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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.

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