Happisburgh Area

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Introduction

The earliest evidence of humans living in northern Europe dates to just under one million years ago. We are studying these sporadic occupations, mainly at sites in East Anglia and focusing on Happisburgh in Norfolk. These sites are proving to be critical in understanding how early humans adapted to the colder climates of northern latitudes.

Previous and Ongoing Work at Happisburgh

With continuing erosion of the coast, our work at Happisburgh has concentrated on monitoring and recording new exposures.

Five principal sites have been discovered at Happisburgh. These include the oldest archaeological site in northern Europe and what may be the world’s oldest underwater archaeological site.

Site 1

Site 1 lies one kilometre south of the village of Happisburgh. At 500,000 years old, it may be the youngest of the five archaeological sites.

Fieldwork suggests the presence of a slow-moving river and marshland at this site. Human occupation is indicated by handaxes, worked flint flakes and butchered bison and deer bones. The rich biological remains reflect a cool interglacial environment with birch and coniferous forest.

Site 3

At approximately 900,000 years old, Site 3 is the oldest archaeological site in northern Europe. It is notable for its excellent organic preservation of beetle, plant and mammal remains. In 2013 the earliest known human footprints in Europe were discovered just to the south of the site.

The first Britons: by Nature Video

Site 3 consists of a complex series of channels cut by a slow-flowing river that was close to its estuary. The river was bordered by grassland and surrounded by conifer-dominated forest.

Human presence at the site is indicated by worked flint flakes and footprints. Winter temperatures may have been at least three degrees Celsius colder than today, but the presence of footprints from what may be family groups and children suggests that the humans at Happisburgh were year-round occupants and able to cope with the long, cold winters.

Footprint size indicates that the tallest individual was about 1.7 metres (5 feet 8 inches) in height. This is consistent with skeletal evidence of the average male Homo antecessor from the broadly contemporaneous site of Atapuerca in northern Spain.

Since 2013 there have been few opportunities for excavation due to high beach sand. Most of the work therefore has involved regular monitoring for new exposures with the help of local volunteers, whose finds are now being systematically recorded.

The oldest human footprints in Europe:

Site 5

This offshore site was first identified through the recovery of blocks of iron-concreted gravel from local beaches. These blocks contain plant remains, butchered bones and stone tool evidence. The mammalian fauna found in the blocks suggests that the site dates to the early Middle Pleistocene. Pollen and plant remains indicate a temperate environment.

The gravel blocks were transported from offshore to local beaches by tidal action. The exact location of Site 5 is still under investigation through diving expeditions.

Various methods for locating Site 5 have been trialled and developed by a dive team from the University of Southampton from 2012 to 2015.

After a few weather-related setbacks, the final dive of the 2015 season saw the identification of in situ, outcropping deposits on an area of seabed known locally as the Monks. The same location also yielded the first fossil find of the dives, a heavily mineralised rhino leg bone. It is possible that this is the broad location of Site 5.

Further dives, in conjunction with geophysical techniques such as side-scan sonar and sub-bottom imaging, will be attempted in the future. If confirmed through diving and sampling, Site 5 would be the world’s oldest underwater archaeological site.

Palaeolithic Artefact Discoveries from the Sandscaping area (PADS)

Background

Research at Happisburgh over the past 20 years has firmly established the area as one of the most important Palaeolithic archaeological locales in northern Europe. The Happisburgh record spans a critical period in human evolution in Europe, from the earliest pioneer populations in northern Europe c. 950 or c. 850 ka to more successful colonisation by larger populations c. 500 ka. It poses important questions regarding the development of technological, cultural and/or biological adaptations by humans to overcome the challenges of surviving in northern latitudes. The addition of a Middle Palaeolithic assemblage currently being amassed at Walcott-Bacton, and coming from a submerged southern North Sea landscape adds a new dimension to this record.

Photograph of beach at Walcott showing newly replenished beach.
Looking north-westwards along the newly replenished beach at Walcott in December 2019, following the completion of the sandscaping work, showing how waves are already reshaping the beach profile (Photo: Simon Lewis).

It is likely that significant numbers of artefacts and fossils will continue to be eroded from the Cromer Forest-bed Formation (CF-bF) between Ostend and Eccles-on-Sea and from the recent Sandscaping area at Walcott-Bacton. This important information would be lost but for the collecting activities of a growing community of collectors. The collaboration between the Pathways to Ancient Britain (PAB) project and a small group of collectors has demonstrated how this information can be captured to enhance understanding of the archaeology of the CF-bF (Bynoe et al. submitted). Over the past few years, as interest in Happisburgh has grown, and with the success of a series of local public engagement events, the number of people actively collecting fossils and stone tools from the foreshore has increased significantly. While this means more material is being recovered, it presents challenges that must be addressed to ensure potentially vital information is not lost.

  • Ensuring good collecting and reporting practice amongst collectors,
  • Developing a sustainable procedure for recording new fossil and artefact finds,
  • Ensuring stakeholder participation during planning of beach replenishment schemes.

Project Outcomes

This project aims to increase the knowledge and skills of the existing collectors and to encourage wider public engagement in the deep history of this coastline. Using existing contacts and social media activity as a starting point it will extend to the wider collector and interest community. Supporting best practice in collecting will maximise the potential of the artefacts that are being recovered to contribute to research databases, HER data and wider heritage management. Five objectives have been identified for this project:

  • Collecting: Support for artefact recording, recognition and identification and improve translation of finds into PAB research project and NHER databases;
  • Engagement: Encourage awareness of and engagement with the Deep History Coast project;
  • Dissemination: A publication for a general audience, available electronically and on paper to summarise discoveries on the Happisburgh coastline and their significance;
  • Academic: co-convene an academic conference, and collaborate on a research paper with PAB colleagues;
  • Longer term sustainability: explore funding options to continue and develop the work started during this project.

PADS Project Team

The PADS Project Team is made up of Professor Simon Lewis, Dr Claire Harris, Dr Rob Davis and Dr Marcus Hatch. See Project Team for more details.

Funders and Partners

This project, which is funded by North Norfolk District Council, will run for six months from September 2020 to February 2021. The project team will also work with the Deep History Coast Project and Historic England.

Sandscaping | Bacton and Walcott

 

Other Happisburgh Videos

Russell Coope on fossil beetles in the Cromer Forest-bed at Happisburgh:

Further Information

Our Other Happisburgh Pages: