Posted on

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 Paleolithic story.

Posted on

Deep History Detectives weekend event at Happisburgh 

Over the weekend of 17th-18th July members of the PAB research team, Dr Claire Harris and Professor Simon Lewis, were once again at Happisburgh to run the Deep History Detectives weekend event. This event was the culmination of a five-month project funded by the Centre for Public Engagement at Queen Mary University of London. Through various sessions, it aimed to provide an opportunity for PAB researchers to meet people who were interested in learning more about the important Palaeolithic sites along the Happisburgh coastline, to share their knowledge and skills with participants, and to encourage them to get involved with the work of the Pathways to Ancient Britain team. Around 40 people attended one or more of the sessions which included a full-day flint knapping workshop, a taster knapping workshop, geological walks on the beach, and training in artefact identification and recording. 

The flint knapping workshops and demonstrations were led by experimental archaeologist Dr James Dilley. After an introduction to the basics of flint knapping, the participants were able to get “hands on” and have a go, first to learn how to remove flakes with a hammerstone then, as confidence and proficiency improved, at making a handaxe. Under James’s watchful eye and guidance, all the trainee flint knappers were able to make a handaxe. James also demonstrated other Palaeolithic tool making techniques, including an example of prepared core Levallois working to produce an excellent replica of a Levallois core and flake. The artefact identification session, led by Claire Harris, introduced the participants to the basics of artefact recognition, combining a short practical demonstration, led by James, then transferring this knowledge to look at material collected from the Happisburgh coastline. Participants learnt how to recognise the key features of a humanly-struck flake and how these can be distinguished from either natural percussion or thermally fractured flakes.

Geology beach walk at Happisburgh
Geology beach walk led by Prof Simon Lewis. Photo: Dr Ian Parker Heath.

For those who wanted to learn more about the geology of the Happisburgh coastline, a geological walk, led by Simon Lewis, introduced the participants to the geological succession that can be seen on the beach at Happisburgh. The unpredictable build-up and removal of sand from Happisburgh beach, conspired to cover up most of the important sediments relating to the archaeological sites at Happisburgh, but it was still possible to tell the story of early humans at Happisburgh and also highlight the importance of on-going work by collectors who visit the area on a regular basis and how this knowledge, when shared with PAB researchers, can add greatly to our understanding of Happisburgh’s archaeological story. There was also the opportunity to discuss the likely impact of movement of material down the coast as a result of the recently-completed Sandscaping project between Walcott and Bacton.  

The main aim of the weekend was to provide new knowledge and skills relating to Happisburgh’s Paleolithic story. It is hoped that, armed with this new knowledge and understanding, our Deep History Detectives will continue to visit the area and be better able understand the geological and environmental evidence that can be seen on the beach and to identify and record Palaeolithic artefacts that can contribute to on-going research on the Happisburgh coastline. 

 

 

Posted on

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, though 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.

Posted on

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!

Posted on

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.

Posted on

New page 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
Posted on

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. 

 

Posted on

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.

Posted on

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.

Posted on

Barnham Excavation Scholarship 2020 – Applications Open

This year’s applications for the Barnham Excavation Scholarship are now open.

East Farm, near the village of Barnham, Suffolk, is an internationally-significant Lower Palaeolithic site dating to 400,000 years ago. Excavations at the site have been ongoing since 2013 and this year we are offering 12 scholarships worth £500 to students who have a desire to pursue serious study of Palaeolithic archaeology to participate in the excavation.

Excavations at East Farm, Barnham

If you would like to apply for a scholarship please complete the application form by Friday 28th February 2020. Candidates will be selected on the basis of a demonstrable interest in Palaeolithic archaeology.

Please see the Barnham Excavation 2020 page for full information about the scholarship.