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Undiscovered country: Lower Palaeolithic excavations in the Breckland

There are many Palaeolithic sites in the Breckland that have been the subject of collecting and research, some of them for over a hundred years, and the region has played an important part in the development of Palaeolithic archaeology as a discipline (Davis et al., 2017 [PDF]). This also means that identifying a site that has received rather less attention from archaeologists and geologists is something of a challenge. One such example is Devereux’s Pit in the parish of Icklingham, despite, or perhaps because of, its proximity to the well-known and internationally important Palaeolithic site of Beeches Pit, less than a kilometre away. The site, also known as Icklingham Brick Pit, is a former clay pit between the Suffolk villages of Icklingham and West Stow. The clay pit and adjacent brickyard were operated by William Devereux during the second half of the 19th Century. It was active at the time of the 1st edition Ordnance Survey mapping in 1882 but had ceased to operate by 1903 when the 1st revision mapping was completed.

Devereux’s Pit (photo credit: Simon Lewis)

The site is described by Skertchly, an officer of the Geological Survey (in Whitaker et al. 1891), who notes:

“At the brickyard about a mile E.S.E. of Icklingham All Saints Church, beneath the gravelly soil, dirty loess-like loam is worked to the depth of 15 feet. It dips westward at an angle of about 2°, and in places contains freshwater shells, many fragmentary. Bulimus is the most common genus, Pupa is frequent [no freshwater genus is named.—W. W.] I have also found seeds of plants. No implements have yet (? 1877) been found; but I picked up a small flake, from a fresh piece of talus, that looked as though it had fallen from the loam. Bones and deer-horns have been found, but were buried up by the workmen.” (Whitaker et al. 1891:79).

Devereux’s Pit was also visited in the 1930s by T.T. Paterson as part of his study of the geology of the Breckland.

Despite the potential demonstrated by these early records, no major work was undertaken at the site until the 1990s. In 1997 and 1998, a team led by David Bridgland (Durham University) and Simon Lewis undertook some small-scale geological fieldwork at the site (Lewis 1998). Three sections were excavated and auger holes were sunk. The sections showed fairly consistent sequences of approximately 3 m of brown clays, silts and sands (the ‘brickearth’) overlying at least 3 m of grey clayey sands and silts. Shell fragments were identified at various depths and six molluscan species were identified by Richard Preece. These, along with ostracods and chara, are aquatic species indicative of a temperate climate.

Three artefacts were recovered, all flint flakes produced by direct hard hammer percussion, with one subsequently retouched to form a scraper (illustrated in Lewis, 1998). The condition and technology of the scraper strongly suggest it is Lower Palaeolithic.

Following this work, Devereux’s Pit was again overlooked as other Breckland sites became the focus of attention, so its archaeological potential remained to be demonstrated. The Breckland Palaeolithic Project (2016-19) conducted fieldwork at the site to demonstrate the presence of Lower Palaeolithic artefacts in undisturbed Pleistocene deposits and also to gain a better understanding of the sediments and to obtain further environmental information to help assess its potential on this front. The fieldwork, conducted over 16 days between November 2016 and April 2018, consisted of excavation of geological sections and archaeological test pits, boreholes and a ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey. The work confirmed the presence of a Lower Palaeolithic assemblage at the site and also some indications of burning including heated flints.

Following completion of the Breckland Palaeolithic Project, additional funding was obtained by PAB project researcher Dr Rob Davis to continue the work at Devereux’s Pit. Although no fieldwork was possible in 2020, this phase of work finally got underway in July 2021. A three week excavation has extended the area that is available for archaeological excavation and also carried out additional borehole work to establish the geometry of the deposits within the old pit. Initial indications from this fieldwork which, at the time of writing, is in its first week, are encouraging. Like the nearby site at Barnham, the 19th Century clay extraction has removed a lot of the important deposits. However, following clearing of spoil from an area adjacent to a previously dug section, undisturbed sediments that can be excavated have been identified and it is hoped that this will add to the small assemblage of around one hundred artefacts from the site. Fourteen boreholes have been drilled and we are beginning to get a better understanding of the complex stratigraphy. As in previous investigations, shelly sediments have been found and these will be processed to obtain environmental information and they may also be useful for dating purposes. It is becoming clear that the current work at Devereux’s Pit has the potential to add another site to the Breckland Lower Paleolithic story.

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Barnham Excavation Update

Barnham 2021 Excavation Update
Drilling equipment used at the Barnham excavation, 2021 (photo credit: Simon Lewis)

As we approach the end of the 2021 season, it is good to be able to report that the last three weeks have proved to be very productive. The three main objectives for this year were to recover the site after a fallow 2020, to clear the substantial backlog of sieving from 2019 and to prepare the site for the next phase of fieldwork which we hope will begin in 2022. All these objectives have been largely achieved so we can reflect on a successful field season this year. The smaller number of people on site and the priorities for this year have meant that some areas were not reopened; Area VI, usually the most productive in terms of flint artefacts has not been excavated this year and as a result the number of finds has been less than in previous years. Area III, the focus of this year’s work, has yielded fewer artefacts, but excavation and sieving of these sediments has continued to add to the substantial faunal record and to the lithic assemblage. Clearing the backlog of samples from 2019, with a major sieving operation and on-site processing and sorting of the residues, has also provided a wealth of new material, including some potentially important finds.

In addition to this on-going work, a small test section adjacent to Area I has provided an opportunity to explore further the evidence of fire at Barnham. We hope to be able to undertake some preliminary analysis of samples over the next year and explore this evidence in more detail in 2022.

We have also been able to generate new information on the geometry and distribution of the deposits within and around the site. Twenty boreholes have been drilled to investigate the sediments in the eastern part of the pit and in the surrounding area. As always, testing the current understanding of the site against new evidence can throw up some surprises and these boreholes have provided a lot of new data which will enable us to refine the deposit model for the site.

The scaled down operation this year has allowed us to make good progress, though the quantity of finds has been lower than previous years, the quality of the evidence that we are uncovering remains high. Barnham continues to provide evidence of the landscape and environment 400,000 years ago and important new insights into the lives of our early human ancestors.

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Reflections from a ‘newbie’ at Barnham

University of Reading PhD student Kathryn Price reflects on her experience of digging at Barnham for the first time.

I have had the great fortune of surveying and excavating Palaeolithic archaeology in far flung places including South Africa, India, Oman and Georgia but never in Britain! To be excavating as my first British Palaeolithic site, Barnham, with its rich history of ground-breaking archaeology and longevity of research is a huge honour and one I am most certainly not taking for granted! 

Ongoing excavations at Barnham, Suffolk
Ongoing excavations at Barnham (photo credit: Simon Lewis)

It is quite a challenge in one way to join such an established excavation – no amount of pre-reading quite prepares you for the site itself. Its size (much larger than I expected), its variation of areas within the pit itself (distinctive faunal and archaeological areas), and the sediments themselves – the difference between gritty grey clay and shelly grey clay is very subtle! Not only does the stratigraphy represent the age of the site itself – c 400,000 years ago – but also the many seasons of excavations at the site since 1989 (I was 9 years old!) and the many archaeologists and students who have been part of its history.

With great hope and expectations of finding my very first handaxe, the reality of the nature of Palaeolithic archaeology set in. Nonetheless, it was still exciting when up from the clay, faunal remains and flint flakes began to emerge. This, together with helping Sophie with sorting of residues of the sieved sediments revealed to me a whole new variety of faunal remains. Having been accustomed to finding animal remains in Britain of sheep, pig, dog and cow, to be discovering palaeo fauna such as snake, elephant, lion, European Pond Terrapin and Russian Desman (a strange looking aquatic mole – yes, I didn’t know either) was truly incredible and took some time for the exoticness of these animals to sink in; the realisation that the hominins at Barnham were indeed surrounded by such animals – in Britain!

I’d rather forgotten the slow and steady pace which accompanies Palaeolithic research excavations; the careful excavating in 10cm spits, the 100% sampling strategy and recording of the exact location, orientation and dip of each important faunal fragment and flint artefact. Spending a few days trowelling with Claire and Ian (why were the finds always in his half?!) was enough to ‘get my eye in’ to the difference in the sediments and beginning to making sense of them.

One of the most incredible things about being here is the wealth of knowledge and experience around me – from the archaeologists who have excavated Barnham from the very beginning and those who joined in the 2010s as new questions regarding the site were explored. To learn from this group of experienced researchers, who are always happy to answer questions (of which I always have many!), to soak up their knowledge, and to see how they join all the dots together in formulating the wider picture of what it all means is truly amazing and inspiring. How do you get to that level from your very first Palaeolithic excavation?

I have also had the opportunity to assist in recording some of the boreholes drilled this season across the valley close to the site. Understanding the wider landscape – where the river flowed, the changes in the landscape itself, the effect of glaciations is key to understanding Barnham and its place in the wider Breckland landscape and its relationship to the sites around it. Looking at the bands of sand, silt and clay and beginning to distinguish hillwash, palaeosols and till was so valuable in putting Barnham into its wider landscape context.

Due to COVID, the team is much smaller this year, with no students (apart from a few PhD students, including myself). Coming at a time where many of us have been used to a more isolated existence, to be part of a small community – eating, working and laughing together and talking all things Palaeolithic (and other!) – brings with it its own refreshment and is a reminder of our love for this subject and everything that goes with it. I hope this is the first of many British Palaeolithic adventures for me!

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Barnham 2021 Gets Underway

Area III at Barnham after two years of collapse and vegetation regrowth (photo credit: Simon Lewis)

After a year without fieldwork, the PAB team is excited to be back out in the field at Barnham. Excavations since 2013 at this important Lower Palaeolithic site have revealed a lot of new information and transformed our understanding of the site and its wider context and significance. The stratigraphy and the relationship of the handaxe and core-and-flake assemblages at Barnham have both be revised, these findings were published in 2016.  As well as significantly increasing the number of lithic artefacts from the site, a large-scale sieving programme of the fine-grained sediments in the centre of the basin has yielded much new environmental information including several additions to the faunal list. The palaeobotanical information from the site has also been enhanced through the location of an organic unit which has enabled new pollen and plant macrofossil work. The excavations have also yielded a large quantity of burnt flint fragments, most are natural fragments, but a few are lithic artefacts. To explore this intriguing evidence of burning at Barnham, analysis of sediment found associated with the burned flint has been carried out using Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) techniques to detect a heating signal. Careful excavation has also identified several possible charcoal fragments, which await further detailed study.

After two years of collapse and vegetation regrowth, the site is going to need quite a lot of work to recover the excavation and with a scaled-down research team on site everyone will be working hard to make up for lost time and get the research project back on track. Priorities for this year are to complete the sampling and processing of the sediments in Area III. Sieving is done on site, so the excavated sediment is first dried, then soaked overnight with a dispersant before being washed through a fine-mesh sieve and the retained residues are then taken back to London for sorting and identification. We also hope to continue the search for artefacts. This will allow the archaeological evidence to be more closely tied into the geological, environmental record at Barnham.

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New page in memory of Peter Hoare

Peter Hoare, a member of the Pathways to Ancient Britain team, sadly passed away in 2020. Peter contributed hugely to the project’s work, and was a much-loved friend to those involved. In his memory, we have put together a web page including memories from colleagues, photos and a list of Peter’s many publications.

Please visit the page here.

Peter Hoare (left) working at Barnham, Suffolk, during the 2019 excavations
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The Happisburgh Handaxe 20 Years On

2020 marks twenty years since the first of a series of archaeological discoveries that have made Happisburgh a site of great importance in the British Lower Palaeolithic. The Happisburgh handaxe was found by a Norfolk resident walking the beach between Happisburgh and Cart Gap.

Palaeolithic handaxe from Happisburgh.
The handaxe that started it all! Discovered in 2000 this was the first beach find to be recovered from a dateable context. Rights Holder: Norfolk County Council. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

The handaxe was found in situ; embedded in the Pleistocene sediments that were exposed at low tide on the Happisburgh foreshore. Realising its significance, the finder reported its discovery and researchers were quickly able to visit the site and make some important observations on the deposits that the handaxe came from and their relationship to the glacial sediments exposed in the cliffs. Among the first on the scene was John Wymer, who recorded in his notebook a visit to Happisburgh with Peter Robins and Jim Rose with accompanying photographs of the handaxe and the deposits themselves. Wymer records subsequent visits later in the same year and again in May 2001, when a team of researchers from Royal Holloway University of London sank boreholes and dug trenches to establish the stratigraphy and recover material for analysis.

Three years later the site was excavated by a team from the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project. Excavating the deposits in the inter-tidal zone proved challenging but productive as a small assemblage of artefacts was recovered together with faunal material. This was followed by excavations by the University of Leiden working with the AHOB team, which added to the artefact assemblage and provided significant new palaeoenvironmental information. The handaxe could now be shown to have been found in organic muds laid down during an interglacial some 500,000 years ago. These results have been recently published in Quaternary Science Reviews. 

During the 2004 excavations, a survey along the beach led to the discovery of what became known as Site 2 and, in the following year continued exploration led to the discovery of Site 3 (the locality excavated in 2004 becoming known as Site 1). Site 2 afforded little opportunity for extensive excavation; though a small excavated area yielded a handaxe from deposits immediately beneath the Happisburgh Till. Site 3 on the other hand offered the greater scope for excavation and each summer between 2006 and 2012 archaeologists could be found digging the sediments and sieving them in the sea to recover flint artefacts and faunal and floral remains. The faunal assemblage, in conjunction with palaeomagnetic evidence, led the researchers to conclude that the site dated to around 850,000-900,000 years ago, making it the earliest evidence of human presence in Britain. 

Photograph showing sediments at Site 1.
Happisburgh Site 1 exposed at low tide in October 2020 (photo: Simon Lewis/PAB Project)

More archaeological information was revealed as the sea continued to erode the Pleistocene sediments. In 2013 a member of the research team was conducting a geophysical survey and noticed a particularly distinctive surface of the laminated sands and silts exposed by the waves near the old step tower. Closer inspection suggested they might be footprints, so a team was quickly assembled who returned to the site, in appalling weather conditions, to record the footprint surface before it was washed away. Analysis of the photographs showed beyond reasonable doubt that they were indeed human footprints and the size of the impressions indicated that they were left by a group of people ranging from adults to small children, who had walked across the soft mud flats around 850,000 years ago. These findings were published in PlosOne. Similar, but smaller, footprint surfaces were exposed in 2018 and 2019 in the same area. 

Approaching the end of the year is often a time to look back and reflect on past events, and perhaps this year more than most. It is interesting to ponder that so much of what we now know about the earliest humans to enter Britain stems from a chance discovery on a Norfolk beach. The Happisburgh story hasn’t ended, the coastline is still the subject of research and collecting activity and no doubt 2021 will bring more new information to add to what we already know and perhaps change our understanding of our distant past one more time.

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Barnham Excavation Scholarship 2020 – Applications Open

This year’s applications for the Barnham Excavation Scholarship are now open.

East Farm, near the village of Barnham, Suffolk, is an internationally-significant Lower Palaeolithic site dating to 400,000 years ago. Excavations at the site have been ongoing since 2013 and this year we are offering 12 scholarships worth £500 to students who have a desire to pursue serious study of Palaeolithic archaeology to participate in the excavation.

Excavations at East Farm, Barnham

If you would like to apply for a scholarship please complete the application form by Friday 28th February 2020. Candidates will be selected on the basis of a demonstrable interest in Palaeolithic archaeology.

Please see the Barnham Excavation 2020 page for full information about the scholarship.

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Another Brick in the Wall

The watermill on the Euston Estate

Peter Hoare takes a closer look at some examples of the bricks and other products of the Barnham brickyard, the clay for which was extracted from the site of modern excavations at East Farm.

Architecture begins when you place two bricks carefully together” — Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

The connection between Palaeolithic archaeology and clay digging and brickmaking in Barnham is well established. Many of the varied products from the Barnham brickyard are shown in the first photograph (together with Edward Wortley, the Estate’s archivist, who looks after this archive). They consist largely of red, white and black-glazed bricks, tiles and coping stones made from the two types of brickearth dug from East Farm.

Edward Wortley displays the Estate’s collection of
Barnham bricks and tiles

The carbonate-rich sediment exposed in archaeological Area III would have been tempered with non-calcareous brickearth to allow it to be fired. Details of sales from the brickyard are recorded in the single surviving ledger covering the period 1895–1912 held by the Euston Estate. It was during this time that two wings of Euston Hall were rebuilt following a fire in April 1902.

The Barnham brickyard material, together with a small collection from other local kilns, are stored in the former mill on the River Blackbourne seen in the second photograph. The first watermill on this site was constructed in the 1670s; it pumped water to ornamental fountains and provided a domestic supply to Euston Hall. The mill in the photograph below, an impressive brick-built structure, was designed by William Kent in 1731; it was converted to grind corn in the middle of the nineteenth century. The mill and its waterwheel were restored by the 11th Duke of Grafton as a Millennium project.

With thanks to the Euston Estate, and to Edward Wortley in particular.

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Excavation Diary: How Many Buckets?

Buckets used for sieving sediment samples from Barnham’s faunal area

The excavation tool store contains many things, including a very large number of buckets, both black and orange. It seems that local DIY stores must have had their entire stock bought up by the excavation!

When the sediment samples are brought up to the sieving area, they are laid out to dry, then transferred to buckets to be soaked in water with some washing powder (a very effective way of breaking down the clay lumps). After soaking overnight, the samples can be sieved and the residues bagged up for later sorting and identification.

The massed ranks of buckets spread out across the field stand as testament to the large quantity of material that is being excavated – several tonnes will have been processed on site by the end of the dig.

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Just Another Day in the Office

The focus of attention on an archaeological excavations is what’s happening on site but an often-overlooked part of the story is the work done by people away from the trenches which is just as important. Simon Lewis talks to Sophie Hunter about her role in the Barnham Palaeolithic Project.

Cleaning an artefact from Barnham

SL: Sophie, thanks for sparing some time to chat. Please can you tell us about your role in the Barnham excavation?
SH: My main job is finds processing; drying and re-bagging fauna; washing and re-bagging burnt flint; washing and marking lithics; packing up finds, ensuring that they are in good order, going to the correct institution and in an undamaged state. I am also the office manager, with a diverse range of tasks including procurement, a first aid and counselling service, and looking after the accounts with the help of Tudor Bryn Jones. After the excavation ends, back in the real world, I also contribute to the post-ex work by sorting residues and preliminary identification of faunal remains.

SL: Which bit of your varied job do you find most interesting and why?
SH: This is very difficult to answer as I thoroughly enjoy all my roles. As finds processor, I am incredibly privileged to see and handle every single find that is recovered on site. Doing the accounts is probably at the lower end of the spectrum, for obvious reasons!

Sophie at work in the site office

SL: Which do you prefer working with, lithics or fauna?
SH: Oohh, that’s a tricky one… Both! Lithics are my favourite thing to wash and I like the challenge of writing on the tiny pieces. Choosing a good spot to mark also means that I get a thorough perusal of every flint artefact. Fauna used to put the fear into me, as I assumed it would be impossible to get to grips with – there are so many different species and different bones. If you think about how many different species of mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians and birds there are (including ones that are now extinct), and tot up how many bones each has, that’s a monumental amount of different bones to learn. However, since taking on the role of sorting the residues from Area III, and with plenty of help from Simon Parfitt, I am gradually expanding the bone bank.

SL: What’s the most unusual find that you have processed in the office?
SH: Last year we found a very exciting and special tool. That’s probably the star of the show for this current phase of excavation. A piece of pyrite was also recovered, which will help in determining whether the burning was natural or man-made. This year, the winners are: a large chopping tool and a ginormous core in the flint artefact department; and some amazing lion foot bones (c. 20% larger than the lions we have today), a rhino tooth, and plenty of pond terrapin in the faunal department. A good non-archaeological find last year was a parched and shrivelled up mole carcass, which is in the process of being prepared for the reference collection.

SL: It’s an intensive three week excavation, what happens to all the finds that you process on site when the excavation ends?
SH: It is indeed an intensive three weeks, and not solely because of all of the hard work… Different finds go to different places. The lithics and burnt flint go with Nick Ashton to Franks House (British Museum), where they are catalogued by Claire Lucas. The faunal remains go to the Natural History Museum, to be cleaned and identified. The sieving residues also go to the NHM, where they are sorted and provisionally identified. Following this, they are analysed by the relevant specialist (experts in mammals, fish, birds, amphibians and reptiles). Geological samples end up at Queen Mary for analysis. This year we have possible charcoal, so this will be analysed over the next twelve months.

Labelling artefacts at Barnham

SL: How long have you been involved in the Barnham excavations?
SH: Since 1991, when I was 10. The Headings (farmers) introduced me to the team, who kindly took me under their wing. I was hooked immediately – by the excitement of the archaeology, in addition to the very interesting characters and sense of community. It is amazing to be back here again after all this time, and with some of the same people. I have never looked back and feel very lucky indeed to be part of something unique, interesting and fun.

SL: Sophie, thanks for telling us about your varied and interesting work for the Barnham Project.