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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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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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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.