PAB researchers recently led a guided walk through the streets of Stoke Newington to explore Hackney’s distant past and the people who made the early discoveries
London’s streets may seem an unlikely setting to explore the Palaeolithic and the lives of early humans some 300,000 years ago. However, there is much to be understood by simply walking through an area and getting a sense of the subtle changes in the topography and how some of the key locations fit into the wider landscape. Moreover, this part of north London has much to reveal about the lives of Hackney’s inhabitants many millennia ago. To mark the end of Hackney Museum’s exhibition “Hackney 300,000 years BC”, PAB researchers Dr Claire Harris and Professor Simon Lewis led a guided walk to explore this area and to tell the intertwined stories of its Palaeolithic past and the more recent history of discovery and collecting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
A Queen Mary University of London Collaboration Fund grant enabled Claire Harris and Simon Lewis to examine the museum’s Palaeolithic collections and to develop resources to support their teaching of prehistory to the many school groups who visit the museum. Armed with a better understanding of the collections and their archaeological and historical significance the museum mounted the exhibition to display Palaeolithic artefacts from the area, including several impressive handaxes and faunal remains. The exhibition also highlighted the important contribution of those people who collected in the borough during the 1870s-1890s, when this part of London was undergoing a rapid transformation from quiet rural landscape to busy residential urban environment. This was a period of remarkable change, not only in the landscape of north London, but also in the emerging discipline of Palaeolithic archaeology. Thanks to the endeavours of Worthington George Smith, Joseph Exhall Greenhill and Samuel Hazzledine Warren, Stoke Newington has an important place in the early development of ideas on the antiquity of humans, their technology and the landscape in which they lived.
So it was that seventeen hardy folk braved the rain on 22nd July 2023 to walk a route that took in several of Stoke Newington’s key Palaeolithic locations, starting in Abney Park Cemetery, with a stop at Greenhill’s grave. The next stop was Stoke Newington Common and Worthington Smith’s house in Kyverdale Road, from where he set about amassing a large collection of Palaeolithic artefacts from the foundations, sewer trenches and small gravel pits near his home and also developed his ideas on the “Palaeolithic floor” – an old land surface that he traced across the area and on which he found numerous Palaeolithic implements. The last three sites visited provided the palaeoenvironmental context for early human presence. One of Worthington Smith’s sites at Charnwood Street (formerly Caroline Street and the location of an old pit) yielded a molluscan fauna which indicated warm, riverine conditions during deposition of the Stoke Newington Sands, while in Evering Road remains of straight-tusked elephant and rhinoceros were found during sewer works in 1960. The last stop was on Hackney Downs, where boreholes for the Nightingale Estate development revealed organic muds containing mixed deciduous woodland pollen types including oak, alder, elm and hazel. Together these pieces of information allow archaeologists to understand the landscape, environment and chronology of human activity in the area and place these important discoveries in and around Stoke Newington into the wider picture of early human presence in Britain.
The walk concluded at Hackney Museum with an opportunity to view the exhibition for one final time and to reflect on Hackney’s distant past some 300,000 years ago as well as the Victorian antiquarians who put Stoke Newington on the Palaeolithic map.
If you want to find out more, a recent paper by Professor Mark White (Durham University) explores Stoke Newington’s archaeological significance and the people who collected there.