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Cover of British Archaeology 114

Issue 114

Sept / Oct 2010


All the latest archaeology news from around the country


MAIN FEATURE: Happisburgh

The project leaders give us the latest findings after six years of research on the earliest humans in Britain.

The obscure ownership of archaeological material

Haggai Mor recently worked in one of the world's largest archaeological store and wondered who all the things dug up actaully belong to?

Finding Boudica's Last Battlefield

With the help of computerised terrain analysis, Steve Kaye has narrowed down the possibilities.

The Lost Anglo-Saxon Church of Westbury-on-Trym

Jon Cannon explores a crypt beneath a Bristol church and is greeted with an amazing find.

Finding Private Mather

A victim of battle in WW1 remembered by his family, is finally laid to rest.

Archaeology: What Is It For?

Martin Carver reflects on how and why archaeologists do what we do.

The Varmints Show

In the Varmints' second exploration of music and archaeology, Breck Parkman is uncovering the 'Whitehouse of Hippiedom' at the Olompali State Historic Park, San Francisco.


The dark secrets of ancient peat, the decaying of Star Carr

on the web

Audio-visual presentations online and the 'Visual Essays' of ArchAtlas.

Mick's travels

Mick and Jon share the wonders of Jersey

CBA Correspondent

From CBA Publications Officer, Catrina Appleby


Your views and responses


THE BIG DIG: Links of Noltland

Eroding sand dunes are revealing an ancient landscape on a windswept and remote Scottish island.

MAIN FEATURE: Digging for (Invisible) People

Eroding sand dunes are revealing an ancient landscape on a windswept and remote Scottish island.

Dig for Shakespeare

Literary critics may wonder if Shakespeare wrote all those plays, but archaeologists know where to find him.

The Varmints Show

An occasional series specifically for the website, showcasing pop music inspired by archaeology or heritage. The first of the series features Air-Raid Shelter (Pillbox) by The Human Cabbages.

More online features to follow


All the latest archaeology news from around the country

on the web

Caroline Wickham-Jones investigates real and reconstructed worlds, and Andy Burnham highlights ancient sites viewable from the roadside, including extra content.


Your views and responses


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts



Over the past six years, a team of archaeologists and earth scientists has been excavating on the Norfolk coast, uncovering remains that change the way we think about early humans. Simon Parfitt, Nick Ashton and Simon Lewis, who are leading the research, describe what they found.

Happisburgh (pronounced HAZEburra), a pretty village with a post office, school and one of Norfolk's finest churches, is traditionally in the news for its dramatic message of coastal erosion. But on 8 July media attention shifted from houses falling into the sea, to the remains of very much earlier occupation – and not on the beach, but under it.

On that day the latest results of a major research project were published in the science journal Nature: once again, fieldwork in England has greatly extended the known period of early human occupation in northern Europe. And the interest is not just in the age of the finds, but perhaps especially in the new light they throw on early human behaviour.

The site was investigated by a large team of specialists and enthusiasts, as part of a project based at the British Museum and the Natural History Museum known as the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project. Our fieldwork began in 2000 when a local man out walking his dog – Mike Chambers, a keen underwater archaeologist and now one of our digging team – found a flint handaxe on the beach. Later we named the key geological deposit in our excavation after the village pub. So what makes Happisburgh so important?

Around 1¾mya, early humans expanded their range beyond Africa. In doing so, the genus Homo, still rare compared to other large mammals, greatly increased the variety of landscapes it inhabited and its geographical spread. Until recently, however, such early colonisation in Europe was thought not to have penetrated beyond the Pyrenees or the Alps, but to have remained essentially Mediterranean.

A succession of discoveries in the last decade changed that view. Amongst these was a handful of small flint flakes found on the Suffolk coast in the Cromer Forest-bed Formation. This famous geological deposit was laid down between 1.8 million and 500,000 years ago; though it had attracted collectors of animal fossils for two centuries, these were the first undisputed artefacts to have been found in it. Animal remains with the flints suggested an age of 700,000 years. This pushed early human colonisation north of the Alps back by 200 millennia, at a time of intense warming and a Mediterranean-type climate in northern Europe. Homo sapiens first left Africa 50,000 years ago: with no hominin fossils, what species made the East Anglian tools was a matter for conjecture. It still is.

These discoveries were made at Pakefield (feature, Jan/Feb 2006). Up the coast 30 miles (50km) to the north, Happisburgh was also attracting our interest. Like Pakefield, the archaeology had been revealed by coastal erosion and identified by a local enthusiast. The handaxe was not as old as the Pakefield flints, but there seemed no reason why further research might not uncover such ancient material – or even older. Excavation at Happisburgh soon confirmed our predictions.

Now we have proof that early humans were living in Britain more than 800,000 years ago. Elsewhere, from Spain to China, all finds of early hominins lie south of 45°N. At nearly 53°N, Happisburgh lies significantly further north. And at that time, in what is now Norfolk, the climate was not Mediterranean: it was more like southern Sweden and Norway are today, with conifer forest and grassland or heath – and herds of mammoth and horses. Happisburgh is taking our vision of early humans, and how they adapted and survived, quite literally into new territory.


To reach Happisburgh today you cross lightly undulating farmland, and wind round the edges of ancient fields – there is no direct road from the county town at Norwich, 20 miles (30km) to the south-east. The first sign that you are approaching the coast comes not from the sea, but an isolated red-and-white striped lighthouse. Nearby, what is left of Beach Road trails out on the top of a cliff that rises 10m over the tangled debris of abandoned coast defences.

Homo Britannicus Cover

Eight hundred thousand years ago the landscape was different: and not just because of the climate (a little warmer in summer, a little colder in winter) or the trees that would have interrupted the now sweeping views. The very land we see now is different. The deposits that form the cliff (sands, silts and clays of geological formations named after Happisburgh and Lowestoft) were dumped by a glacier during the Anglian cold stage, a much younger 478–424,000 years ago.

These cliff deposits are now being removed by the sea that rose to its present level after the warming at the end of the last ice age 11,500 years ago. The great interest has been in what lies beneath them. A cored section, known as borehole HC and recorded in 1966 near Happisburgh's former lifeboat station, revealed sediments laid down in near-shore seas, estuaries and rivers. These deposits extend down to nearly 28m below sea level; elsewhere along the coast a thickness of over 70m has been observed.

Recent work offshore by Wessex Archaeology has shown, as you might expect, that out to sea the younger – higher – levels in this sequence have been eroded. Inland it is inaccessible, buried beneath masses of glacial sediments. It is only along the coast, between the foot of the cliff and the high water mark and for many miles both further north and into Suffolk to the south, that these important layers can be studied.

The AHOB project excavated what we call Happisburgh site 1 in 2001, 2004 and 2005. We dated the artefacts – including the handaxe – to before the onset of the Anglian glaciation, some 500,000 years ago; these were perhaps contemporary with Boxgrove on the south coast, where quantities of well-preserved handaxes and butchered animal bones were excavated in the 1990s.

At Pakefield, we established the presence of much older early humans. Yet even as some of us paraded before a London press conference late in 2005 to answer questions about that site and, as Nature wrote on its front cover, "Human activity north of the Alps as early as 700,000 years ago", we knew of other finds that could be at least as old.

Having shown that flint artefacts and butchered animal bones were stratified in the Forest-bed at Happisburgh site 1, we had sought to link these finds to the long geological sequence exhibited in borehole HC. So earlier that year in June, we had excavated every 50–100m for 2.5km along the foot of the cliff, taking off the beach with a machine and digging exploratory trenches by hand. This was hard work, sieving barrowfuls of sediment in the sea and pushing other samples a mile along the beach to take back to London.

Most of these trenches revealed pre-Anglian deposits with organic-rich sediments. But what we were particularly looking for was flint gravel: then as now, this would have been the best local source of raw material for making stone tools, and any such tools might themselves have ended up in gravel. Gravel was the main material at site 3. So seeing this as somewhere we might find artefacts, we extended the excavation and dug it with great care.

Parfitt was unimpressed by this iron-stained deposit, and thought there was no chance that it might contain any animal remains. But when he hit a rusty concretion on the spoilheap with his trowel, out fell a heavily-mineralised elephant bone. Ian Taylor and Beccy Scott, archaeologists at the British Museum, were trowelling in the gravel when they found flint flakes. The next stage in the journey of extending early humans in northern Europe back into the past had begun.

Establishing the date

We realised early on that site 3 was of special interest, with flint artefacts and surprisingly good preservation of animal and plant remains, from a layer that might have been older than site 1. The obvious question was exactly how old was it?

Radiocarbon dating cannot be used for anything much older than 50,000 years. There is nothing intrinsic in the artefacts (studied by Ashton) to suggest a particular age, so dating relies on ascribing a time range to the deposits in which they are found: 4m of gravel, sands and silts named the Hill House Formation by Lewis and Peter Hoare (Sydney University) after the pub on the cliff above. We have dated this formation using a combination of geology, palaeomagnetism, and the occurrence of plants and animals known to have been alive together during a limited range of warm stages of the ice age. This range of data can be difficult to understand, and a few specialists have challenged our dating. But we are convinced it is sound.

The recent period of repeated glaciations, known colloquially as the ice age, is more formally named the Pleistocene. Existing geological knowledge showed the gravels at site 3 had to be of Early or early Middle Pleistocene date, laid down some time between a half and two and a half million years ago. The boundary between the Early and Middle stages is marked by a major magnetic reversal: at that time the north and south poles flipped, and before then a compass would have pointed south. Identifying which side of this event the flint tools were made was the first key to establishing their age.

The beautifully laminated grey silts and sands that contain the artefactbearing gravels preserve a record of past magnetism. Barbara Maher and Vassil Karloukovski (of the Centre for Environmental Magnetism and Palaeomagnetism at the University of Lancaster) found they displayed a reversed polarity: the artefacts were made before 0.78 million years ago during the Early Pleistocene.

The waterlogged sediments have preserved the most fragile fossils, including the remains of plants as well as animals – this is the only known Early Pleistocene archaeological site with such preservation. Amongst trees growing nearby were hemlock and hophornbeam, which are unseen in northern Europe after this time, confirming the evidence from the palaeomagnetism. But it is the mammals (studied by Parfitt and Nigel Larkin) that offer the most precise age for the gravels.

Some of these mammals died out soon after the end of the Early Pleistocene, including southern mammoth (Mammuthus cf meridionalis), an extinct horse (Equus suessenbornensis) and at least one species of extinct vole (Mimomys pusillus). Another Mimomys species present, savini, is thought to have evolved into an Arvicola species early in the Middle Pleistocene.

On the other hand there are species that first appeared late within the Early Pleistocene: two "advanced" forms of vole (Microtus species), an extinct elk with curiously-shaped antlers (Cervalces latifrons) and red deer (Cervus elaphus). The overlapping time spans of all these plants and animals thus indicate a date towards the end of the Early Pleistocene. This range covers two major warm periods, separated by a glacial episode of some 70,000 years. Ecological evidence indicates a cooling climate, so the precise age would have been near the end of one of these periods, which date respectively to between 866–814,000 years ago and 970–936,000 years ago. It is not yet possible to say which.

Cold river of the north

BA86 Cover

The remains of plants and animals help to date northern Europe's oldest artefacts: but it is the detailed picture these remains paint of the world inhabited by the early hominins that gives Happisburgh site 3 special interest. In search of this evidence, we have returned to dig every summer, including this May and June and, staying in the Hill House pub, a bed and breakfast called Cliff House (undermined by the sea, it will be demolished in the autumn), tents and caravans.

Pollen, blown or washed into the sediments from a relatively wide area, offers a useful guide to the general environment. Sylvia Peglar (Cambridge) and Mark Lewis (Natural History Museum) have distinguished three "pollen assemblage zones". The lowest (so the oldest) represents deciduous woodland with oak, hophornbeam, elm and alder. Above this is, a zone of heathland, with heather, pine and spruce. In the most recent phase (zone 3) abundant pine and spruce pollen, with conifer wood and pinecones, indicate regional forest dominated by conifers; pollen from a hyena coprolite (dropping) and the bones of grazing animals such as horse and bison, show the presence also of local grassland.

As noted above, this vegetational succession indicates a cooling climate, especially when matched against the complete interglacial sequence seen in borehole HC, ranging through previous fully-temperate conditions. Beetles are very sensitive to temperature: the species present, studied by Russell Coope (University of Birmingham), would have thrived in summers that were similar to southern Britain today, or slightly warmer, but winters at least 3°c colder.

The beetle and plant remains indicate a large, slow-flowing river fringed by reed-swamp, alder carr, marsh and pools, and backed by forest. Pike bones and a single sturgeon bone corroborate the presence of a large river, while molluscs, barnacles and foraminifera (single-celled saltwater organisms) show that the estuary and salt marsh were not far away. This river was the ancestral Thames, 100 miles (150km) north of its present estuary, swollen by another ancient and this time completely lost river, the Bytham.

The identification of the estuary as an early manifestation of Britain's major waterway – residents now joke of Happisburgh-on-Thames! – is another significant discovery of the project. This was achieved by studying the gravels collected by the two ancient rivers as they flowed across Britain. Rocks from the English midlands indicate deposition by the ancestral Thames with a contribution from the river Bytham. Others indicate a catchment encompassing south-east England, and some stones probably derive from north Wales; these allow comparisons with sand and gravel deposits laid down by the ancestral Thames upstream in Essex. The Happisburgh Thames issued into a wide embayment at the edge of the North Sea, as Britain was then a continuous part of continental Europe.

In some respects the comparison with modern southern Scandinavia stands up for landscape as well as climate – indeed, most of the many beetles can be found in England today. Some of the trees were different, there was an extinct beaver as well as the modern species, the horse is now extinct and the elk was an ancestor of the modern elk. But only the presence of mammoth, lemmings and hyena (the sole large carnivore – though tooth fragments of a possible sabre-toothed cat suggest the presence of a second) added a truly exotic tone.

The really striking creatures in this Early Pleistocene landscape were early humans. The northern latitude contrasts strongly with other Early Pleistocene archaeological sites, which all lie at least 8° further south. As if to emphasise the significance of this, while the more southerly sites are associated with tropical forest, steppe and Mediterranean habitats, at Happisburgh the artefacts are found not at the time of deciduous woodland, but in the two later pollen zones: all but two of the flints are in zone 3, with conifer forest and grassland heralding the onset of cooling before the start of a major glaciation stage.

This undermines a traditional view (apparently supported by the finds at Pakefield) that early hominins spread and retracted with particular large mammals, keeping to a relatively warm climate. Instead, the new evidence suggests they were capable of adapting their behaviour as the world changed around them. We have no evidence how they did this, but strategies would likely have included changes in ways of gathering food, and perhaps even the use of clothing, artificial shelters and fire (rare pieces of charcoal were found during sieving at the dig, though there is no way of knowing what caused the wood to be burnt). The actual flint artefacts (about 80 in all, retrieved from a huge volume of sieved sand and gravel) are quite simple.

The northern forests would have challenged a genus that hitherto had spent most of its time in warmer lands. At Happisburgh the hominins are likely to have eaten more plants in summer, and more meat in winter – and then hunting or scavenging in shorter days, and sometimes extreme cold. The key to survival may have lain in the mix of habitats around a large river, with possible food sources such as tubers and rhizomes, shellfish and seaweed, and a greater number of large grazing animals than would have been found in the forest alone.

Older deposits survive on the former opposite bank of the ancient Thames, 700m down the modern coast. These might contain evidence that hominins were present in the earlier, warmer stages of the interglacial – if not before. The survival of organic materials such as wood offers the possibility of discoveries that could throw unique light on the technology they used to cope with these environments. Somewhere out there are likely to be hominin fossils: and with them the chance to answer the key question of all – who were they?

The East Anglian coast is a crucial area for understanding the earliest occupation of northern Europe, and could contain over 50 miles (80km) of largely unexplored palaeolithic archaeology. Excavation at site 3 has almost reached its end. The sea defences are starting to fall apart, and at times this year waves funnelled through, reaching towards the trench. Elsewhere along the shore it is clear that once the groynes go, the sea scours out the beach and the Hill House Formation deposits wash away. But as the cliffs erode further inland, fresh deposits are exposed beneath them, reaching back nearly two million years. There is a lot more to do – and the coast does not wait.

Simon Parfitt (UCL Institute of Archaeology/Department of Palaeontology, Natural History Museum), Nick Ashton (Department of Prehistory and Europe, British Museum) and Simon Lewis (School of Geography, Queen Mary, University of London), wrote the Nature article on Happisburgh and coordinated the research involving many scientists (text only version of article available from the AHOB website). They would like to acknowledge the generous support of Clive and Sue Stockton of the Hill House Inn, the residents of Happisburgh and the diggers. The work is part of the Leverhulme-funded Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) Project, directed by Chris Stringer (Department of Palaeontology, Natural History Museum).

All species between us and the split from ancestral chimpanzees are known as hominins. Chris Stringer's tent sketch envisages a series of hominin migrations out of the African homeland, starting at least two million years ago. He believes there may have been an early dispersal which led to the evolution of the "Hobbit" in Flores (Indonesia), followed by the evolution of subsequent species such as Homo erectus (in Africa and Asia) and Homo antecessor (in Europe), "species X" (identified earlier this year from DNA in a Siberian fossil, and not yet matched to a particular fossil group) and Neanderthals.

Having evolved in Africa, Homo sapiens then spread rapidly across the rest of the old world from around 50,000 years ago, and may have overlapped with several archaic species such as the Neanderthals, with the possibility of contact and even hybridisation. Neanderthals and sapiens shared a common ancestor in Homo heidelbergensis (continent of origin uncertain), to which the fossils found at Boxgrove in Sussex are ascribed (around 500,000 years old). No hominin fossils have yet been found at Pakefield or Happisburgh, but Homo antecessor is certainly a candidate species.

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