THE STORY SO FAR
A TIME TRAVELLERS GUIDE TO KENTS CAVERN
For the reader to understand the story of Kents Cavern it is perhaps best to imagine that we can transport you through time. You will be taken back to a remote period and then gradually brought forward stopping at all the key moments in the incredibly long story of the caves. At each stop you will arrive at exactly the same location (a spot just in front of the present-day cave entrance. The story has been revealed by generations of explorers and scientists. It is a tale that is continuing to be written as more and more discoveries are made.
TIME STOP 1
For the beginning of our story imagine yourself being taken back over 370 million years to a remote time that geologists call the Devonian period. When you have adjusted to the shock of time travel you find you are floating in a shallow sea. The sea is warm, which is not surprising as you are much nearer to the Equator (in fact you are 25 degrees south of it rather than 51 degrees north as we are in modern times). Many miles to the north large mountains can be seen. The sky is occasionally lit up by an erupting volcano, poking its head out of the sea far to the west. The water is teeming with many types of fish, some that look familiar and others that are strange and bizarre.
A sudden tidal surge has pushed you nearer to the shore and the scene before you is of a coast covered in a bewildering variety of fern-like plants, some the size of small trees. There are no large land animals to see, only the odd crawling insect. The tide is now turning and you are pulled out to sea again. Your last clear view of the shore is of exposed mud flats over which some air-breathing fish are slithering and making the first cautious attempts to move out of the water onto dry land. Back in the warm tropical sea you look down and just under the water you see a huge coral reef with many 'arms' or branches. It is teeming with marine life but will in time die and, millions of years later, become the limestone hill in which Kents Cavern will be found.
You are now moving forward in time towards the next time stop. Rapid changes are taking place in front of your eyes. The sea at first gets deeper and thick deposits of silt and mud bury the once thriving coral reef. The sea level rises and falls several times.
Strange animals swim through it, ranging from small, many-legged little creatures called Trilobites to huge sharks. The sea level falls and the area becomes dry land. A huge mountain chain is being built up just to the south. The temperature has got warmer as not only has the land moved up and down but it is also moving northwards crossing the Equator and beginning its journey to its present position. The mountains are now moving north and you are standing on top of them. A long way beneath your feet the layers containing the long-dead coral are being buckled and compressed Just to the north, deep below the mountains, molten rock is being thrust up through the earth, forming a huge block of granite that will later form the area known as Dartmoor. Volcanoes can at times be seen erupting out of the land.
Insects like dragonflies and mayflies pass over head whilst reptiles of increasing number and variety can be seen. The mountains begin to be worn down until you are in a huge lowland plain with many rivers dumping great deposits of gravel along their way. Dinosaurs begin to roam the land. The sea level rises once more and we are again underwater. Erosion has begun to uncover the huge granite mass that will be Dartmoor and it is now a large island. The sea level continues to vary but we finally end up on dry land and erosion gradually begins to expose the dead coral, which has now formed into hard limestone.
TIME STOP 2
You finally stop for a brief period on your travels. The time is about 2 to 3 million years ago. It is raining and the water is soaking into the soil, percolating down into the rock beneath. Imagine yourself going down with the rain, for it is not the landscape around us that we are interested in, but rather what is going on underground.
The rain is entering into the ancient limestone, passing down through narrow cracks formed when the rock was broken by nearby mountain-building. From small cracks the water passes down into larger ones. As it trickles through the acids in the rainwater dissolve away some of the limestone enlarging the cracks even more. The amount of water is building up underground, and as more is filtering down it is being increasingly put under pressure.
As the pressure grows the water is forced through the cracks, moving along, up and down, swirling around and cutting out winding channels in the rock. It is these channels which will later form the large cave system known as Kents Cavern.
TIME STOP 3
You are suddenly carried forward through time again. When you stop the scene that meets your eyes is one of the most important in our story, but perhaps surprisingly one of the least understood. For this reason you should imagine you are wearing glasses that have been painted over. Mostly the paint is thick, but in areas it is spread a little thinner and you can dimmly see through. In just a few places it has been scratched away and very small, but very clear, parts of the scene are visible.The glasses do not allow you to know how old the scene is, you just know that it is very old, probably at least a half million years, but you are not sure.
You can just make out a valley but you cannot be certain whether there are any trees and bushes. You cannot even tell if it is cold or warm. You could be standing knee-deep in snow in the middle of a frozen landscape or walking on dry ground, baked hard by a warm sun.
Suddenly you see some movement. Something small has darted across the scene and disappeared into a hole in the hill. It looked like a fox but you are not sure. The animal was disturbed by something moving up the valley. There is a group of figures moving towards you. They are clearly human but you cannot make out their exact appearance. Are they wearing some sort of clothing of animal skins or are they naked but with fairly hairy bodies? You cannot tell.
You get a slightly better glimpse of their heads as they come closer and you can see that they are definitely not like you. The forehead is lower and the overall shape of the skull is flatter and perhaps smaller. The most obvious features however are the heavy brow ridges, over the eyes, and the massive lower jaw. You get only a quick glimpse however and the figures move past.
They approach the hillside and stop at the mouth of the cave. They start to enter but something causes them to stop - they are obviously feeling uneasy. They appear to be sniffing the air and scanning the ground for signs. They begin to relax slightly and, though not going down further into the cave, squat down in the shelter of the entrance. You now become aware that they have been carrying things and that they are putting them on the floor.
One is arranging a pile of dry twigs and is blowing on something that is glowing brightly. Suddenly the twigs are ablaze and larger pieces of wood are added. Another seems to be preparing food, you are sure you can see things like nuts, some oddly shaped roots and perhaps the leg of an animal, probably a deer. Yet another seems to be banging stones together. You look closer and see that one of the pieces is a lump of flint, and that by using the other stone, chips and flakes are being knocked from it. Occasionally the person stops and picks up one of the flakes to examine it, after which it is cast aside or sometimes carefully put to one side with a selected group of others. The one preparing the food sometimes picks up one of these flakes and uses it to cut up the roots or meat. Finally the chipping of the flint stops and the lump that is left is closely inspected. Apparently it is now the desired shape as it is put alongside the specially chosen flakes.
Darkness is falling and the group is settling for the night. They have built up the fire and there is a pile of branches that they collected earlier lying nearby. Time passes and all seems quiet, when suddenly there is a commotion among the group. Soon you begin to hear what has disturbed them. In the darkness further along the hill some animals are moving. The occasional roar soon tells you that the dark shapes you can just see are lions. The people huddle together, the fire is stirred up and blazes away. Sticks are grabbed, some with burning ends and stones are gathered near to hand ready to throw if needed. The lions move on however. Perhaps they are not hungry or perhaps the fire kept them away. The group settles down again, though they are clearly not as relaxed as before.
A few hours pass. The sun is beginning to come up and you find that you have been sleeping. The group of people have already left and are nowhere to be seen. You walk over to the cave mouth and see the remains of their fire. Underfoot you find you are standing on some of the discarded chips of flint. The shaped lump of flint you saw being made the night before has also been left in one corner. Perhaps it was not good enough or it has already served its purpose. You stop to sniff the air at the cave mouth, as the people had previously done. You can vaguely pick up a distinctive odour which you cannot make out. Leading into the cave are large, dried footprints of some clawed animal. You enter the cave to find out what the animal is and come face to face in the depths of the cave with a large Cave Bear - a mother feeling very protective about her newborn cubs. It is time to move on to the next scene.
TIME STOP 4
The scene has now changed once again. At least 400,000 years have now passed. The flint tools of the earlier visitors have long ago been washed deep into the cave and are buried alongside the numerous bones of long-dead bears in the hard, almost concrete-like, layer which the later excavators called the 'Breccia'. The 'breccia' itself has also become buried and sealed under a thick layer of material, known as 'crystaline stalagmite'.
The view you see outside the cave is slightly different from before and certainly a lot clearer. Two entrances can now be seen in front of you with the one on the right being a little lower than the one on the left. The valley is a lot deeper than before but has the same general layout as today. Walking to the top of the hill above the cave you look toward where the sea and Torbay should be but they are not there.
Instead of the sea there is a large grassland plain, though perhaps in the far distance you can make out the faint glimmer of an open area of water. In some places there seem to be large dark shadows sweeping across the lowland area. You soon realise with some surprise that these are vast herds of grazing animals.If you moved closer you would be able to recognise that these animals are mostly reindeer and horse, though mixed in with the main group there are others such as red deer, bison (like the North American buffalo), tall, large-horned cattle also known as Aurochs (these are the wild ancestors of our domesticated cattle) and a type of rhinoceros covered in a thick shaggy coat.
Seeing the Woolly Rhinoceros you realise that it is quite cold and that there are odd patches of snow in some of the areas that are protected from the sun. Despite this however it is clearly Spring as you can tell from the lush grass and the vast blanket of flowers which give vivid splashes of colour to many areas of the scene. You do not see many trees apart from a few stunted groups in areas that are exposed to the sun, yet protected from the wind. Looking out over the plain again you can see some large dark shapes lumbering into view. There are five of them and they look similar to modern elephants but they are smaller and have a very sloping back. The most distinctive feature about these Woolly Mammoths however is their thick, hairy coats. Also moving on the plain are smaller, lithely-moving animals, slowly approaching a group of reindeer. The mammoths ignore the stalking wolves as these and the other hunters around are of little worry to them.
Shifting your gaze to the valley below you may be lucky to catch sight of smaller animals like hares, badgers foxes and a strange badger-like creature called a wolverine. Your attention however is drawn to a burst of activity - a deer is running through part of the valley. It is stumbling and is clearly injured. Following closely on its heels are large dog-like animals with spotted coats. These are Hyenas, one of the most powerful of the many carnivores that roam the area. Some of the hyenas have already circled around in front of the deer whilst other continue to dart in from behind, biting at its back legs.
Hyenas are often thought of as cowardly scavengers today but as you see in the valley in front of you they can be very efficient and ruthless hunters at times as well. The hunt soon comes to an inevitable end as the hyenas close in on the fallen deer. Soon the deer is dead and the hyenas begin to divide up the kill. They drag parts of it away, up towards the entrances of the caves. They are doing this to protect their kill from the attention of other predators. A group of lionesses not far off are beginning to sniff the air and take an interest at the smell of the fresh kill. The hyenas are also taking food back to their young, which they have left in the protective darkness of the caves.
The overall scene you have just witnessed is set way back in the last Ice Age, a period which may have lasted for nearly 100,000 years. For much of this period the picture will stay roughly the same, sometimes getting slightly warmer, sometimes slightly colder. The characters in the overall scene will also largely stay the same though it will not just be the hyenas dragging their prey into the caves as at times they were to be replaced by others like the wolves and the lions. Bears will also frequently visit the caves, particularly during the winter to hibernate. There is one set of characters missing from the scene however - the People. The next three stops occur during this long period and we see how the people gradually change.
TIME STOP 5
It is about 50,000 years ago and the scene of the two entrances to the caves is in front of you. At various times people pass in and out of both of them. The figures are clearly wearing clothes made from animal skins. They carry a variety of things including simple spears of wood with sharpened ends, simple bags made of leather perhaps containing gathered plants or lumps of flint from which to make tools or small animals and birds caught whilst hunting.
There is a woman carrying a large bundle of moss which she intends to dry thoroughly and use as bedding, or perhaps as tinder to start a fire. You look more closely at her face and though she does not look that dissimilar to you there are some differences. The ridges above the eyes are more pronounced, the forehead slightly slopes, the nose is wider and flatter and the chin is more rounded. These differences are fairly minor however compared with the people you saw around a half million years before.
This woman belongs to a race of people far more closely related to you. She is a Neanderthal, the race of people who, for at least the first half of the last Ice Age, roamed largely unchallenged across the face of Europe.
TIME STOP 6
You blink and instantly move forward in time nearly 20,000 years. The scene is almost identical as before. There are the same two entrances and there is a person moving cautiously into one of them. Again you move closer for a better look. This time it is a man. His clothes are slightly better made, though still simply fashioned of sewn leather. The spear he carries is different as it is tipped with a finely shaped piece of flint.
As before you look closely at the persons' face but this time the differences you noticed on the womans' face are not there. Although the face is rugged, weather-beaten and bearded you can clearly see that it belongs to a person like yourself. Before you can observe any more the man moves away, entering the dark mouth of the cave.
You think about following but a sudden burst of noise stops you. You can hear growling, the slithering of stones and finally a scream. A human scream which is quickly drowned and silenced in further growls and the cackling laughter-like sound you might recognise as that belonging to a hyena. You wisely move away, not wishing to become the hyenas' dessert, and again step through time.
TIME STOP 7
You have moved forward another 18,000 years and again everything looks very familiar. However since your last stop there has been an extremely cold period of weather, lasting some 10,000 years, when the glaciers of ice moved as far south as the coast of South Wales. The scene at the caves was very bleak and windswept, with all but the hardiest of the animals having migrated further south in order to survive.
The weather now though has returned to its previous state, and consequently most of the animals have returned to the area. One difference that you immediately notice though is that one of the entrances, the one on the left, is blocked up. Around the other entrance there is again a group of people. Their clothes, still made of leather, are far more finely stitched than the ones you have sen before. You quickly see the reason why, as sitting on the ground is a man repairing a leather coat and he is using a small and extremely delicate needle made of bone. Looking past the man into the cave you see three other men sitting around a fire, two of whom are preparing food.
You can see traces of many past fires showing that the place has been visited often. The floor is also littered with pieces of flint, either pieces of waste, or broken and discarded tools. These are mixed with a variety of animal bones. The third man by the fire is carving something using a flint tool. Already by his side is a finished spearhead, or harpoon, made of bone. He is now making something different. He is shaping a creamy white rod, which is in fact a piece of ivory. It comes from one of the large curving tusks of a woolly mammoth.
Suddenly the scene starts to fade and it is time to leave-these Ice Age hunters and move on into warmer times. Time is passing quite quickly now and you hardly stop on the way back to the present, but there are still several episodes of the story to catch a glimpse of on the way. The age of the woolly mammoth has ended and modern times are approaching. Trees are springing up around you and many different types of plant are flourishing. The sound of many different bird calls can be heard all around. Apart from the many more trees and the absence of houses, roads and other man-made disturbances, the scene is almost exactly the same as today as you are in the last few thousand years of the story.
TIME STOP 8
You pause briefly on your journey to see four people carrying a dead companion into the cave. The body is reverently placed in a grave dug into the thick layer of stalagmite which forms the floor just inside the entrance of the cave. After a short time they leave and stoop to pick up the bows and arrows they had left outside. These hunter-gatherers of 8,000 years ago quickly pass out of view.
TIME STOP 9
Time has passed and the burial party is replaced by a single figure who is trying to chop down a small tree. The man is dressed differently to any you have seen before as his clothes include garments made of woven sheeps' wool. This man is a farmer. The axe he is using is made of a flint which has been highly polished and it is bound into a wooden handle. The end of the axe breaks off and the man curses. He picks up the broken piece, tosses it into the cave and walks away in disgust.
TIME STOP 10
From your first view of a farmer around 5,000 years ago you move on 1,500 years nearer to the present. Again people are using the cave as a cemetary. These are however more farmers and they are burying highly decorated pots made of reddish clay along with their dead. A small group of people are also outside digging a hole in a crevice in the hillside.
Beside them is a wrapped bundle about the size of a football. When the hole is considered to be ready a woman picks up the bundle and unwraps it revealing the grisly sight of a human head. The head is placed in the hole and covered over (it will remain undisturbed for nearly 3,500 years until uncovered by two inquisitive Birmingham schoolboys in 1925.
TIME STOP 11
The scene changes quickly again and a few hundred years have passed. A man is kneeling just inside the entrance of the cave. Beside him is a small intense fire set into a small depression dug into the floor. Using two pieces of wood as tongs the man picks up a small clay crucible from near the fire.
The crucible contains molten bronze, a mixture of copper and tin. The liquid metal is poured into a tightly bound stone mould. On the floor next to the man are other bronze objects made in a similar way. They include an axe, a knife and a spearhead. The image of the metalworker fades as the time shifts once again.
TIME STOP 12
It is now only about 2,000 years ago and a little girl sits in the entrance to the cave. Her hair is braided and she wears a checked woollen dress. By her side is a pile of sheeps' wool and she is slowly spinning this into thread using a rod of wood weighted at one end by a circular disc made of stone. Every now and then she looks up to keep a wary eye on a small flock of sheep grazing in the area just in front of the caves. In the distance further down the valley she can see smoke drifting up to the sky from her families' farm.
Occasionally she dips her hand into an elaborately decorated pot and pulls out a morsel of food. Inside the cave are fragments of other similar pots, evidence of accidents on past visits.
TIME STOP 13
You travel on for another few years and the new scene is of a Roman picnic. The small group of people are local farmers, although the Roman style of their clothing shows that they are quite wealthy. One figure glaringly stands out from the rest as he is dressed in the uniform of a Roman soldier. The man is on leave from a distant garrison and has come home to visit his family. The special outing to the caves is in his honour.
After eating and drinking the group enters the cave to explore its wonders. After a considerable time the party reemerges, but the soldier remains briefly and places two bronzes coins in a crack in the rock wall as a silent offering to the spirit of the cave. He then rejoins his party and they start on their journey home.
You are nearly 'home' now, back to the present. As the last few hundred years slowly pass by you occasionally see one or two men go into the caves. They look very much like grown-ups do today. Some carry digging tools with them, one pushes a wheelbarrow in. A little while later he comes back out of the cave with the barrow full of earth and rock, and he empties it in front of the cave entrance and goes back inside. These are the early explorers who re-opened the caves, and discovered some of the mysteries that were buried within. The passages became wide enough once more to allow thousands of curious visitors to come in and see where the adventures had taken place.
TIME STOP 14
You are standing in front of the caves, surrounded by children. You know them, they are your schoolfriends, and there is your teacher. Your class has come to visit the caves, and there is your guide to take you in to the caves.