James Lyon Widger was born in Broadhempston village, Devon and spent 20 years excavating the karst limestone caves in Torbryan. He dug alone in the dark to discover a sequence of British wildlife stretching back for 200,000 years. He began in 1865 just as the debate over the age of the world intensified.
His finds tell a story that he himself could not have imagined. His own story is part of the long battle between old ideas and new that are evidenced in the church of Holy Trinity in Torbryan. Working for The Churches Conservation Trust, I developed interpretation to tell that story of change from medieval devotion through Reformation iconoclasm, and we also created this cabinet about Widger’s Dig. It is the next stage in the tale.
We needed something that would not take over the view from the altar to the tower, as some religious services are still held in Holy Trinity. That something had to convey a sense of mystery to encourage visitors to discover the story for themselves. Smith & Jones Design created this cube cabinet, and we layered in information and activities for adults and children. I ran a project with Denbury Primary School for six weeks and the children got to grips with the Ice Age and spotted hyenas through studying Widger’s dig. They gave ideas for the cabinet.
The pull-up panels tell James Lyon Widger’s story in brief. The top drawer is about the caves and how far the Ice Age glacial sheet extended over Europe. Then the drawers open as the dig, going downwards and back through time.
Second drawer – shows animals Widger found back to 11,700 BP The Holocene Epoch
Third drawer – Into the Ice Age – to 70,000 BP The Devensian Glacial, included woolly rhinos, cave lions and hyenas.
Fourth drawer – Warming Up – to 128,000 BP The Ipswichian Interglacial, when hippos, hyenas and straight-tusked elephants all lived around Torbryan.
Fifth drawer – Freezing – to 200,000 BP The Wolstonian Glacial, more woolly rhinos, mammoths, cave lions, and lots of brown bears, clawless otters and wolverines. The layers of bones had different little lemmings, each a specialist herbivore, revealing the plants and the habitats.
Sixth Drawer – Spotted Hyenas. Widger found the remains of 600 hyenas in the caves. The school children studied their behaviour and habitats in Tanzania, to understand how the climate had changed around Torbryan, before visiting Torbay Museum and learning about the Ice Age.
NB No access to the caves, a protected SSSI, on private land, dangerous.
5 thoughts on “Widger’s Dig”
Is the image of James Lyon Widger used in the cabinet taken from Walker & Sutcliffe (1967)?
It is the same as the photograph in the Walker & Sutcliffe biography of J L Widger and the Torbryan caves, which is held in the Torquay museum, but I think I sourced the image online. It was a while ago now.
Thank you for the information. Best, Ron