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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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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!

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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
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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.