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Technological Transitions, Fire, and Human Colonisation

Nick AshtonSimon Parfitt and Simon Lewis discuss the research highlights of the archaeological excavations at Barnham.

Archaeological excavations in an abandoned brickearth pit at East Farm, Barnham have uncovered one of the richest Lower Palaeolithic archaeological sites in western Europe, dating to about 400,000 years ago. Finds include butchered large-mammal bones, flint tools and evidence for fire.

The 1989-94 excavations established the significance of the site, with its in situ artefact assemblages and its substantial quantities of vertebrate remains, include fishes, amphibians and small and large mammals. The second round of excavations that started in 2013 have refined our understanding of these lithic assemblages and also provided an opportunity to explore the evidence for technological transitions and how early humans developed strategies for survival. Recent investigations at the site have identified an earlier core and flake industry that was replaced by a later handaxe industry (Clactonian and Acheulian respectively). This technological transition may reflect arrival of different human populations into Britain from different regions within Europe, bringing with them different technologies.

Area III 3D photogrammetry render

Area III, pictured in a photogrammetric reconstruction of the excavation (above), shows ‘islands’ of undisturbed sediments cut by late 19th and early 20th century brickearth pits. These sediments contain stone tools and a rich assemblage of vertebrate remains. Area III has provided important evidence for the environment in which early humans lived; pollen grains contained within the sediments enable the vegetation at the time to be reconstructed and the landscape can be populated with both large and small animals based on the fossil remains found in the sediments.

Carapace fragments from a European pond terrapin

Among the many examples from these deposits are a macaque tooth and elements of pond terrapin carapace (shell) indicating warm conditions and diverse habitats that included both woodland and aquatic environments.

In a different part of the site, the excavations in Area VI, revealed a new dimension to the Barnham story; along with the many flint artefacts that make up the lithic assemblage, there is also a surprising quantity of burnt flint. This material, with its distinctive cracked and crazed surface and often red colouration, was found within the black clay, a layer that we know to have once been a land surface as it shows signs of soil development.

Macaque tooth from Area III

As the excavations have progressed, our research has focused on this evidence for burning and the critical question of whether the burnt flint, which includes some artefactual as well as natural pieces, provides evidence for hearths or does it record ancient forest fires?

To address this question we have excavated and carefully recorded the spatial distribution of hundreds of fragments of burnt flint in order to plot the variation in density across the excavated area. We are also using laboratory analyses, particularly Fourier-transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) to identify heating signals in the sediments. Another avenue of enquiry is the use of experimental fires, set and maintained under carefully controlled conditions, to investigate the changes that take place within and beneath a hearth.

Burnt flint in Area VI

If the evidence points to human use of fire, this would provide further indications of the development of new technology that goes beyond the stone tool evidence and it may also begin to tell us something about societies and culture in the different human groups that entered Britain during this interglacial some 400,000 years ago.

With a focus on the archaeological and environmental evidence, the Barnham Palaeolithic Project is able to address important questions concerning Palaeolithic societies 400,000 years ago at spatial scales ranging from domestic sites with evidence of fire through group territories to relationships between groups across Europe.

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Excavation Diary: Tea Duty at Barnham

Written by Sarah, a volunteer at the 2019 Barnham excavation.

Tea breaks are integral to field work at Barnham. In the mornings, team members shrug off yesterday’s aching muscle memory, cleaning up debris that has accumulated in the trenches overnight and picking up where we left off the day before. Morning tea break offers a circle of cushioned chairs beneath a sweeping sky of swirling grey and white clouds. Beside us, a rolling field of grass spreads out towards a horizon of tall trees. The grass veils tractors and equipment that remind us we are gracious guests trying to make sense of an ancient landscape on modern farmland.

The tea area in the Barnham site hut

As we are divided into different areas to work, first tea is the first opportunity to check in on everyone’s progress and exchange stories. Here we discuss small moments of interest, where things have not quite gone as planned, or someone has found something interesting. By afternoon, the team has broken into the prime vigour of progress for the day, and everyone has worked up a proper appetite. Lunch (with tea) is a welcome halfway mark to the day’s work. By afternoon, aches, pains, setbacks, and tedium begin to take their toll – broken by moments of surprise and laughter (or a bit of sarcasm). Afternoon tea is a final pause before the last push to meet goals, piece together the day’s big-picture puzzles about the site, and wrap up work.

The tea breaks lift morale and facilitates social health on site. Tea duty is therefore an important responsibility that rotates through each team member. Today was my day to make tea for the team. Being Mormon myself (a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), I don’t drink tea. Nevertheless, I was happy and excited to help. I was amused (and so were the kind staff members and fellow students checking on me) as, at first, I kept repeating my questions about the difference between the hot water “teapots” and the steeping kettles. Not to mention I spilled quite a bit of hot water and tea while preparing for morning break, trying to figure out how to pour out of typical teapot spots into kettles and mugs. It was immensely satisfying to serve my wonderful team members and help host these essential gatherings that punctuate our work day. And, according to my new friends, I made a mean cup of tea!

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Excavation Diary: Barnham Arrivals

It’s the first day of the excavation, a day for getting to know each other and the site, sorting out the equipment, tool shed and office and beginning to prepare the excavation areas for the work ahead. This year’s team sees a nice mix of old and new faces; students studying at Leiden University, UCL, and Durham, Brighton, Liverpool and Reading universities will be working alongside staff and volunteers from the British Museum, Natural History Museum and Queen Mary University of London.

Some of the Barnham 2019 on the first day of the excavation

Following a site induction, most of the team got to work recovering Area III from the ravages of winter, bailing out water, removing leaf litter and lifting the plastic sheeting that has protected the area since last year’s excavation. This job has been done well, so tomorrow we should be able to begin excavating. Meanwhile, our digger driver Dave and his brother Colin are extending Area I by removing the backfill to reveal in-situ sediments to the east of the old excavation area. This may take a couple of days, but once it is complete a team will begin to excavate the ancient soil horizon along the southern margin of the site that we hope will preserve evidence of human activity.

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Thirty Years of Dirt

On the eve of the 2019 season, Simon Lewis reflects on three decades of fieldwork in the Breckland.

In 1989 a team of six people, led by Nick Ashton, ventured into the old pit at East Farm, Barnham. Armed with spades, mattocks and trowels, and guided by information from earlier investigations by TT Paterson and John Wymer, the aim was to explore the potential for fresh excavations at this important, but perhaps somewhat overlooked Palaeolithic site. In the 1980s the British Lower Palaeolithic was dominated by Boxgrove; excavations were in full swing and the wealth of new data emanating from the excavation’s HQ in farm buildings near the site was transforming our understanding of early human behaviour and the environments in which they lived as well as setting new standards in excavation, recording and sampling procedures. In contrast to the scale and organisation at Boxgrove, excavations at Barnham adopted, from the outset, an approach that suited a small Breckland brickearth pit abandoned since the early years of the 20th century, now completely taken over by oak trees, hawthorn and bramble thickets and with little to disturb the tranquillity of the location.

The abandoned overgrown brickearth pit at East Farm, Barnham

John Wymer’s work in 1979, had revealed the potential of the site; he excavated a small area and recovered a refitting group of 13 flakes and a core. The team set about the task of re-exposing the sediments and the archaeological levels, previously described by Wymer. The 1989 results demonstrated that there was indeed scope for larger-scale excavations at the site and so, with the enthusiastic support of the Heading family at East Farm and the Euston Estate, began a six-year programme of fieldwork at East Farm. The results of these investigations have been published in a comprehensive volume, as well as papers in academic journals.

After the 1989-94 excavations ended the now-established research team turned their attention to another Breckland site; the former pit at Elveden, some 7 km west of East Farm. Excavations at Elveden ran from 1995-99 and together these two sites provided important new geological, environmental and archaeological evidence for understanding the Palaeolithic of the region.

Nineteen years after concluding the first round of excavations at East Farm, a decision was taken to return to the site. There were three main reasons for doing this, the first was to re-evaluate the key archaeological question of the relationship between Acheulian and Clactonian assemblages in the light of wider developments in understanding of this problem in the intervening years. The second was the opportunity to add to the already rich environmental information from East Farm, in particular to increase the vertebrate assemblage and to explore the linkages between the archaeological and environmental evidence. The third was to provide an opportunity for archaeology students to gain experience of excavation on a Lower Palaeolithic site. Following on from the work at Happisburgh with the Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University, Barnham provided an ideal setting for this.

Area III — one of the richest palaeolithic faunal sites in Europe — during 2019 excavations

So 2013 saw a return to East Farm, with a small team of Dutch students, to embark on a new programme of research again led by Nick Ashton. The first season was primarily about finding our feet again and identifying areas for excavation. Over the subsequent five seasons, archaeological work has focused on the southeast corner of the pit, Area IV(4), where evidence of handaxe manufacturing had been found in 1994, which has now been expanded into the adjacent Area VI. The environmental work focused on the centre of the pit, Area III, which has been considerably enlarged from the earlier work. Material excavated from Area III has been processed on-site; several tonnes of sediment being excavated, dried, disaggregated and sieved during the course of each season.

Sieving sediment from Area III for faunal remains

This second Barnham campaign has already provided an array of new information. Among the key developments since 2013 are the reassessment of the stratigraphic relationship of the handaxe and non-handaxe assemblages, the addition of several new species to the faunal list, the discovery of an intriguing burning signal though recovery of large quantities of burnt flint and location of an organic deposit, with a pollen profile showing the development of interglacial woodland vegetation. We have also welcomed students from several UK universities alongside new and returning Leiden students.

As the 2019 season gets underway, with new and exciting objectives for this year’s excavation, it is good to look back over thirty years of excavation and related research in and around the Breckland area. As always, the support of the British Museum, as well as other funding bodies through the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) and Pathways to Ancient Britain (PAB) projects and the Breckland Palaeolithic Project, has played a vital role in the excavations at Barnham and other Palaeolithic sites. Three decades of collaborative research in the Breckland, with fieldwork at East Farm playing a prominent part, demonstrate that a great site and a dedicated team of people, united by a shared interest in the lost world of our distant ancestors, are the foundations on which this endeavour has been built.

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Excavation Diary: Barnham Preparations

Today saw the start of the 2019 field season with delivery of machinery, tools and equipment and other essentials to the site. The site hut, office and tool store will soon be ready for the start of the dig next week. Clearance of areas for this year’s work got underway, though conditions on site are rather muddy after several days of heavy rain.

This year we hope to continue the extensive excavation, sampling and sieving of the sediments in Area III, reassess Area V and also have another look at a small part of Area I to explore further the evidence of burning that has been found in Area VI. We look forward to getting things underway next week.

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Where Did You Come From and Where Did You Go?

At the Barnham excavation, there are two areas where digging has actively taken place in recent years; Area IV/VI, a cobbled palaeo-lakeshore, and Area III, roughly in the middle of the former lake. We know that the latter area used to be a lake, because of the fine sediments characteristic of fluvial deposits, but also because of the high number of fish bones, as described by Tess Bakker in a previous blog. From these fish species, we can determine whether the water was fresh or perhaps brackish, whether it was flowing or still standing and many more aspects. However, there are also features to the waterbody we can only study by looking at the objects that do not naturally belong in the water, but somehow ended up at the bottom of the lake. One of these features is the direction of the lake’s current. By measuring the direction in which elongated objects are oriented, we can reconstruct the axis and direction of the current. But how do we measure orientation and thereafter determine the direction of the current?

Excavations in Area III

First of all, elongated objects can be bones and artefacts, but also unworked flint, of which the longest axis, referred to as ‘a-axis’, is 1.5 times larger than the ‘b-axis’, which is perpendicular to the ‘a-axis’. Holding a compass with a rectangular outline parallel to the object’s most inclined axis, we can read the object’s orientation relative to the magnetic north off the compass’ dial.

Secondly, the orientation data will be plotted in a so-called ‘Rose-diagram’ after all measurements have been digitalized. The plotted data should show a concentration in a general direction (e.g. ‘north by northeast’ or ‘southwest’), which will be the direction from which the water was flowing. The measurements point to the source of the flowing water, since the highest end of objects will be forced to point downstream by the moving water, resulting in the object to dip in the direction of the water’s source. However, several processes can influence the precision of our measurements. These can be large animals drinking from the lake and by accident walking on the deposited objects, affecting their orientation and dip, a process called ‘trampling’, but it is also possible that some of the objects we find were not transported by water, but entered the lake’s sediments because an animal died in shallow areas of the lake, or early hominins discarding bones of butchered animals and/ or threw rocks in a lake for reasons we can only speculate about.

To differentiate objects deposited by flowing water from intrusions, we measure the dip of the objects with a clinometer. If items are positioned vertically, they are more likely to be unaffected by the current and hence not very informative for our main research question. This way we can make a general distinction and make our results more precise and reliable.

Although we presume that the objects in the lake did not leave behind broken marriages during their travels, but in order to learn more about our palaeo-lake we still ask them the same question Cotton Eye Joe was asked: “Where did you come from and where did you go?”

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Suds Versus Sods

Written by Simon O’Connor, a volunteer at the Barnham excavations.

In the wet sieving area at Barnham you will see rows and rows of buckets with thick chocolaty mud in them. This is the vital disaggregation stage that is needed to allow the sediments to wash away leaving stones, teeth and bones behind in the sieves. To achieve disaggregation there is a magic ingredient that we add to the sediment and water mix. The secret ingredient is a 1/3 of a cup of biological detergent powder.

Stirring sticky sediments

To understand what is happening here we needed to delve into a little soil science. The sediments in our case are a mixture of sands, silts and clays. Sand and silt grains will not stick together, but clay acts like cement gluing everything together. The property of clay particles that causes this is a negative charge to each particle. If we added clay particles to distilled water they would disperse easily as the like charges of the particles repel each other in the same way as like poles of a pair of magnets do. However ground water in this area contains positively charged ions of calcium and magnesium that attract the clay particles causing them to clump together in a process called flocculation. Flocculated clay particles are the glue that cements the sand and silt together.

Detergent powder contains a water softening ingredient called sodium polyphosphate. When this ingredient is added to water the polyphosphate disassociates from the sodium. The polyphosphate has lots of negative charges and wraps itself round calcium and magnesium ions neutralising their charge in a process known as sequestration. The sodium ions replace the calcium and magnesium ions. They differ from calcium and magnesium ions in that they have a single positive charge rather than a double charge of the hard water ions. They also attract an insulating layer of water molecules (know as a hydration shell). For these reasons sodium ions are much less effective at flocculating clay particles. So a bit of a stir in water is sufficient to disaggregate our sediments when we add the magic 1/3 of a cup of detergent powder. 

This proves that a few suds are more than a match for the rock hard sun baked sods at Barnham!

Smooth sieving
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How to Get a Workout While Wet-Sieving

Written by Carli Peters, a student volunteer at the Barnham excavations.

Excavated sediments drying after being brought up in bags

During the first week of this years excavation I discovered the best way to get in shape while working on an archaeological site: wet sieving. This may sound strange at first, since wet sieving itself is not that physically demanding. However, it is not the wet sieving itself that is a great workout, it are all the processes associated with wet sieving that are physically intense.. and that is where I come in.

At Barnham all the sediments that are going to be sieved are dried first after which they are soaked with washing powder (see tomorrow’ s blog by Simon O’Connor). This means that the sediments need to be moved around after they are excavated. I am in charge of all of these processes and thus mostly spend my days walking around with sediments bags and buckets filled with sediment. During the first week of the excavation I transported 2166 litres of sediment, which is the equivalent of 3465.6 kg (twice) and I walked approximately 15 km a day while doing so.

Buckets of soaking samples waiting to be sieved

So if you ever feel like you could use a good workout for the day, you are welcome to give me a hand -it will take some of the weight of my shoulders!

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Small Finds, Big Pictures

Written by Tess Baker, a student at the Barnham excavations.

Since 2013, an international group of researchers and archaeology students are searching for traces that extinct human species may have left at the archaeological site Barnham East Farm. Earlier research showed that early humans lived in the region around the site at approximately 420,000 years ago, in a warmer period between two glacial periods.

Mandible of a Vole with incisor and molar

When archaeology is mentioned in the media, often spectacular finds, such as fossils of Pleistocene megafauna, and tools used by humans are covered. At the excavation at Barnham East Farm, a large number of remains from small animals has been found. Although these finds may be seen as less spectacular on first sight, they can indicate valuable information on archaeological sites.

The remains of small animals can, among others, be used for climatic and environmental reconstructions and dating of the site. For example, over time the enamel thickness and the height of the crown of water vole molars has changed, and because certain characteristics only occurred in a specific time frame, water vole molars can indicate the age of a site. 

Molars of a Vole

Bones from the European pond terrapin are also found at Barnham. The European pond terrapin needs a relative warm summer temperature for the eggs to hatch. Therefore, the European pond terrapin remains found at Branham East Farm indicates that the summer temperature 420,000 years ago was warmer than the current summer temperature. Remains from several species of fish has also been found during the excavation from, i.e. tench and pike. Fish generally live in a specific environment and fish remains found at archaeological sites can therefore indicate, among others, salinity, seasonality, type of water body, such as open water or floodplain. 

The valuable information small animal remains can tell us about the environment, climate and dating of the site, shows that the remains of small animals are for archaeologist just as important as elephants and large cats. This is also why all the sediment from the pit with a good preservation for animal bones is sieved, as without the sieving station, a large percentage of the small animal remains would be lost.  

Vertebrates of Pike
Teeth of Tench