Kent's Cavern paper published

In 2012 White and Pettitt (2012) published a paper in the European Journal of Archaeology commenting on the site of Kent's Cavern and specifically the work that our group had done on the site and its chronology (Higham et al., 2011). According to White and Pettitt (2012) the excavation of the site by the Torquay Natural History Society (TNHS) was 'a poorly executed and poorly recorded enterprise' and the context of the KC4 maxilla so unclear that it ‘may just as well have stayed in the ground for all its value to modern Palaeoanthropology’. Zilhão (2013) repeated their claims. According to these authors the site had no stratigraphic integrity whatsoever and our estimate of the age of the KC4 human maxilla of ~40-43000 cal BP was pointless and misleading.

Our paper addressed their criticisms. It took us 4 years of patient work before our paper eventually appeared.

One of the key sources of information regarding the TNHS excavations at the Kent's site is a journal that contains detailed reports on who was at the site, what they were finding, what depths they were working at, what tools they had purchased, and a wealth of information such as photographs, section drawings, an inventory of flints and accounts of the excavation. The journal is housed in the Torquay Museum. The excavators also published annual reports on their work through the British Association.

The excavation has, however, been criticised by authors such as Campbell and Sampson (1971) and Tingley and Chandler (2008) as being poorly recorded. Campbell and Sampson (1971: 6) said of the TNHS excavations that ‘for most of their finds one only knows that they come from Kent’s Cavern, since no data on locality or even depth were recorded’. This shows that these authors cannot have seen or read the Journal, otherwise they would know that this is simply not true. White and Pettitt (2012) accepted the word of these authors without question. They heavily cite Tingley and Chandler (2008) in their paper. While Tingley and Chandler (2008) did use the archive, they found it cryptic and confusing. It is important to note, however, that Tingley and Chandler (2008) is an unpublished undergraduate student long essay done by someone (Tingley) who did no work in the cave and seemingly was unaware of the British Association reports of the excavation. To rely on this as one's principal source of information on the excavation is rather like relying on the Sun for a comprehensive analysis of daily news. Our analysis of the Journal and archives reveals a completely different picture from that previously published by these authors and shows that the excavation was a competently conducted exercise and not nearly as bad as indicated (contra White and Pettitt 2012). Claims regarding the means by which the sediments were accumulated in the cave (supposedly by flooding according to Zilhão and White and Pettitt) also turn out to be baseless. Geological work by Chris and Janet Proctor has shown that the sequence is a typical colluvial cave earth gradually deposited in subaerial conditions by a combination of processes including cryoturbation, soil creep, minor hill wash and collapse of cave walls and roof. The sequence of radiocarbon determinations that we produced in 2011 and in the current paper shows an orderly sequence with the earliest dates to the bottom and the youngest at the top; the opposite of what one would expect if the sequence were mixed and affected by flooding and redeposition.

The paper is out today in the European Journal of Archaeology, and if you want to get the whole story, it can be downloaded here.

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