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Technological Transitions, Fire, and Human Colonisation

Nick AshtonSimon Parfitt and Simon Lewis discuss the research highlights of the archaeological excavations at Barnham.

Archaeological excavations in an abandoned brickearth pit at East Farm, Barnham have uncovered one of the richest Lower Palaeolithic archaeological sites in western Europe, dating to about 400,000 years ago. Finds include butchered large-mammal bones, flint tools and evidence for fire.

The 1989-94 excavations established the significance of the site, with its in situ artefact assemblages and its substantial quantities of vertebrate remains, include fishes, amphibians and small and large mammals. The second round of excavations that started in 2013 have refined our understanding of these lithic assemblages and also provided an opportunity to explore the evidence for technological transitions and how early humans developed strategies for survival. Recent investigations at the site have identified an earlier core and flake industry that was replaced by a later handaxe industry (Clactonian and Acheulian respectively). This technological transition may reflect arrival of different human populations into Britain from different regions within Europe, bringing with them different technologies.

Area III 3D photogrammetry render

Area III, pictured in a photogrammetric reconstruction of the excavation (above), shows ‘islands’ of undisturbed sediments cut by late 19th and early 20th century brickearth pits. These sediments contain stone tools and a rich assemblage of vertebrate remains. Area III has provided important evidence for the environment in which early humans lived; pollen grains contained within the sediments enable the vegetation at the time to be reconstructed and the landscape can be populated with both large and small animals based on the fossil remains found in the sediments.

Carapace fragments from a European pond terrapin

Among the many examples from these deposits are a macaque tooth and elements of pond terrapin carapace (shell) indicating warm conditions and diverse habitats that included both woodland and aquatic environments.

In a different part of the site, the excavations in Area VI, revealed a new dimension to the Barnham story; along with the many flint artefacts that make up the lithic assemblage, there is also a surprising quantity of burnt flint. This material, with its distinctive cracked and crazed surface and often red colouration, was found within the black clay, a layer that we know to have once been a land surface as it shows signs of soil development.

Macaque tooth from Area III

As the excavations have progressed, our research has focused on this evidence for burning and the critical question of whether the burnt flint, which includes some artefactual as well as natural pieces, provides evidence for hearths or does it record ancient forest fires?

To address this question we have excavated and carefully recorded the spatial distribution of hundreds of fragments of burnt flint in order to plot the variation in density across the excavated area. We are also using laboratory analyses, particularly Fourier-transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) to identify heating signals in the sediments. Another avenue of enquiry is the use of experimental fires, set and maintained under carefully controlled conditions, to investigate the changes that take place within and beneath a hearth.

Burnt flint in Area VI

If the evidence points to human use of fire, this would provide further indications of the development of new technology that goes beyond the stone tool evidence and it may also begin to tell us something about societies and culture in the different human groups that entered Britain during this interglacial some 400,000 years ago.

With a focus on the archaeological and environmental evidence, the Barnham Palaeolithic Project is able to address important questions concerning Palaeolithic societies 400,000 years ago at spatial scales ranging from domestic sites with evidence of fire through group territories to relationships between groups across Europe.