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Project THAMES – Thameside Humans: A Middle England Story

Reading University PhD student, and PAB research associate, Kathryn Price writes the first in an occasional series of posts about her research project.

Yes, you have guessed correctly that the project title was formed to fit the words THAMES, with a little inspiration from Tolkien and a lot of help from my friend John. However, it does aptly describe in a few words this PhD project. The PhD is funded by the AHRC and is a joint project between the University of Reading and the British Museum. I am very fortunate to have three members of PAB as supervisors – Nick Ashton, Rob Davis and Simon Lewis as well as those from the university – Rob Hosfield and Rob Batchelor – an incredible line up!

At its centre, this PhD is investigating the evidence for the early human (hominin) presence in the Middle Thames – prior to 500,000 years ago. I am examining the technologies and landscapes of some of the first human occupants of North-Western Europe, through the lens of the Middle Thames from Reading to Beaconsfield; a ‘snapshot’ of an inland river system with preserved terrace remnants that were deposited to prior to, and were (mostly) unaffected by, the Anglian glaciation around 450,000 years ago (MIS 12).

I will be assessing the early human record in the Middle Thames through a variety of ways; lithic analysis of artefacts in museum collections as well as potentially recovering new artefacts through fieldwork; a re-mapping of the pre-Anglian terrace remnants using existing borehole data and new fieldwork to clarify the terrace sequence; contextualising artefacts to individual terraces through the analysis of historic mapping and other documentary sources; and (in hope!) potentially finding further artefacts in museum collections. Combining all these threads together, a clearer picture of the nature and timing of the occupation of the Middle Thames by hominins in the pre-Anglian will begin to emerge.

The project is linked to two key issues in Lower Palaeolithic research:

  1. Was initial colonisation focused on coastal rather than inland settings (where hominins may have been exploiting oceanic climates and specific food resources such as seaweed)?
  2. Were inland occupations dependant different technologies (e.g., variations in the use of shelter and/or fire), changes in food acquisition techniques, and/or social strategies?

Study AreaThere is so much to find out! When and to what extent were hominins venturing into the heart of the Thames? What technologies did they have to rely on? How significant is the handaxe? How does the archaeological record of this inland environment compare with those along the lower reaches of the Bytham River in estuarine environments? Will we find artefact similarities with sites such as Pakefield, Brandon Fields or Warren Hill? Will we be able to uncover the presence of early pioneer populations in the Middle Thames?

Follow progress here!


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Devereux’s Pit 2021 field season completed

As the covers go on for the last time this year at Devereux’s Pit, Kathryn Price summarises progress with the excavations of this Lower Palaeolithic site.

Rob Davis supervises the final covering of the site (photo: Marcus Hatch)

The third and final week at Devereux’s Pit has seen the continuation of all hands to trowels in steadily and efficiently excavating the northern and eastern sections of Area I. For the first season of a new excavation, a tremendous amount has been achieved in just a short space of time. Almost 300 artefacts have been recovered, more than 100 samples collected for future sieving and analysis, 10 square metres have begun to be systematically excavated and 28 boreholes have been recorded.

In the eastern area of Area I, the initial humps and bumps of left-over sediment from the old quarry pits were removed, and the whole surface is now being excavated as one large area. As the artefacts begin to emerge, the true nature of their scattering is revealed, and rather excitingly, these are in the sediments overlying what we think to be the main archaeological horizon – the main artefact-yielding horizon is still to come!

Excavating in Area I (photo: Simon Lewis)

In the northern end of Area I, excavations concentrated on expanding the previously-dug test pit to follow the extent of the sediments which first yielded the intriguing 100+ artefacts. As the grey clayey sands were excavated both above and below the artefact-rich stony layer, a high number of artefacts from a relatively small area were again revealed including hard and soft hammer flakes, handaxe thinning flakes and a few pieces of burnt flint. There is still much more to be recovered from this area, as in the eastern part of Area I, the majority of the artefact yielding horizon still remains.

The weather has been very kind to us this week, being dry and sunny with cloud cover just when we needed it to carry out the photogrammetry (phew!). Spirits were high as a healthy competition emerged to who would be the first area to reach artefact number 250 (it was the northern area!) but the prizes of cookies and chocolate were shared by all.

It was with some sadness that the site was covered on the last day of the excavations but with the feeling of a great first season reflecting on all that had been achieved. There was also excitement in the air – of knowing that this was just the beginning of the story of Devereux’s Pit.

The Devereux’s Pit 2021 excavation team (photo: Rob Davis)


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Shovelling Earth: Excavation Update August 2021

“Shovelling earth for all that we were worth …”

In the second week of this year’s excavations at Devereux’s Pit the hard work of removing backfill and preparing the ground is complete and excavation is now underway. The sounds of the diesel engine of the digger and the hammering of the drilling rig have subsided, to be replaced by the scrape of trowels on sediment, accompanied by stone chats and wrens in the trees and a buzzard calling as it circles overhead. As one of the team put it, the pit has changed from a building site to an archaeological site!

Devereux Pit, August 2021
Devereux’s Pit, August 2021 (photo: Simon Lewis)

Establishing the extent of what has become Area I has proved a challenge as the now-familiar indications of clay extraction for brick making in the 19th century have resulted in a series of quarry cuts and rectangular pits which have limited the available areas of sediments that are known to contain Palaeolithic artefacts. However, there is a sufficiently large area to excavate this year and undoubtedly scope for further work in future years. The small team of excavators are now working in a series of 1m squares to remove the sediments and reveal the archaeology within. As well as recording the position of every artefact, all the excavated sediments will be retained for sieving to establish whether there is any faunal content within the deposits.

The borehole work in and around the pit has significantly increased our understanding of the distribution of the sediments and their relationship with the glacial deposits in the area; tills and gravels have been identified in a number of deep boreholes. In addition, a network of closely spaced shallow boreholes will allow a detailed deposit model of the sediments within the pit to be produced once all the cores have been logged and processed!

The weather has been varied this year; week one saw high winds and rain, week two gave some respite with a few days of fine and sunny weather which always helps to keep the spirits up. Week three looks like being another mixed bag of weather but hopefully all the objectives for this year’s field season will be achieved by the end of the final week and we will have a good assemblage of artefacts and a range of other data from the site to work on over the coming months.

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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 Palaeolithic 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, while 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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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