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Excavations continue at Devereux’s Pit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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