An historic cave containing artefacts dating back 120,000 years is finally reopening two years after it was broken into and priceless animal bones stolen.
Nobody has even been caught following the thefts from the Buckfastleigh cave system which saw the thieves break through steels doors before trampling over the uniquely preserved archeological site.
As well as causing thousands of pounds of damage damage, they stole an elephant’s tooth and bison bones dating back 120,000 years.
Over the last two years, the owner of the Joint Mitnor cave – the William Pengelly Cave Studies Trust – has created 3D models of the stolen artefacts and then created replicas so they can be returned to where they were originally found in the 500,000-year-old cave.
The trust has also beefed up its security at the cave entrance and is planning to install CCTV.
A formal reopening ceremony will take place on Saturday, August 12, before the cave is again available for guided tours.
Before the break-in at the cave – which is part of a Buckfastleigh cave system that boasts some three kilometres of tunnels – it opened some 45 times a year for visits from schools, college, universities and history groups who had booked in advance.
Trust secretary Alan Finch said that while not much was stolen in the break-in it was “irreplaceable in the context of that cave”.
He said the cave contained the bones elephants, hippopotamus, lions, bears, hyenas, bison and deer that roamed the area around 120,000 years ago. Many would have fallen into what was then a huge pit following a cave collapse which then reformed as a cave – protecting the remains.
He said: “The most important thing was that the artefacts were in situ where they were originally discovered and that is most unusual. The site was still intact for future research.”
He said that whoever had broken into the cave had “climbed all over the exhibit areas and some of the bones got stolen in the process”.
He said: “The exact cost can only be estimated as we had a great deal of co-operation and goodwill.
“Visits to Natural History Museum, London, which provided the exhibits we needed and arranged the 3-D scanning to a very high definition.
“Birmingham University, which converted that data in exact replica models. The conversion of those models, by creating moulds, then making them in a special gypsum based suitable for the cave environment.
“Specialist scientists from Manchester University made two trips to Devon to carry out repair work then restoration of the damaged area.
“The rebuilding of the security door with improved locking facility.
“We have encountered real expenditure in excess of £2,000 but the true cost, carried by others, runs into many thousands of pounds.”
The cave will be reopened by Prof Patrick Boylan, from Leicester University, who is president of the trust.
Also there will be visitors from the Natural History Museum as well as the experts who had helped create the reproduction artefacts.