ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 4, May 1995


`Clactonian' and `Acheulian'? Forget it, say Nick Ashton and John McNabb

Rethinking the Lower Palaeolithic

It has long been thought that two distinct human cultures could be recognised in the earliest phase of British prehistory (the Lower Palaeolithic) - an earlier, simpler culture known as `Clactonian' and a later culture known as `Acheulian'. Whether the Clactonian humans developed into, or were replaced by, the Acheulian humans, no-one was ever quite sure; but the relationship between the two has dominated study of the period for decades.

Recent research, however, suggests that the whole debate may have been a red herring. It suggests that the Clactonian and Acheulian stone-tool assemblages were in fact contemporary. Instead of representing two different groups of people with different cultures, they were in fact made by the same people in different parts of the landscape.

The traditional view developed within 19th century theories of evolution. Just as animals or plants could be classified and shown to evolve, so too, it was thought, could stone tools. In Britain, the evolution of tools at this date was best seen in the supposed introduction of bifaces (or handaxes). Clactonian assemblages consisted of simple cores, flakes, flake tools but no bifaces, whereas Acheulian assemblages contained all these elements, but also bifaces. At two sites, Barnham in Suffolk and Swanscombe in Kent, it was thought the relationship could be demonstrated stratigraphically, with Clactonian assemblages overlain by Acheulian.

The traditional model may seem plausible enough, but excavations over the last ten years suggest it is in fact wrong. According to the model, the Clactonian culture lasted from the end of the Anglian glaciation to the early part of the Hoxnian interglacial (at some time between c 450-400,000BP), with the succeeding Acheulian culture lasting to the Ipswichian interglacial (c 125,000BP). However, at Boxgrove in Sussex, and High Lodge in Suffolk, Acheulian assemblages have been found dating from before the Anglian glaciation, therefore pre-dating all the Clactonian sites.

Secondly, our own detailed analysis of the technology of flint-working has shown that the flakes and flake tools of the two assemblages were made in an identical way. Moreover, small numbers of bifaces have been found in all but one of the Clactonian assemblages. While there seems to be a broad variation in the proportions of tools in the assemblages, the range of tools is identical. On this basis there are few grounds for regarding them as separate traditions.

Our excavations at Barnham have produced direct evidence that the Clactonian and Acheulian assemblages were contemporary. Here, a gravel beach at the edge of an ancient river channel was used as a source of flint, and in one area it was used to make flakes from cores, while in a second area two or three bifaces were manufactured.

So if the assemblages were contemporary and made by the same people, why was there such a variation in the proportions of tools between the assemblages? In our view, many factors influenced the type of flint-working taking place in a particular location. Some we may never fully understand, such as the ad hoc response to a local situation. This may explain the occasional biface found at Barnham, perhaps made for the immediate butchery of an animal carcass nearby.

However, some factors we can begin to understand, in particular the influence of raw material. Most Clactonian sites are located on sources of poor quality flint, Barnham included, which are generally unsuitable for biface manufacture.

The proximity of a flint source also has an important effect. Distance from raw material is reflected by a reduction in manufacturing waste, and an increase in the number of finished tools. Work by Mark Roberts at Boxgrove, for instance, has identified primary manufacturing areas immediately below the chalk cliff, out of which fresh flint was being eroded. On the floodplain, some distance from the cliff, knapping scatters from the final stages of biface manufacture have been excavated, while nearby the finished bifaces are found associated with butchered bone.

If we accept it is no longer realistic to look for cultural divisions in these assemblages, we will be free to study in detail the factors that influenced them. The approach at both Boxgrove and Barnham has been to understand the landscape and environment which shaped the existence of early humans. Perhaps now we can deal with real humans of the past, not fossils of our own imagination.

Nick Ashton is a Curator at the British Museum; Dr John McNabb teaches at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London

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Medieval Monmouth had an unusual flood-defence system, explains Stephen Clarke

Rubbish in the floods

There are various ways in which a town can protect itself from the risk of flooding, but few can be more eccentric than those adopted by the medieval residents of Monmouth.

Founded by the Normans in the floodplain of the rivers Wye and Monnow, the town was (then as now) subject to regular flooding when the rivers burst their banks. Excavations conducted over the past nine years in Monnow Street, the main street in Monmouth, have shown that for nearly three centuries, residents piled up domestic rubbish on their floors in order to raise them above the level of the floodwater.

Old broken pots, domestic implements, animal bones and other kitchen waste were all strewn on the floors, and packed down with grass and rushes in order to provide a more or less stable floor surface. In one house, the floor was piled up with butchery and tannery waste - the heads and feet of animals - which must have reeked.

In some houses, compacted `rubbish floors' have been found to a depth of six feet. The excavations, conducted largely by amateur archaeologists from the Monmouth Archaeological Society, suggest that the rubbish was not laid down in response to particular floods but accumulated gradually over time.

In the middle of the 13th century Monmouth underwent expansion when it was taken over by the House of Lancaster. With royalty in town, the earth and timber defences were replaced with stone walls, and there was a building boom. Many of those who came to live in Monnow Street were extremely wealthy. One massive stone house has been found, for instance, whose owners could afford to use vessels of rare Italian glass. Their stone flagged roof was adorned with ornate ceramic louvres and finials (smoke-escapes and roof decorations). On another house, the louvre was made in the form of a horned devil that belched smoke through its wide open mouth.

However, the town's new wealth was no protection against flooding and Monnow Street's house floors continued to rise. Some of the street's new stone buildings were set on a layer of iron forge dross sandwiched between layers of clay - a damp course in all some 18in thick.

The expansion of the 13th century was followed by a century of disasters. By the turn of the 14th century the weather had deteriorated and the floods in Monnow Street increased dramatically. About half way up the street, an industrial workshop was evacuated, and excavations suggest that the heavy sand of the River Wye had already covered the forge floor when the equipment was removed. Deposits at this level have been dated to 1315-45.

Houses in the lower stretch of Monnow Street appear to have collapsed into the flood waters. In 1348 the Black Death arrived as the final straw. The thick, unbroken layers of silt that accumulated in the ruins of collapsed buildings suggest that much of the street was abandoned for some time, and there are documentary references to brambles growing over the burgage (or house) plots.

The street was eventually recolonised, continuing to thrive to the present day. But oddly enough, although the rivers have continued to flood, Monmouth's residents never again piled up their house floors as a defence.

The effect of floor-piling has been to give Monmouth some of the best-preserved Norman archaeological evidence anywhere in Britain. Much of it lies in undisturbed stratified layers, because the town's medieval residents rarely seem to have dug pits in their floors owing to the height of the water table.

However, this priceless evidence is now at severe risk from new construction. Although protected by PPG16 - under which archaeological deposits are preserved where possible in new development schemes - the Norman deposits are so ubiquitous and rich in Monnow Street that any new foundations will cause unacceptable loss. Archaeologists in Monmouth have been trying to persuade the local planning authority to work on a `presumption against development' in Monnow Street - as they do at the Roman town of Caerwent nearby - but it seems unlikely that our voices will be heard.

Stephen Clarke is Chairman of the Monmouth Archaeological Society

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Ireland now has the laws to protect its past, writes Eamonn Kelly

Defeating the archaeological looters

When Samuel Jackson, an official of Northern Ireland's Council for Metal Detecting, tried to sell a stolen Bronze Age gold collar to the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin in 1993, he was not aware that his activities had been closely watched by museum officials for several months.

The museum, believing the collar, or lunula, was a metal-detected find and therefore state property, offered to pay Jackson a finder's reward, but its price was too low and Jackson went to Christie's in London to try his luck there. The Irish state, however, threatened Christie's with an injunction if it proceeded with the sale, and Jackson was forced to come to terms with the museum.

The museum quickly determined that the lunula had been stolen from the Limerick Museum in 1969, and learned that Jackson was also in possession of a stolen 7th century AD pennanular brooch. When he denied having the brooch, the museum handed its dossier of intelligence - obtained through a network of contacts in the metal detecting world - to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Jackson was arrested; and earlier this year, as reported in last month's British Archaeology, he was sentenced to 12 months in prison for handling stolen goods.

The Jackson case was only the latest in a long series of successful investigations by the National Museum of Ireland and the Irish police into looted antiquities. Since 1987, many thousands of antiquities have been recovered in Ireland, and material has also been recovered from Britain, the continent, and as far afield as Australia and the United States.

In the most elaborate sting operation, an Irishman, Peter Kenny, was convicted in 1991 in the United States for trying to sell decorated stonework, stolen from a number of protected monastic sites in Ireland, to a senior FBI officer posing as a wealthy collector. A second sting was mounted in Ireland to catch Kenny's associates, one of whom was a serving police officer.

The museum's successes, which go way beyond anything achieved - or even attempted - by a museum in Britain, are not the result of any particular cleverness on our part. Instead, they are the result of an immensely strong legislative framework, which allows us to call on the police and other state agencies, and to threaten treasure hunters with prosecution unless they come clean about antiquities they have looted.

Since 1930, under the National Monuments Act, the excavation, export and conservation of archaeological objects have been regulated in Ireland by licence. The act also required all archaeological finds to be reported to the National Museum. By the 1970s, however, it became clear that the law was inadequate to deal with the growth of metal detecting and the new detecting-driven trade in looted and stolen antiquities. In 1986 a committee, composed of personnel from the Department of the Taoiseach, the National Museum, the National Monuments Service, Police HQ and the Chief State Solicitor's office, was set up to tackle the problem. From the start, great emphasis was placed on undercover surveillance and intelligence gathering.

Its hand was soon strengthened by new legislation. Under the National Monuments (Amendment) Act 1987, it became illegal to search for archaeological objects with metal detectors or other electronic detecting devices without licence. In addition, it became an offence to dive without licence on an underwater site or wreck more than 100 years old; and also to promote treasure hunting, which in effect banned the sale of certain magazines.

More was to come. In December 1987, the Supreme Court delivered a judgement involving a metal-detected hoard, the Derrynaflan Hoard, ruling that the state was the owner of the treasure. This in effect extended the state's ownership to include all archaeological finds, not just treasure trove. Last year, the ruling was formalised in the National Monuments (Amendment) Act 1994, which specified the state's ownership of archaeological objects. It became an offence to trade in unreported antiquities, or to withold information about archaeological discoveries. The state also acquired the power to purchase monuments compulsorily.

So does this legislative framework amount to `the total nationalisation of the past', as claimed by the Editor of Current Archaeology in his latest magazine? In a sense, it does. But it also means we now have the muscle to defeat the archaeological looters, and to stem the wholesale loss of our past into private collections.

Dr Eamonn Kelly is Acting Keeper of Irish Antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland

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Legend may be half-right about Tintagel after all, writes Chris Morris

Not King Arthur, but King Someone

Tintagel, linked with romantic tales of King Arthur, is one of the most visited ancient monuments in Britain. Yet although most visitors haul themselves up to the ruined 13th century castle, few venture to the top of the so-called Island beyond the castle (originally a peninsula, whose land-bridge has fallen away).

This is a pity, for on the Island's plateau are the remains of building foundations and other features - some explored in the 1930s, many not exposed until a major grass fire in 1983 - and these suggest there may, after all, be some basis for the legendary association of the site with an early medieval king.

Until 1983, Tintagel had taken its place in archaeological literature not as a site in some way associated with King Arthur, but as an Early Christian monastery, largely as the result of literary analysis in the 1920s and archaeological exploration in the 1930s. The remoteness of the site, the apparently spartan lifestyle implied, and the nature of the buildings seemed to point inevitably towards such an interpretation. This has since coloured much of the discussion about early monastic sites, and Tintagel became a `type site' against whose evidence other sites were judged.

However, the exposure of the very large number of building foundations in the fire, coupled with the enormous number of sherds of 5th- 6th century pottery imported from the Mediterranean world (more of the so-called A and B wares than from almost all other sites in Britain put together), made the interpretation seem exceedingly suspect. Was it really credible that large numbers of monks (as implied by the number of buildings) were based here, and were the focus of what can only be assumed to be a trade network of Mediterranean products, such as olive oil and wine, to the south-west of Britain?

These considerations prompted English Heritage to invite me to undertake some limited excavations on the site. Trial work soon established the existence of a previously-unsuspected lower artificial terrace, with traces of human occupation. Although quite fragmentary, enough remained of wall-fragments and living debris to indicate there had been a focus of settlement here in the 5th and 6th centuries, as marked by the presence of the ubiquitous Mediterranean pottery (alongside possible native wares). The buildings themselves were not impressive structures, and not immediately the sort one might associate with a real-world equivalent of King Arthur; but they could have been the huts of such a figure's retainers.

In more recent excavations, in the past two years, a number of hearths have been found below the building remains. It is not clear whether they were originally inside or outside buildings, but associated stake holes suggest the presence of some wind-breaks. Open working areas for craft activity are a well-known feature of secular sites of this period in western Britain.

It now seems clear that the settlement at Tintagel was already long-established by the 5th-6th centuries. Some of the hearths appear to be associated with an earlier aceramic phase; and a late Roman date is indicated by the earliest deposits examined, where pottery apparently of the 3rd-4th centuries was found, together with a piece of fine vessel glass. There may even be indications here of a phase of Roman-period occupation, hitherto only hinted at by the presence of unstratified or redeposited sherds of Roman pottery and a Roman milestone in the churchyard nearby.

Although the date of the sub-rectangular stone buildings previously examined in the 1930s is not yet certain, they may yet turn out to be part of the 5th-6th century settlement. Features cut into the underlying bedrock indicate the possibility of an earlier phase of structures and occupation, and there is at least one large fissure in the bedrock with 5th-6th century organic material underlying the wall of one of the buildings.

Elsewhere, wherever we looked, we found yet more imported pottery: one area of 2m by 1m produced more than 300 sherds - comparable with the total count from certain other sites of this period. The existence of the settlement, and the presence of so much pottery, leave no doubt that Tintagel was indeed central to the economic activity of western Britain, and that it was a high-status secular site, perhaps connected with the rulers of the south-western Kingdom of Dumnonia.

Chris Morris is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Glasgow

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1995