents Cavern has become a natural treasure chest waiting for the next explorer. Throughout the early modern period many people were intrigued by the mystery of the caves and ventured inside. Many inscribed their names on the walls of the cavern, many of which can still be seen today. The earliest inscriptions include those from 'William Petre 1571' and 'Robert Hedges 1688'. Often these early explorers were braving the darkness of the cave, using candles as their only source of light and crawling over the boulder strewn chambers, much different to the cave we know today.
In 1824 Thomas Northmore headed into Kents Cavern searching for underground temples used by followers of Mithraism, a cult which originated in Rome a few thousand years ago. The religion was perceived to be especially popular with Roman soldiers, who were found in the Torbay area using caves such as Ash Hole as a shelter. Northmore discovered the remains of animal bones such as bear and hyena alongside stone tools. It would be Northmore who would lead another well-known Kents Cavern excavator into the cave next…
FATHER JOHN MACENERY
Chaplain to the Cary family who lived at Torre Abbey, MacEnery developed an interest in archaeology and ancient ruins. During summer retreats to the 13th century Ilsham Chapel, situated across the valley from Kents Cavern, MacEnery began to explore the caves and uncovered bones of extinct prehistoric animals and man-made flint tools lying side-by-side under thick stalagmite floors.
MacEnery describes his first encounter with ancient artefacts in Kents Cavern;
"[I went] … to a spot which had been disturbed. On rumbling it over, the lustre of enamel [revealed] the first fossil teeth I had ever seen. As I laid my hands on them, relics of extinct races… I shrank back involuntarily"
Drawings of his findings were prepared for publication but he could not raise the funds to publish his muddled manuscripts. He needed to arrange his recordings but he found them such a jumbled mass of contradictions that he ended up convincing himself that he was wrong.
Today we know that MacEnery had indeed discovered that man had lived in the caves thousands of years ago before 4004BC, the generally accepted date of man's origin according to biblical chronology.
William Pengelly, was inspired by MacEnery's work and had heard of Kents Cavern. A wealthy man, who had moved to Torquay from Cornwall, Pengelly was able to delve deeper into his love of natural history and began working in Brixham Cave. The cave was discovered when workman, laying house foundations, broke into a large cave and found man-made flint tools. It was here that Pengelly's quest for proving human antiquity began.
For his most important and largest excavation yet, Pengelly came to Kents Cavern and launched the 15 year long Great Excavation lasting from 1865-1880. The excavation laid the founding stone for modern archaeological work today. Pengelly and his team dug through stalagmite floors and revealed what lay beneath, tools of ancient man with bones from extinct animals, even discovering hand axes from humans who lived over 450,000 years ago.
Pengelly meticulously recorded every object found, its location and level within the cave sediments. Today, his diaries are some of the best information on the archaeological and geological story of Kents Cavern and give an amazing insight into how the cave might have been during the Victorian period.
Arthur Ogilvy was curator of Torquay Museum and led two excavations in the caves, in 1927 and 1941. His greatest find was a human jawbone, found in 1927, which has been dated to be 41-44,000 years old. It remains the oldest human fossil from modern man ever found in North-West Europe and makes Kents Cavern the earliest known human settlement in Britain.