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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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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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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.

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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.

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Excavation Diary: Visitors at Barnham

An important part of an excavation is the opportunity for people to visit and see how the work is progressing. Visitors can be other researchers with an interest in archaeology and the Quaternary or members of local groups. All visitors are given the Site Tour by one of the team and are able to see the work being done on site as well as some of this year’s finds. Today, Dr Richard Preece gave a talk on his research on molluscs and what they can tell us about past environments, including his work on samples from Barnham.

Bags for transferring sediment to be sieved for faunal remains

Meanwhile on site, work continues apace, and there is a relentless transfer of white bags full of sediment for sieving from the pit to the sieving area.

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Excavation Diary: Counting the Days

Students and volunteers excavating Area I

The last week of the excavation usually sees the pace hot up as the work accelerates to ensure that the things that need to be completed before the end of the dig are done. Work in Area I is nearly finished, section drawing and sampling are all that remain to be done. Redeployment of diggers from Area I into Area III has increased the rate of progress; sampling the large blocks of sediment is progressing well and the careful troweling of the deposits is yielding both lithics and faunal remains.

Planning for next year is also being discussed and the research questions and excavation priorities identified. A visit from researcher Professor Dave Horne provided an opportunity for a lunchtime talk on ostracods and their use in palaeoclimate reconstruction.

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Excavation Diary: Mine Craft

At Barnham East Farm, local farmhands had removed enormous volumes of Pleistocene brickearth before Lower Palaeolithic artefacts dating from ca 400 000 years ago were uncovered in the nineteenth century. At Grime’s Graves, a short distance north of Brandon, and a mere 4500 years ago, Neolithic peoples mined through Chalk bedrock to a depth of 14 m or so using antler picks, before reaching the so-called floorstone, flint of superb quality for artefact manufacture. How did they know that their persistence might be rewarded?

In more recent times, local flint was used to make gun flints in Brandon. In correspondence with a friend, Worthington Smith, author of Man, the Primeval Savage (1894), warned: ‘I have never been … & I have nothing from the place. It is the flint-knapping place where gun-flints for barbarians are made and a hot-bed of forgers, forgeries & liars. I have been afraid to go’. Brandon is now much calmer, and the group enjoyed a trouble-free visit to Greenwell’s Pit at Grime’s Graves yesterday evening. Safely clad in harness, hard hat and gloves, 24 of us descended a 12 m ladder and explored, by crouching or crawling, the various galleries leading from the floor of the flint mine. Thanks are due to Rob and his colleagues at English Heritage for treating us so well. Neolithic saddle querns and a paramoudra at the top of the steps to another of the approximately thousand pits, and a fine view of patterned ground as we wandered back to our vehicles, completed a memorable trip.