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Coastal curios? A new paper explores recent finds on the beach at Happisburgh 

A new paper by Dr Rachel Bynoe, with PAB researchers and three collectors, has recently been published in Journal of Quaternary Science (the paper is available under open access here).

The paper reports on the large collection of ex situ flint artefacts and mammalian fossils found on the beach and it demonstrates the way in which the time spent on the beach collecting Palaeolithic artefacts and Pleistocene fossils can contribute to research knowledge and understanding. The paper explores the material collected by three of the co-authors, Tim Grimmer, Jo Leonard and Darren Nicholas, along a 5km stretch of the Norfolk coast from Happisburgh to Eccles North Gap between 2013 and 2017. A total of 741 artefacts and 157 mammal fossils were included in this study.

Examples of Pleistocene mammalian remains and flint artefacts as found in the study area (all photo credits: D. Nicholas and J. Leonard)
Examples of Pleistocene mammalian remains and flint artefacts as found in the study area (all photo credits: D. Nicholas and J. Leonard): (a) abraded Elephantid bone fragment near the waterline in Area C; (b) fresh handaxe over the Borehole HC exposures in Area A; (c) Bison sp. metacarpal at the shoreline in Area B; (d) Site 1 deposits exposed on foreshore, walking stick showing find‐point of an ex situ artefact; (e) ex situ handaxe in Area A; (f) ex situ core in Area A. [Colour figure can be viewed at wileyonlinelibrary.com]

The collections were made available to the PAB project by the collectors and handed over to Rachel Bynoe for detailed analysis of the lithics and identification of the fossil material. The artefact assemblage is dominated by hard hammer flakes and cores, though there are also eight handaxes. Among the mammal fossils are several specimens that are identifiable to species, including the extinct horse Equus altidens, the mammoths Mammuthus meridionalisand Mtrogontherii, the extinct elk Cervalces latifrons and giant deer Megaloceros dawkinsi. 

Importantly, all the finds were geolocated by the collectors using hand-held GPS devices. The location data was used to map all the finds in GISthe results of which showed some interesting spatial patterning. There are significant concentrations of lithics and fauna in close proximity to the known archaeological deposits at Happisburgh Site 1 and site 3 and in addition there is a substantial ‘hotspot’ at Eccles North Gap, which cannot be linked to any known occurrence of the Cromer Forest-bed Formation. While the concentration is partly the result of being ‘trapped’ up-drift of the most northerly of the Sea Palling rock reefs, it may indicate that there is an outcrop immediately offshore from which the artefacts are being eroded and transported only a short distance onto the beach. The distribution of the faunal finds also shows concentration close to Sites 1 and 3, but again there are other interesting patterns that might suggest as yet unidentified source deposits. 

The handaxe finds are also of interest. Only one, the Happisburgh handaxe, has been found in situ over the last 20 years, and this was associated with the Site 1 deposits. The discovery of several handaxes in the vicinity of Site 3, which has previously been considered as a core and flake assemblage, raises the question of whether they are an additional component of the Site 3 assemblage. Further handaxe discoveries in situ within the Site 3 deposits are needed to verify this. 

The intriguing possibility that there are archaeological deposits immediately offshore at Happisburgh is a question that Rachel Bynoe is currently investigating through her diving survey work with some promising initial findings. Onshore the collecting continues, with a growing band of enthusiastic collectors. More material has been discovered since 2017 and the diligence and persistence of the collectors who return to the beach again and again has been amply rewarded by the creation of a substantial body of information that has contributed to our understanding of this important Palaeolithic locality. 

 

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Community Beach Sieving Event

This Sunday saw our first Community Beach Sieving Event at Bacton. The event was planned, with the support of North Norfolk District Council, as part of our Palaeolithic Artefact Discoveries from the Sandscaping area (PADS) Project and we hope that it will be the first of several community events – pandemic permitting.

We couldn’t have hoped for better weather for our first community event and we were joined by two enthusiastic groups of volunteers – a mix of experienced collectors, faces we recognised from previous events that we’d run locally, and some complete beginners.

Since the emplacement of the 1.8 million cubic metres of dredged material on the beach between Bacton and Walcott in 2019, the beach profile has been modified by wave action. As the beach has been reshaped it has become a favourite spot for local collectors to visit and their careful beach walking efforts have been repaid by a large collection of Palaeolithic material. The sieving event was designed to take advantage of the wave cut ‘cliff’ features to study the structure, composition and artefact density of these deposits. Establishing the density of artefacts within these deposits and any variations across the Sandscaping area, provides us with useful data alongside the large number of artefacts that have already been reported.

During the two 90 minute sessions on Sunday we sieved around 2.5 cubic metres of the deposit, this yielded one possible artefact, a small struck flake. While this is a small return for the effort it does point to a sparse presence of artefacts within the beach deposits. It also highlights the value of collecting from the beach surface where artefacts may be more visible and larger surface areas can be searched and does contribute to our knowledge of these dredged deposits.

Although the Sandscaping deposits offer a unique research opportunity we are well aware of the power of the North Sea to reshape the coastline – the ‘cliff’ features in the Sandscaping deposits bear witness to the sea’s power. Many of the Pathways to Ancient Britain project team have worked along this coastline for the best part of two decades and the last thing that we would want to do is to negatively impact the communities we have received so much support from. All the material, bar the one possible artefact, was left on the beach to be redeposited by the waves.

The Palaeolithic Artefact Discoveries from the Sandscaping area (PADS) Project is funded by North Norfolk District Council and is currently set to run for six months, from September 2020 to February 2021.