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Thirty Years of Dirt

On the eve of the 2019 season, Simon Lewis reflects on three decades of fieldwork in the Breckland.

In 1989 a team of six people, led by Nick Ashton, ventured into the old pit at East Farm, Barnham. Armed with spades, mattocks and trowels, and guided by information from earlier investigations by TT Paterson and John Wymer, the aim was to explore the potential for fresh excavations at this important, but perhaps somewhat overlooked Palaeolithic site. In the 1980s the British Lower Palaeolithic was dominated by Boxgrove; excavations were in full swing and the wealth of new data emanating from the excavation’s HQ in farm buildings near the site was transforming our understanding of early human behaviour and the environments in which they lived as well as setting new standards in excavation, recording and sampling procedures. In contrast to the scale and organisation at Boxgrove, excavations at Barnham adopted, from the outset, an approach that suited a small Breckland brickearth pit abandoned since the early years of the 20th century, now completely taken over by oak trees, hawthorn and bramble thickets and with little to disturb the tranquillity of the location.

The abandoned overgrown brickearth pit at East Farm, Barnham

John Wymer’s work in 1979, had revealed the potential of the site; he excavated a small area and recovered a refitting group of 13 flakes and a core. The team set about the task of re-exposing the sediments and the archaeological levels, previously described by Wymer. The 1989 results demonstrated that there was indeed scope for larger-scale excavations at the site and so, with the enthusiastic support of the Heading family at East Farm and the Euston Estate, began a six-year programme of fieldwork at East Farm. The results of these investigations have been published in a comprehensive volume, as well as papers in academic journals.

After the 1989-94 excavations ended the now-established research team turned their attention to another Breckland site; the former pit at Elveden, some 7 km west of East Farm. Excavations at Elveden ran from 1995-99 and together these two sites provided important new geological, environmental and archaeological evidence for understanding the Palaeolithic of the region.

Nineteen years after concluding the first round of excavations at East Farm, a decision was taken to return to the site. There were three main reasons for doing this, the first was to re-evaluate the key archaeological question of the relationship between Acheulian and Clactonian assemblages in the light of wider developments in understanding of this problem in the intervening years. The second was the opportunity to add to the already rich environmental information from East Farm, in particular to increase the vertebrate assemblage and to explore the linkages between the archaeological and environmental evidence. The third was to provide an opportunity for archaeology students to gain experience of excavation on a Lower Palaeolithic site. Following on from the work at Happisburgh with the Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University, Barnham provided an ideal setting for this.

Area III — one of the richest palaeolithic faunal sites in Europe — during 2019 excavations

So 2013 saw a return to East Farm, with a small team of Dutch students, to embark on a new programme of research again led by Nick Ashton. The first season was primarily about finding our feet again and identifying areas for excavation. Over the subsequent five seasons, archaeological work has focused on the southeast corner of the pit, Area IV(4), where evidence of handaxe manufacturing had been found in 1994, which has now been expanded into the adjacent Area VI. The environmental work focused on the centre of the pit, Area III, which has been considerably enlarged from the earlier work. Material excavated from Area III has been processed on-site; several tonnes of sediment being excavated, dried, disaggregated and sieved during the course of each season.

Sieving sediment from Area III for faunal remains

This second Barnham campaign has already provided an array of new information. Among the key developments since 2013 are the reassessment of the stratigraphic relationship of the handaxe and non-handaxe assemblages, the addition of several new species to the faunal list, the discovery of an intriguing burning signal though recovery of large quantities of burnt flint and location of an organic deposit, with a pollen profile showing the development of interglacial woodland vegetation. We have also welcomed students from several UK universities alongside new and returning Leiden students.

As the 2019 season gets underway, with new and exciting objectives for this year’s excavation, it is good to look back over thirty years of excavation and related research in and around the Breckland area. As always, the support of the British Museum, as well as other funding bodies through the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) and Pathways to Ancient Britain (PAB) projects and the Breckland Palaeolithic Project, has played a vital role in the excavations at Barnham and other Palaeolithic sites. Three decades of collaborative research in the Breckland, with fieldwork at East Farm playing a prominent part, demonstrate that a great site and a dedicated team of people, united by a shared interest in the lost world of our distant ancestors, are the foundations on which this endeavour has been built.