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Cover of British Archaeology 117

Issue 117

Mar / Apr 2011



All the latest archaeology news from around the country

on the web

Historical recipies to tempt the taste buds


Our tribute to the losses of 2010

my archaeology

rancis Pryor on his accidental career


Why study archaeology, and can it reveal the past?


Your views and responses


10 big questions archaeology must answer

What can archaeology do for us?

THE BIG DIG: Winchester

St Mary Magdalen Hospital, with evidence of leprosy, TB and that Romans treated wounded soldiers

Return to La Cotte

Neanderthal butchering at this Jersey cave site

Dear Lord Chancellor

The human remains "crisis" continues, and children thank organisers

The one with archaeological evidence to support it

How the Stonehenge megaliths might have been moved

The Varmints Show

In the Varmints' fifth exploration of music and archaeology, we look at the 1990s Seattle grunge music scene.


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Return to La Cotte

La Cotte de St Brelade, on the Jersey coast, is a famous and spectacular site, where neanderthals apparently killed and butchered vast quantities of mammoth and rhino. Iconic though it is, the cliff-bottom cave was researched by earlier generations without access to ever-changing modern research technologies. Matthew Pope and his colleagues have a new vision for the site.

La Cotte cave

View from the top of the headland down into the ravine at La Cotte: the top of the arch is just visible

It was 5am. The sun had not yet climbed above the hills as we crossed the deserted beach at Quaisne in silence, a large dose of hastily downed coffee shaking off the previous night's beer. I had been woken stupidly early by James Cole – our project surveyor and final year PhD student from Southampton. Twenty minutes later I was clambering ahead of James over the huge boulders that littered the beach. He was carrying the survey kit, and I wanted a minute or two alone in the site before work began.

It was July 2010, the 100th anniversary of the first formal excavations at La Cotte de St Brelade on the island of Jersey. The project team had been there for just long enough to get established, and this was to be the first day of fieldwork within the site for a generation. I was nervous. We had brought to the island a large untested team, with five codirectors and many inexperienced students. We had a clear research design, but plans rarely survive contact with the ground, and we could not afford to make any mistakes on this site. In the first light of that first day these doubts hung over me like the shadows of the imposing cliffs.

The tide had just retreated, allowing us to keep above the water line and cross the last pinch-point on the headland which controls access to the fissure (the name La Cotte is the Jersey Norman word for cave). Rounding the last outcrop alone, I was able to enter the site just as dawn hit the beautiful bay of St Brelade behind me. I had been there almost a dozen times before, but today was different: we had come with an intent to dig. I took a deep breath, and began the climb up. This site scared and excited me in equal measure. Could the weeks of discussion and planning be translated into a successful and safe season?

For the past 25 years La Cotte had been the preserve of herring gulls and cormorants, and my sudden appearance raised a huge uproar of primordial screeching. The birds never did quite accept our presence, although an uneasy truce was eventually established, broken only on their side by occasional volleys of excrement. That morning the air hung heavy with the smell of loessic dust, rotting gull carcasses and rank, fishy crap. The bay looked tranquil, blue and idyllic – the perfect Jersey postcard – but the dawn light barely touched the shadows of the granite bastions. My pessimistic thoughts were broken when I turned to see James round the headland, laden with gear and grinning with excitement. The hard part – planning, organising, administrating, recruiting and funding for this season – was past. Now came simply the performance and doing the very thing we construct our professional lives around. We were going to start digging.

Neanderthal epic

La Cotte de St Brelade was for much of the last century the focus for large-scale excavations, interrupted by the German invasion of 1940 and ending with campaigns by Charles McBurney – the famed Cambridge professor who inspired generations of students – in the late 1970s. Since then, but for a small stint of section recording ahead of publication of the excavations in 1986 by Paul Callow and Jean Cornford, La Cotte had remained untouched. The great open faces of prehistoric cave fill had been concreted over.

Though its name is often invoked in discussions of neanderthal behaviour – very few sites of its age in northern Europe are so widely, if superficially, known about – it was understood that La Cotte would remain inactive unless necessity or developing research agendas once again brought the attention of archaeologists. So it slumbered, visited by the occasional intrepid beach-comber or extreme sports enthusiast seeking illicit and perilous adrenalin-shot on its pillars and arches.

The reputation of La Cotte comes partly from its role as a Cambridge training excavation through the 1960s and 70s. As a result many British stone age researchers cut their teeth as students in the challenging, Spartan conditions of McBurney's Easter field seasons. In photographs of the most famous student to excavate there, Charles, Prince of Wales, it is hard to say whether his expression is one of diligent concentration or grim endurance. But in the literature of European neanderthal archaeology, La Cotte provides a rare English-language publication of a deeply stratified cave site; even rarer evidence for neanderthal remains from north-west, Atlantic Europe; and exceptional – if controversial – evidence for hunting behaviour in the form of heaps of mammoth and rhinoceros bones.

Earlier excavations also produced the richest collection of neanderthal artefacts in north-west Europe: over a quarter of a million individually recorded stone tools encompassing lower and middle palaeolithic traditions, including Mousterian (300,000–30,000 years ago) – a distinctively neanderthal technology. This collection, in terms of its size and quality, dwarfs the entire neanderthal record of the rest of the British Isles. For researchers used to poring over small and sometimes poorly provenanced material, it represents a daunting embarrassment of riches.

Knowledge of its academic significance does nothing, however, to prepare you for first hand experience of the site itself. Everything about La Cotte is epic. The vast area of the exposed headland; the soaring rockarch like a medieval flying buttress; the massive granite pillars that frame the site and protect its fragile contents: all these combine to create a vertiginous sense of scale as you enter the ravines. Huge unsupported sections of intact sediment span over a quarter of a million years of prehistory. It is the perfect site to elucidate what we, as palaeolithic archaeologists, do. The immensity of the headland bears witness to vast transformations in landscape and climate in which the erosive powers of sea, ice, forestation and driving polar winds were all brought to bear. Only the durability of solid granite could have seen off such forces and left to us, on an exposed shore, the single most lucid and productive ice age – Pleistocene – site of the region.

Treading carefully

Excavation in 1968

Excavation in 1968: Charles, Prince of Wales facing camera top right

Ladders in 1968

from left: director Charles McBurney, his son Simon, Anthony Legge and the student Charles, Prince of Wales

Renewing fieldwork was not undertaken lightly. Modern attitudes to health and safety are unrecognisable beside those of McBurney's era, and the perils of tidal cut-off, falling boulders and slippery rock surfaces all had to be accounted for and mitigated through protocols, safety equipment and constant vigilance. In developing an approach to the site we worked closely with its current custodians, the Société Jersiaise, the island's learned society and repository of detailed archaeological knowledge. Through the generous support and common sense of its current president, John Clarke, we developed a surgical plan for fieldwork. Our aims were clear and focused: to establish what archaeological deposits remained at the site, characterise their age and potential and determine the degree of threat to them.

The excavations were directed by Martin Bates, a geoarchaeologist at the University of Wales, Lampeter. Working daily between the constraints of weather and tides, the goal was to expose and sample a series of vertical sections through the loess and rubble of the fissure fills. At the same time, James Cole was let loose with laser scanning equipment, rock climbing safety gear and his own nerve to begin the daunting task of surveying the site. Each day his efforts were directly translated into pixelated matrices of 3D imaging, invoking cooing from us and the students as the site slowly took shape on the projector screen back at the airbase we had made home.

The 2010 season was targeted, but we were able to report three significant facts, considerably changing our appreciation of the site. Firstly, large parts remain untouched, perhaps as much as 60% of the original Pleistocene sediments still being in situ. Secondly, much of this rich site lies unprotected and at the mercy of the powerful Atlantic-driven elements, so long term management now needs to be considered. And thirdly, James's survey is indicating that the current appearance of La Cotte as a series of ravines is a recent state of affairs. In the earliest phases of human habitation (over 250,000 years ago) La Cotte would have looked very different, possibly comprising an entirely roofed cave system, the entrance to which is still sealed and has never been investigated. We can now see that this entrance, along with deposits thought lost which had contained the neanderthal human remains, are present and intact. La Cotte offers future research an unparalleled, clearly defined resource through which to study directly a long evolutionary arc of human activity.

But we were careful this year to tread quietly. To rouse La Cotte unprepared is to invite trouble, it is a place you neither confront nor turn your back on lightly. To tap its remaining potential will require large resources, engineering, meticulous attention to safety, and nerve. As a team we are now committed to continuing work on the site in small steps; this will mean a few more years of survey and strategic sampling.

In addition we are currently reassessing previously excavated material in the extensive archives to develop new avenues for research. These are stored with exceptional diligence under the watchful care of Jersey Heritage curator Neil Mahrer. With Neil's help we are now consolidating and documenting the archives in preparation for new research.

Project co-directors Beccy Scott and Andy Shaw are currently examining the stone tools associated with two large heaps of mammoth bone found towards the bottom of the ravine system. We want to test the current hypothesis that the beasts were driven over the headland by neanderthal hunters, and consider other possibilities to account for the piles of bone and tusk. The heaps are now iconic in the literature of neanderthal archaeology, often invoked as a monumental testimony to neanderthal achievement, much in the same way that cave art or elaborate burials are for our own species. But lazy acceptance of the game-drive hypothesis is not what a site like La Cotte deserves: it has provided us with a rare, vivid glimpse of neanderthals engaged in potentially dramatic, high-impact behaviour, and we think it is our responsibility to put that behaviour under the microscope again.

Waking the giant

La Cotte ravine

The arch viewed from the base of the ravine at la Cotte

In the survey's first year we undertook some further excavations at the locations of stone age finds on the island. We worked closely on this with Olga Finch of Jersey Heritage and Tracey Ingels of the Jersey Planning Department. Between them, Olga and Tracey manage the island's rich archaeological record, encompassing Pleistocene caves, neolithic passage graves and the concrete installations of Rommel's Atlantic wall. During our field season, with the assistance of students from UCL and Southampton, and under the direction of Chantal Conneller, we examined the sites of late upper palaeolithic and early mesolithic finds (13,000–8500bc), and recorded raised beach and foreshore exposures of older Pleistocene sediment.

As we move forward we will try to contextualise the 20 or so known early stone age find spots on Jersey, as well as recover important palaeoenvironmental and palaeogeographic information from the deposits of ice age sediment which blanket the island and fill its numerous cave systems. While it is hard to conceive that anything as large and prolific as La Cotte remains hidden, the site is by no means unique in preserving human traces of ice age occupation. One hundred years ago the original excavator of La Cotte, RR Marett – an Oxford University ethnologist – addressed the Société at the end of his first successful season. While his paper of course focused on his summer's labour within the cave, he was at pains to ensure that La Cotte did not distract too much from the island's wider potential.

He proposed investigation which sought to encompass the whole island, to tap its other caves, intertidal flats, loess-fields and raised beaches. We are now following Marett's century-old agenda. In developing a field school on Jersey, we are mustering the resources to investigate a potential half-million-year-long record of human occupation. For students the island provides a perfect microcosm of north European early prehistory, where diverse contexts from a wide range of prehistoric periods can all be found in a sea-girt landmass some nine by five miles in size (14km×8km). For the future it also provides a perfect departure point for integrating the insular British record with that of the continent, and scope for closer and long overdue collaboration with French researchers.

For the public it is hard to imagine a single destination in northern Europe where the vast compass of Quaternary archaeology, from pre-neanderthal origins to post-glacial megaliths, can be enjoyed in such a spectacular landscape. Much can now be done to work with Jersey Heritage in utilising the unique assets of the island to deliver the complex but compelling story of human origins and the upheavals of climate, sea and environment which have dramatically shaped our biology and landscape during the millennia.

Eventually, however, the time will come when the brooding edifice of the site itself will have to be firmly addressed. Impetus may come from the threats to its stability we are identifying, or perhaps available resources and compelling research needs will combine to make an irresistible case for further large-scale excavations within the ravine system. In one short season we have been struck by just how little we truly understand the site – but also by its enormous potential to deliver further insights into our deep neanderthal heritage. We will now continue to work gently in the shadows of its granite walls, making sure when the time comes to reawaken this giant of European prehistory, we do so fully prepared and with good reason.

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Matthew Pope is a senior research fellow at UCL Institute of Archaeology. The project is a collaboration between the Institute of Archaeology (UCL), the Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins (CAHO, Southampton University), the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project (AHOB, British Museum), the University of Wales (Lampeter) and Manchester University. Simon McBurney remembered digging at La Cotte with his father in My Archaeology (Jul/Aug 2009, no 107). Gilly Carr described Jersey's World War II remains in British Archaeology Jan/Feb 2009, no 104, and Mick Aston visited Jersey in Sep/Oct 2010, no 114

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