Successful Colonisers: 500,000-300,000 years ago

Evidence suggests that human populations in northern Europe expanded significantly from around 500,000 years ago, with an increase in the number and size of sites. By this time, technological advances may have allowed humans to become better adapted to northern environments.

Sites can be divided into:

  • Those associated with the now extinct Bytham River, pre-dating the Anglian Glaciation that occurred around 450,000 years ago
  • Those post-dating the Anglian Glaciation

Together the sites form an unparalleled record for understanding these new technologies.

The Breckland of Suffolk and Norfolk has a remarkably rich record for the post-Anglian period and, importantly, includes sites with excellent preservation of environmental data.One such site is at East Farm, Barnham, where new excavations have taken place since 2013, run in part as a student training school in conjunction with Leiden University.


The site at East Farm is in an old clay pit, known since the turn of the twentieth century to contain Lower Palaeolithic artefacts. Earlier excavations were conducted between 1989 and 1994, providing artefact assemblages and floral and faunal remains.

Excavations at the Faunal Area, Barnham
Excavations at the faunal area of East Farm, Barnham

The environmental evidence suggests a slow-moving stream surrounded by grassland and deciduous vegetation. The channel eventually dried out and the deposits and artefact assemblages date to the Hoxnian Interglacial, around 400,000 years ago.

There are three main areas of research for this site:

1.) Reinvestigation of handaxe/non-handaxe assemblages

We are reinvestigating two different lithic assemblage types at the site – one without handaxes (Clactonian) and one with handaxes (Acheulian). Research during the 1990s concluded that both assemblage types were found in similar deposits at different parts of the site and were therefore at least geologically contemporary.

Handaxe found at the Barnham Palaeolithic Excavations
Handaxe found at Barnham in 1994 (both faces)

The favoured interpretation was that the same group of people was responsible for both assemblages, but with different activities and tools in the two areas.

A more complex picture is emerging through our recent fieldwork, which re-examines the evidence with improved resolution of the geology. It seems that the non-handaxe assemblage is slightly earlier than the handaxe assemblage, and that two separate human populations are represented.

This leads to questions such as:

  • What is the time gap between the occupations?
  • Can different populations be identified at other sites of this age?
  • Were different hominin species responsible for the different industries?
  • Can other technological differences be identified?

2.) Interpreting evidence of burning

Evidence of Fire at the Barnham Palaeolithic Excavations
Searching for charcoal as evidence of burning at Barnham

Abundant quantities of burnt flint have been found at Barnham, but it is not clear whether this is from a natural forest fire or the controlled use of fire by humans. Some of the earliest evidence of human fire use in Europe was found at nearby Beeches Pit, also dating to around 400,000 years ago.

In recent years, charcoal has also been found at Barnham in several locations, possibly supporting other indications of use of controlled fire at the site.

If our work at Barnham provides evidence of more widespread use of fire, this may shed light on a major turning point in early human evolution.

3.) Documenting flora and fauna

Faunal Remains at the Barnham Palaeolithic Excavations
Tooth of a Macaque, found during excavations at Barnham in 2017

A final aim is to increase our knowledge of the floral, molluscan and vertebrate assemblages recovered at East Farm.

Barnham is one of the richest sites in Britain for amphibians and reptiles, with exotic species such as tree frogs and European pond terrapins. There are also exotic mammals, including extinct species of rhinoceros and elephant.

A large-scale extraction and sieving programme has begun and the results are adding to our understanding of the area’s fauna. We are also using new pollen analyses to learn more about the local vegetation. Excavations are ongoing.

Publications & Further Reading

Ashton, N.M., Lewis, S.G. & Parfitt, S.A. (Eds), 1998. Excavations at the Lower Palaeolithic Site at East Farm, Barnham, Suffolk 1989-94. British Museum Occasional Paper 125, London.

Ashton, N., Lewis, S.G., Parfitt, S.A., Davis, R.J. & Stringer, C. 2016. Handaxe and non-handaxe assemblages during Marine Isotope Stage 11 in northern Europe: Recent investigations at Barnham, Suffolk, UK. Journal of Quaternary Science 31: 837-843.

Ashton, N., McNabb, J., Irving, B., Lewis, S., Parfitt, S., 1994. Contemporaneity of Clactonian and Acheulian flint industries at Barnham, Suffolk. Antiquity 68: 585-589.

Preece, R.C., Penkman K.E.H., 2005. New faunal analyses and amino acid dating of the Lower Palaeolithic site at East Farm, Barnham, Suffolk. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 116 (3): 363-377.

Main Collaborators