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Small Finds, Big Pictures

Written by Tess Baker, a student at the Barnham excavations.

Since 2013, an international group of researchers and archaeology students are searching for traces that extinct human species may have left at the archaeological site Barnham East Farm. Earlier research showed that early humans lived in the region around the site at approximately 420,000 years ago, in a warmer period between two glacial periods.

Mandible of a Vole with incisor and molar

When archaeology is mentioned in the media, often spectacular finds, such as fossils of Pleistocene megafauna, and tools used by humans are covered. At the excavation at Barnham East Farm, a large number of remains from small animals has been found. Although these finds may be seen as less spectacular on first sight, they can indicate valuable information on archaeological sites.

The remains of small animals can, among others, be used for climatic and environmental reconstructions and dating of the site. For example, over time the enamel thickness and the height of the crown of water vole molars has changed, and because certain characteristics only occurred in a specific time frame, water vole molars can indicate the age of a site. 

Molars of a Vole

Bones from the European pond terrapin are also found at Barnham. The European pond terrapin needs a relative warm summer temperature for the eggs to hatch. Therefore, the European pond terrapin remains found at Branham East Farm indicates that the summer temperature 420,000 years ago was warmer than the current summer temperature. Remains from several species of fish has also been found during the excavation from, i.e. tench and pike. Fish generally live in a specific environment and fish remains found at archaeological sites can therefore indicate, among others, salinity, seasonality, type of water body, such as open water or floodplain. 

The valuable information small animal remains can tell us about the environment, climate and dating of the site, shows that the remains of small animals are for archaeologist just as important as elephants and large cats. This is also why all the sediment from the pit with a good preservation for animal bones is sieved, as without the sieving station, a large percentage of the small animal remains would be lost.  

Vertebrates of Pike
Teeth of Tench