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Deep History Detectives remixed

Deep History Detectives: Tracking artefacts on the North Norfolk Coast

Back in 2021 PAB researchers ran a Deep History Detectives weekend at Happisburgh. PAB Research Associates, Dr Claire Harris (Museum of London Archaeology) and Dr Rachel Bynoe (University of Southampton) have now secured further funding for a small-scale community project.

North Norfolk is well known for the spectacular discoveries made on the Deep History Coast – the evocative Happisburgh footprints, the awe-inspiring West Runton Mammoth, and countless stone tools.

Local collectors have recovered many thousands of artefacts and fossils along the coast. Working with these local collectors PAB researchers have developed a good understanding of the types of artefacts being recovered. Now we’d like to understand more about how the artefacts move along the coastline – how far do they move and over what timeframe? This new community project will help us to investigate these questions.

Get involved

Saturday 24 February, Wenn Evans Centre – Collector consultation and planning day with CITiZAN app training (morning and afternoon sessions, booking required)

Sunday 25 February, Wenn Evans Centre – Family Day with artefact painting and activities (drop-in)

Sunday 10 March, details tbc – Community coastal walk to distribute and record painted ‘artefacts’

About the project

Project leads: Dr Claire Harris, MOLA and Dr Rachel Bynoe, University of Southampton.

The current project builds on earlier work undertaken by Claire and Rachel and colleagues from the Pathways to Ancient Britain project. The project is supported by Southampton Institute for Arts and Humanities HEIF Research and Innovation Fund 2023/24 and MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology).

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Excavations continue at Devereux’s Pit

PAB researcher and dig director Dr Rob Davis reflects on this season’s fieldwork at Devereux’s Pit

Before and after a day of hard work by the team to get the site ready again for excavation. (Photo: Rob Davis)

There is always excitement at the beginning of a new field season, but following a very wet start to the summer, there was also a certain amount of trepidation as we headed off for another three weeks excavating at the Lower Palaeolithic site of Devereux’s Pit in Suffolk. Will it ever stop raining? What state will the site be in? But then, just as we arrived, the sun emerged and a small team of PAB researchers and volunteers set about recovering the site – bailing out water, cutting back vegetation, peeling off protective sheeting, and cleaning sections – and within 24 hours we were ready to excavate.

Towards the end of the 2022 season, we had noticed a change in the archaeology as we excavated deeper into the sedimentary sequence in Area I. Whereas previously we had encountered flint flakes characteristic of handaxe manufacture, these were absent from the lower deposits, which instead contained large patinated flakes that had been removed from cores using hammerstones. A primary aim for the 2023 excavation was to excavate more of the lower deposits to increase the size of the assemblage and see if the pattern held.

This season’s excavations focused on three aspects of the site. In Area I, excavation of the lower part of the sequence continued to produce archaeology, including more than 400 cores and flakes, with no hint of handaxe manufacture. Some of the flakes have been modified through retouch to their edges to create a variety of tools, particularly notches and denticulates. We also extended our excavations to the west to create a new section through the sediments and fully establish the sedimentary succession across Area I. A further eight boreholes were drilled to supplement boreholes drilled in 2021 and 2022. Together, the new boreholes and section will enable us to tie in the stratigraphy in Area I to our developing deposit model for the site. Recovery of Bithynia opercula from borehole samples has enabled use of the amino acid racemisation (AAR) dating method. The results indicate that the interglacial sediments at the site were deposited during MIS 11 (c. 400,000 years ago). Working out precisely how the sediments that contain the stone tool assemblages in Area I relate to the boreholes with the opercula, and other faunal material, is critical for establishing the age and environment of early human occupation at the site.

The new section at the western end of Area I. (Photo: Rob Davis)

Perhaps the most surprising discovery of the season came from one of the boreholes. The cores were extracted in 1 m long plastic tubes. Amazingly, a very well-preserved piece of fossilised bone was sticking out of the end of one of the core lengths. The bone is the head of a deer femur, and is from sediments 2 m below the surface, and just a few metres away from Area I. The sediments in Area I are decalcified and bone has not survived in this area. This new discovery gives us a great target for further excavation, and the recovery of more fossils with which to develop our understanding of the local environment in which early humans lived 400,000 years ago.

The head of a deer femur recovered from a borehole during the 2023 excavation. (Photo: Simon Lewis)
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Reflections on the Barnham 2023 Field Season

Another season of fieldwork is completed at East Farm, Barnham

Earlier this summer PAB researchers returned to Barnham for a three-week season of fieldwork. The usual blend of ‘old hands’ and those excavating at Barnham for the first time, including students from Cambridge, Liverpool and Southampton universities, quickly settled into the routine of the excavation, established the areas to be excavated, and set about the various tasks with care and energy. Following a successful field season in 2022, this year’s work focused on an area adjacent to Area I and the intriguing evidence for burning that was revealed there last year, which has added to the abundant quantity of heated material previously found in this part of the site.

Team members working in Area I during the 2023 excavations at Barnham, Suffolk

The main objective of the fieldwork this year was to establish the nature and lateral extent of the indications of burning. To achieve this, the test trench started last year was excavated in detail and the original footprint of Area I was extended to link the old and new parts of Area I. Together these two excavated areas provide further evidence for fire at Barnham. Samples taken last year for magnetics, FTIR and micromorphology have been supplemented with new samples for processing and analysis. Lithic artefacts were also recovered, which were not as numerous as previous years so each one generated renewed excitement and interest!

A cluster of burnt flint (centre left) being excavated in Area I during 2023 fieldwork at Barnham

Elsewhere on the site a small trench in Area III was opened to enlarge the sample from units which have yielded abundant bone material. Extension of the western edge of Area III and re-opening of Pit 4, an old section from the 1990s fieldwork, has provided another opportunity to look at the relationship between the thicker succession in the central part of the basin and the thinner more marginal sediments in greater detail.

During the excavation a number of scientists visited the site including Sally Hoare (Liverpool University), Mareike Stahlschmidt (University of Vienna) and Richard Preece (Cambridge). We also welcomed members of the Essex Rock and Mineral Club for a site visit, and an enthusiastic group from Barnham Primary School, perhaps a future Palaeolithic archaeologist was among them?

For more information about the Barnham Excavations see the project webpages.

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Climate signals from Hoxne

A new paper by Prof David Horne and colleagues sheds further light on the ‘Arctic Bed’ at Hoxne

The name ‘Hoxne’ has a special place in the lexicon of Palaeolithic archaeology. The brickyard and adjacent pits located near the village of Hoxne in northeast Suffolk have long been famous for John Frere’s discovery in 1797 of several “objects of curiosity”, which later become known as handaxes, and the recognition of their antiquity and significance. More recently John Wymer’s systematic excavations at the site in the 1970s provided a detailed account of the geology, environment and archaeology at the site. It is also an important site for Quaternary geology and biology more generally; Richard West’s classic work on the palaeobotany, published in 1956, provided a detailed assessment of the interglacial vegetation history at Hoxne, and was the basis of the formal definition in 1973 of the Hoxnian Stage of the British Pleistocene. This interglacial is now generally correlated with Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 11 of the ocean record which dates to around 425,000 to 360,000 years ago.

Schematic section through the Quaternary deposits at Hoxne. The Hoxnian interglacial is represented by strata E-D and the cold interval by Stratum C.

A perhaps less well remembered but no less noteworthy contribution to research at Hoxne is that of Clement Reid (1853-1916). Reid, a geologist and palaeobotanist, and officer of the Geological Survey, is known for his detailed mapping and description of the Quaternary deposits in Britain and elsewhere, and, with his wife Eleanor, was one of the pioneers of the use of plant macrofossils to reconstruct past vegetation changes. Reid directed excavations at Hoxne in 1895 on behalf of the British Association. This work laid the foundations for understanding the site, and established the stratigraphic succession of a series of lacustrine clays (bed E), peat (bed D) and overlying lacustrine and fluvial sediments (beds C-A). Reid identified macrofossils of dwarf species of birch and willow in Bed C, hence the term the ‘Arctic bed’ for this part of the succession, which he regarded as being deposited during a period of cold climate conditions following the main part of the interglacial and succeeded by a further phase of temperate climate conditions when beds A and B were deposited.

A 50cm monolith through part of Stratum C at Hoxne, sampled during AHOB excavations in 2003
A 50cm monolith through part of Stratum C at Hoxne, sampled during AHOB excavations in 2003

One hundred and twenty-five years later, the Hoxne succession has again been investigated for its fossil content and palaeoclimatic significance. A new paper by Dave Horne and colleagues published in Quaternary Research provides quantitative palaeotemperature estimates from three invertebrate fossil groups; beetles, chironomids and ostracods, which are found within the Hoxne deposits, including Stratum (=Reid’s Bed) C. Using the results from the Beetle Mutual Climate Range (BMCR), the Chironomid Transfer Function (CTF) and the Mutual Ostracod Temperature Range (MOTR) methods, a multi-proxy consensus approach was used to reconstruct the temperature variations during the deposition of the Hoxne succession. The results indicate that summer temperatures during the Hoxnian interglacial were similar or up to 4oC higher and winter temperatures were similar or up to 3oC lower than today. In contrast the temperature reconstruction for Stratum C indicates summer temperatures 2.5oC cooler and winter temperatures between 5-10oC cooler than today. A return to more temperate conditions after the deposition of Stratum C, completes the warm-cold-warm oscillation represented at Hoxne. This climate signal can be correlated with sub-stage variations within MIS 11 of the deep ocean record and also provides a palaeoclimatic backdrop for human occupation of the site some 385,000 years ago.

The paper is not available under OA. However, it will be available on QMRO in due course.

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2022 Excavations Begin at Barnham

The 2022 season of excavations begins at Barnham, Suffolk

The PAB project’s 2022 field season continues with a three-week excavation at the Lower Palaeolithic site at East Farm, Barnham which started this week under the blazing Suffolk sunshine.  After resuming field work in 2021, the main aim for this year is to further explore key areas within the site. As the research has evolved since 2013 the focus of the excavations has shifted from the re-examination of the relationship between handaxe and non-handaxe assemblages (as reported in Ashton et al., 2016) and the large-scale sieving of sediments to recover vertebrate remains to investigation of evidence of fire and also the changes in the environmental and archaeological signals over the earlier part of the interglacial.

To achieve the first of these, a small area has been identified adjacent to Area I where the critical part of the sequence can be explored in detail. Preliminary work last year revealed potentially heated sediments and the objective this year is to excavate and sample these sediments. A suite of analytical techniques will be used to establish whether the sediments have been heated and this may provide more indications of human use of fire.

The second objective requires further excavation and sieving of sediments from Area III. Unlike the marginal locations in Area I and Area VI where the succession is compressed and decalcified, in Area III the equivalent sediments are several metres thick, calcareous and contain abundant fossil material. Palynological analysis of these sediments has identified that they span zones I and II of the Hoxnian interglacial and this allows the archaeological evidence to be linked to the vegetation zones within the interglacial both at Barnham and further afield.

Professors Simon Lewis and Nick Ashton remove the handaxe found in Area III during the first day of the 2022 Barnham excavations

The first day on site saw a flurry of excitement as a handaxe was discovered while cleaning sections ready for excavation. While handaxes are known from the site, they are not common; only a few have been found during our excavations since 1989, to add to the small number known from earlier accounts. Given the potential significance of the find it was important to establish its context. The handaxe was found while removing backfill from one of the old pits left by the clay diggers in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. Removal of the sediments that were used to backfill these pits has already provided insights into how the clay was extracted for brick-making. Careful examination of the sediments in which the handaxe was found showed that it lay beneath a block of sediment that had collapsed into the trench immediately after it was dug by the labourers. Digging deeper revealed that the artefact was only a few centimetres above undisturbed sediments but was in fact within backfill, a mix of sediments collapsed from the side of the quarry trench and material thrown back into the hole at the end of its productive life. The handaxe therefore cannot be attributed to any part of the succession in Area III.

Two members of the excavation team, Luke Dale and Dylan Jones, who spent several hours carefully cleaning and excavating around the handaxe, describe it as follows: this black flint handaxe is in excellent condition. It is 130mm x 95mm and has a cordate or teardrop shape. It is highly symmetrical and features a white chalky inclusion on each face, which may have been deliberately preserved during manufacture. It would have been shaped using hard stone hammers, with the final delicate touches added using a soft hammer, probably a piece of antler, to refine the shape. The handaxe has been sharpened with the removal of a flake from the tip, known as a tranchet, resulting in a razor-sharp cutting edge.

While this particular artefact is of limited use as it is not in situ, it is an interesting way to get this year’s dig underway! We hope that further evidence of human activity at this location 400,000 years ago will be found during this year’s excavations – the search continues!

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2022 Field Season Begins at Beeches Pit, Suffolk

Cutting 2 as prepared by John Wymer for the QRA Easter Field Meeting (photo: Simon Lewis)
Cutting 2 as prepared by John Wymer for the QRA Easter Field Meeting in 1991 (photo: Simon Lewis)

The focus of PAB field research activities in 2022 is firmly located in the Breckland of East Anglia, with excavations scheduled to take place at three Palaeolithic sites during the year. First up is Beeches Pit, West Stow. Like many Breckland sites this was once a clay pit, dug in the late 19th and early 20th century for brick-making. Despite early visits by geologists, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the molluscan fauna from Beeches Pit was studied in detail by Michael Kerney, and stratigraphical and archaeological investigations did not take place until the 1990s and 2000s. It was the combination of John Wymer’s interest in the area and the need for a site for the QRA’s 1991 Easter Field Meeting that led John, together with David Bridgland, Simon Lewis and Richard Preece to begin to tackle the complex geological succession (photo right). Within a few years John Gowlett had commenced archaeological excavations and the Beeches Pit story began to take shape. The geological sequence consists of glacial sediments, overlain by silts and clays, tufaceous deposits and sands, which contain rich molluscan and vertebrate assemblages. The molluscs include a highly distinctive suite of land snails that includes Lyrodiscus, whose ‘cousin’ is now restricted to the Canary Islands. The molluscs together with the mammalian fauna enables correlation of Beeches Pit with other sites in Britain and northern France. The site has been dated to the Hoxnian Interglacial or Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 11 (c. 400,000 years ago). This work was fully published by Preece et al., (2006, 2007).

The site also contains an in situ Acheulian assemblage associated with hearths and some of the earliest evidence for controlled fire-use in Europe. The archaeological evidence is associated with the middle of the Hoxnian Interglacial, and correlates with other Acheulean assemblages in Britain at this time. However, recent work at East Farm, Barnham, has demonstrated an earlier phase of occupation of Britain during the first half of the Hoxnian Interglacial, represented by a core and flake industry traditionally assigned to the Clactonian. This is thought to indicate two separate populations of humans, with distinctive technology, occupying Britain at different times during the Hoxnian and derived from different source populations in mainland Europe, with important implications for understanding early human demography and social organisation.

This year’s fieldwork aims to establish whether there is a significant archaeological component in the lower part of the succession, and how this relates to the handaxe assemblage that has been excavated from the overlying deposits. This is an important matter to address as it will establish whether Beeches Pit conforms to the model that has been developed from other Breckland sites of distinct phases of human presence with different archaeological signatures. The work will answer two important questions: first, at what point within the interglacial did humans first occupy Beeches Pit and second, what was the character of the technology used by these first inhabitants, and does that technology change through time? In addition, sampling and sieving of all the excavated sediments will provide an opportunity to add to the vertebrate and molluscan faunal records from the site.

Breckland Palaeolithic Project excavations of Cutting 5 in 2018 (photo: Simon Lewis)
Breckland Palaeolithic Project excavations of Cutting 5 in 2018 (photo: Simon Lewis)
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Happisburgh’s Changing Coastline

The view southwards from the earth ramp at Happisburgh towards Cart Gap and Site 1 (photo: Simon Lewis)

The Palaeolithic story at Happisburgh has changed over the last twenty years or so, much as the coastline itself has changed dramatically over the same time. Indeed, the Happisburgh handaxe was discovered in situ in deposits that were revealed by the retreating cliffs between Happisburgh and Cart Gap. The exposures of the Cromer-Forest-bed Formation that were visible in 2000 when the handaxe was found are occasionally still to be seen, though much degraded by the passage of time and tides. These deposits have been the subject of detailed archaeological investigations which have placed the Happisburgh handaxe into a secure, geological, environmental and archaeological context, within a series of sediments deposited in an abandoned river channel during a period of temperate climate. The handaxe is now one component of an assemblage of Lower Palaeolithic artefacts that indicate human presence in this area around 500,000 years ago.

This is not the only evidence of human presence in Happisburgh’s distant past. A few hundred metres along the coast to the northwest, lies another set of Cromer Forest-bed Formation sediments. These have also been studied in detail and the resulting assemblage of Lower Palaeolithic artefacts, together with vertebrate remains, pollen, plant macrofossils and beetles, provides evidence for the landscape and environment that the first humans to reach Britain encountered. Exposures of these sediments on the foreshore also revealed human footprints, providing a brief glimpse of family life over 800,000 years ago.

Sand from the Sandscaping project further up the coast now covers Happisburgh’s beaches (photo: Simon Lewis).

As the waves continue to pummel the coastline, scouring of the beach has severely eroded these archaeologically-important sediments. A large number of artefacts and fossils have been released onto the beach to be found by a growing number of eagle-eyed collectors who have been busy over the last few years. These are more than ‘coastal curios’, they add to Happisburgh’s Palaeolithic record, particularly when the find-location is accurately recorded, as demonstrated in the recent paper by PAB researcher Dr Rachel Bynoe, which analysed the material amassed by three of the collectors.

Happisburgh’s coastline continues to undergo changes. Some of the 1.8 million cubic metres of dredged material emplaced between Bacton and Walcott for the Sandscaping project completed in 2019 has been moved along the coast by longshore drift to reach Happisburgh, so that in early 2022 the beaches at Happisburgh are beautiful stretches of golden sand, and what remains of the archaeological deposits are again hidden and protected from the waves. This has also introduced a new component to the archaeological record in this area. Retreat of the cliffs continues; in early 2021 a remarkable feature formed to the south of Happisburgh when, after several days of heavy rainfall, erosion of the unconsolidated sands that form the cliffs resulted in localised collapse. The feature may have started to form in late 2020 when the early stages of cliff collapse at the location were reported on social and news media. It has continued to develop and enlarge so that in early 2022 it is some 40m across and extends about 20m back from the adjacent cliff edge and it has developed into a dendritic or ‘tree-shaped feature’ in the cliff, with drone footage clearly capturing the extent of the erosion. A nearby pillbox also stands perilously close to the cliff edge and its days as a landmark on the Happisburgh cliff-top are surely numbered.

Cliff erosion at Happisburgh and part of the 2021 collapse feature as seen in January 2022 (photo: Simon Lewis).
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Looking Back … Looking Forward

As 2022 begins we take the opportunity to look back on the year just ended and to look forward to the year ahead

For the Pathways to Ancient Britain project 2021 saw a resumption of fieldwork, publication of several papers by PAB researchers and a range of engagement activities. Here are some of the highlights from 2021 and a quick look forward to plans for 2022.

The well-established excavations at East Farm, Barnham were put on hold in 2020, but we were able to return to the site in 2021 and complete a scaled-down season of fieldwork. This focused on sampling and sieving sediments from the fauna-bearing deposits in Area III, completing a borehole programme and exploring further the evidence of fire at the site. Later in the year, PAB researcher Dr Rob Davis led excavations at a less well-known Breckland site, Devereux’s Pit, Icklingham. An enlarged archaeological area yielded a number of Lower Palaeolithic artefacts and over 20 boreholes were drilled to investigate the stratigraphy. The identification of sediments containing shells and bone fragments offers the potential for palaeoenvironmental reconstruction and amino acid dating, analysis is now underway. 

Devereux’s Pit 2021: Excavating in Area I (Photo: Simon Lewis)

Results from the Breckland Palaeolithic Project were published in two papers in 2021, looking at the geology and archaeology of the Bytham River. The first to appear (Davis et al., 2021) reassessed the old collections from a number of sites within the terrace deposits of the Bytham River and identified important patterns in the Palaeolithic record. The second paper (Lewis et al., 2021) established a revised model for the terrace stratigraphy of the Bytham River and through the application of Electron Spin Resonance dating methods, provided a chronological framework for these deposits, supporting the pre-Anglian age for these sediments and the Palaeolithic archaeology contained therein.

Although the focus of fieldwork has shifted from Happisburgh to the Breckland over the last few years, the Norfolk coastline continues to be an important research area for the PAB project. In 2021 the latest paper on Palaeolithic archaeology at Happisburgh (Bynoe et al., 2021 [OA]) reported on the substantial collection of finds from the beach and foreshore that has been amassed by collectors regularly visiting and ‘fieldwalking’ the beach and carefully recording the location of their finds using GPS. A large number of lithic artefacts and faunal remains were studied for the paper and spatial patterns could be identified relating to both known archaeological sites at Happisburgh and also suggesting previously unknown locations that may be releasing artefacts and fauna onto the beach.

Other papers to appear in 2021 included Rob Davis’s analysis of the Test valley’s Palaeolithic record (Davis et al., 2021), and a review of the early Acheulean in Britain (Ashton and Davis, 2021), developing a “Cultural Mosaic Model” to explain the differences in lithic assemblages in Britain and beyond.

Geology beach walk at Happisburgh
Deep History Detectives Weekend at Happisburgh: Geology beach walk led by Prof Simon Lewis (photo: Dr Ian Parker Heath)

Public engagement activities during 2021 provided further opportunities for PAB researchers to share their research with a range of audiences. PAB research associate Dr Claire Harris led a number of engagement activities. The Deep History Detectives weekend in July comprised a knapping workshop, training in artefact identification and beach walks to explore the geological succession and archaeological sites along the Happisburgh coastline. A collaborative project, funded by Queen Mary University of London, with members of the education team from Norfolk Museum Service enabled the development of a teaching resource for school groups visiting Cromer Museum. In November the PAB project partnered with the Prehistoric Society to run an online panel discussion “Are genes deep history?” as a contribution to the 2021 Being Human Festival of the Arts and Humanities.

So, what’s in store in 2022? Hopefully it will be possible to continue the field excavations at Barnham and Devereux’s Pit. In addition, a small-scale excavation is planned at Beeches Pit, West Stow, to investigate the archaeological content of the lower part of the sequence. Work at Happisburgh is continuing with more beach finds to analyse and write up as well as results from Site 1 to progress towards publication. Another paper from the Breckland Palaeolithic Project, this one reporting the results from the Little Ouse terraces, including the important Palaeolithic sites at Santon Downham and Barnham Heath is also in the works. All in all, it looks like another busy year ahead!