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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.