British Archaeology, no 7, September 1995: News

1.8 million-year-old human presence claimed in Spain

The possibility that humans were present in Europe c 1.8 million years ago - some three times longer ago than is now generally thought - is being seriously considered by a joint British/Spanish team working in southern Spain.

Human activity of this date is broadly accepted for only a tiny handful of sites outside Africa: c 1.4 million BP at Ubeidiya in Israel, and c 1.8 million BP at Dmanisi in Georgia and in Java. The absence of securely-dated sites in Europe earlier than c 500,000BP has led to the growing belief that humans were not present in the continent before then.

At Orce in Andaluc°a, however, excavations at several sites near the margins of a former lake have revealed possible human activity at two stratigraphic levels, both reasonably well dated by palaeomagnetic dating. The more recent, upper level is at least one million, and possibly 1.4-1.6 million years old; the earlier, lower level is c 1.8 million years old.

The British contingent, led by Dr Derek Roe of Oxford University, concerned itself mainly with a number of fractured stones in both upper and lower levels. In a recent issue of the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, Dr Roe wrote that he was happy that, in at least one case, the stones were artefacts, indicating that Early Pleistocene humans - probably Homo erectus - had indeed been present in the area.

Most of the stones, he wrote, had probably not been fractured by humans. However, it seemed possible that many had been brought to the site by hand, as they were found in situ and several kilometres from the nearest contemporary source of that type of rock, having had no obvious natural means of transport.

But one assemblage, from Early Pleistocene deposits at the village of Fuentenueva, consisted of humanly-worked artefacts `with no doubt whatsoever'. Preliminary observation suggested that these stones also were in situ, and that they represented the debris of knapping, carried out at the site, of pieces of flint-like rock obtained directly from a source some 5km away.

Potentially even more exciting finds have been made in the upper levels at Orce, consisting of three bone fragments that are believed to be hominid - one fragment from a skull, and two from an upper arm. These finds have not been researched by the British archaeologists, but are accepted as hominid bone fragments by the head of the Spanish team, Prof Michael Walker of Murcia University. In addition, some animal bones from the upper level appear to show artificial breakage and stone-tool cutmarks.

A major international conference is being held at Orce this month to discuss the finds.

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York church dig becomes `a tale of woe'

New doubts have been raised over the Church of England's ecclesiastical exemption from the planning process, following the carrying out of major repair works on one of York's most important historic churches without adequate archaeological controls.

The repairs at All Saints Pavement, which included underpinning the south wall and relaying the floor, have been `a tale of woe, and of how not to do things,' according to John Oxley, York City Council's Principal Archaeologist. No evaluation of the site was carried out before the faculty (or church planning permission) was granted, and the faculty only recommended - but did not require - that full archaeological provision be made.

Repairs, grant-aided by English Heritage, began at the church in April, and only when work had started - and archaeological deposits, including burials, had been disturbed - were archaeologists from MAP Archaeological Consultants brought in. The excavators have been contractually debarred from talking about conditions on the site while work continues.

All Saints Pavement is York's Guild Church, and numerous influential townsfolk from the medieval and post-medieval periods are buried inside. It contains rare 11th and 12th century glazed relief tiles, and Viking-age sculpture; and a church has stood on the site since the Viking period and perhaps even from Middle Saxon times. The present excavations have revealed an early masonry wall and further glazed tiles.

According to John Oxley, the case was a classic example of what could go wrong when building decisions were taken without knowing their archaeological impact. `This sort of thing was going on all over the country before PPG16, and the Church hasn't yet got its act together in following PPG16 principles,' he said.

`There should have been some sort of evaluation, and the underpinning should have been designed at the outset to have a minimal archaeological impact,' he added. `The faculty process needs to be revised, so that it mirrors exactly the procedures set out in PPG16, and there needs to be an information base in the diocese [supporting the Diocesan Advisory Committee] to guide their decisions.'

The English Heritage grant of at least ú85,000 was offered, under standard church grant procedures, without a condition that archaeological work be done. `This is something that maybe needs to be reviewed,' said Ms Jocelyn Stevens, a case-worker on this case.

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Roman conquest rethought in north west

The route of the Roman conquest of the north west is being reconsidered, following a series of Roman military discoveries by archaeologists working in Cheshire and Merseyside.

Early Roman expeditions into the area include the rescue of the Brigantian queen Cartimandua in AD69, and culminated in the conquest of the region by Agricola in AD77-79. Hitherto, the principal invasion route was assumed to be the upland road from Northwich via Manchester to Ribchester; but the recent work suggests it may in fact have been King Street, which runs across the coastal plain from Chesterton, via Middlewich, Wilderspool on the Mersey and Walton-le-Dale on the Ribble, to Lancaster.

The supposed lack of military sites on King Street had previously led to the view that the coastal route was a later road. However, over the past three seasons, archaeologists from Gifford and Partners in Chester have found a fort at Middlewich, and military finds and army-inspired buildings at Wilderspool. The Middlewich fort, found by geophysical survey and sample excavation, is one day's march north of the camp at Chesterton, and seems to contain few internal features, suggesting it was a temporary structure used on campaign. The finds at Wilderspool, a civilian settlement one day's march further north, include bronze cavalry harnesses and an armour clip, and buildings prefabricated in the barrack-block style. The possibility that Wilderspool was a manufacturing centre under military control - like Walton-le-Dale further north - remains to be fully investigated.

No certain dating evidence has yet been found for any of the sites on King Street. But according to Ian Rogers, of Gifford and Partners, the main clue that King Street was an early route is that it `misses' the major fort and salt-producing centre at Northwich, which flourished from Flavian to Antonine times, passing about 2km to the east. In addition, Middlewich and Northwich are only about six miles apart, suggesting they were not in use at the same time. `King Street and the Middlewich fort must be earlier than Northwich,' he said.

A more coastal route would have made strategic sense during an invasion, Mr Rogers added. King Street crosses the Mersey, Ribble and Lune at their highest navigable points allowing the Roman army to keep in regular contact with the fleet.

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In brief

Earliest Oxford

The earliest settlement in Oxford has been found, not in the `historic' heart of the city but in Blackbird Leys, the industrial and council-estate area to the south east. The Middle Bronze Age to Iron Age settlement, consisting of pits and roundhouses, lay on a clay plateau overlooking the Thames valley, and is Oxford's first prehistoric occupation site to be excavated. It was dated by pottery, and by a cylindrical loom-weight decorated with an impressed cord pattern, previously known only from East Anglia.

Treasure Trove

The Government hopes to introduce a new bill to reform the law of Treasure Trove in the next session of Parliament, Baroness Trumpington of the Department of National Heritage announced in July. The previous Treasure Bill, introduced by Lord Perth, was killed off in the Commons last year after being passed in the Lords with government support.

Wroxeter surveyed

Traces of Roman shops, temples and a possible Christian church have been found by archaeologists at Wroxeter in Shropshire, using magnetometer and resistivity equipment in the southern half of the Roman city. The possible church is a large building with an apse, aligned east-west, lying only a few dozen yards south of the previously-excavated city centre. The Wroxeter Hinterland Project, which began last September, is led by Dr Vince Gaffney of Birmingham University, and has a further two years to run.

Oldest cottage

Timbers from a cottage in Upton Magna, Shropshire, have been dated by dendrochronology to 1269, and suggest it may be the oldest complete surviving cottage in Britain. It is 66 years older than one in Mapledurham, Oxfordshire, previously thought Britain's oldest cottage, and was discovered by Madge Moran, of the Vernacular Architecture Group, during a survey of timber-framed buildings around Shrewsbury.

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1995