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Cover of British Archaeology 86

Issue 86

January/February 2006



Flight of the eagles

Unearthing the ancestral rabbit

Counting the treasure

Tools for learning

Round and about in historic Leominster

In Brief


700,000 years old found in Suffolk
Full report from the scientists who found the first Northern Europeans.

Easter Island statues explained
Brett Shepardson takes issue with stories of doom - thanks to Edwardian women.

50 years on
Celebrating industrial archaeology, but what is it? Michael Nevell knows.

Evacuees Christmas and other war art
Soldiers who draw: English Heritage report on a new study of old graffiti.

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ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


700,000 years old: found in Suffolk

The full report from the scientists who found the first northern Europeans. Two of Britain's most exciting new sites, Happisburgh and Pakefield in East Anglia, were both highlighted by amateurs and are catagorised by very ancient flint tools. A major report on the new discoveries of the first Britons.

On December 15 Nature announced the archaeological news story of the year: early humans were here 700,000 years ago, 200 millennia earlier than thought. Who were they? What was Britain like then? What is the evidence? Four Nature authors – Simon Parfitt, Tony Stuart, Chris Stringer and Richard Preece – discuss the new finds exclusively for British Archaeology. First, Simon Parfitt explains how it all began.

Pakefield: a weekend to remember

Near the base of the eroding sea cliffs of Norfolk and Suffolk are organic muds and sands laid down in river channels and on floodplains when Britain was part of the European continent over 500,000 years ago. Known as the Cromer Forest-bed Formation, these deposits have long been famed for remarkably well preserved ancient animal bones and plant remains that include tree stumps.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries some collectors became obsessed with locating evidence for human activity in the Cromer Forest-bed. They were encouraged by leading geologist Sir Charles Lyell who wrote in 1863 that one day artefacts would be found. Despite years of hunting, and long arguments about whether "eoliths" - dawn stones - were flint tools or just products of natural weathering, in the end there was nothing. In the 1990s Dutch archaeologist Wil Roebroeks argued that the failure of so many collectors seeking artefacts in the bed was proof none was there - supporting researchers who believed that early humans did not colonise northern Europe until 500,000 years ago.

In 1998 I was working on Boxgrove, the 500,000 year old pre-Neanderthal butchery site near the West Sussex coast, when I found the first evidence for human activity in the Cromer Forest-bed. Animal bones from Boxgrove preserve fine cutmarks left by flint tools. Inspired by study of these, I was searching the Natural History Museum's large collection of fossils when I saw clear cuts on a bison bone from Happisburgh, Norfolk (pronounced HAYS-borough).

In 2000 the Quaternary Research Association held a field meeting at Pakefield, south of Lowestoft, Suffolk, where a particularly fine exposure of the Cromer Forest-bed had been recorded by geologist JH Blake in the 1880s. The deposits had been buried for most of the 20th century, but were now eroding again. Work on the mammal bones by Adrian Lister (Department of Biology, UCL) and Tony Stuart had indicated that Pakefield dated to a previously unrecognised interglacial, one of the warm intervals in the "ice age". At that meeting we found an artefact, a small flint flake.

After returning to Pakefield to take samples for analysis, I found teeth of the water vole Mimomys savini in the newly reexposed Unio-bed, named by Blake after the many freshwater mussels it contains. Mimomys is a key fossil. By c500,000 years ago (marine isotope stage 13, or MIS13, the warm stage before the Anglian glaciation) this rodent had evolved into an Arvicola species. Most archaeologists had accepted that the first humans in northern Europe, as seen at Boxgrove, were associated with Arvicola. If we could demonstrate human activity at the time of Mimomys, we would rewrite the history of the world's early hominins at their most northerly ranges.

Meanwhile at Happisburgh local enthusiast Mike Chambers had found a flint handaxe, the first artefact to be recorded in situ from the Cromer Forest-bed. We now believe this to be of the same age as Boxgrove (though others disagree: see Richard Preece's review), but it confirmed the evidence of the cutmarked bone. There were early humans in East Anglia at least 500,000 years ago.

Mammal bones

It was sheer chance that these discoveries should be made during the course of a five-year study of the ancient human occupation of Britain (AHOB). The Leverhulme Trust awarded a grant of over £1m towards this project, in which specialists from many disciplines have been working together to investigate when people first arrived in Britain, and what factors led to their survival or local extinction.

AHOB naturally took a strong interest in these Cromer Forest-bed developments. In May 2001, summer 2004 and early 2005 we mounted three excavations on the Happisburgh shore, hoping to establish the precise stratigraphical context for finds such as the handaxe and the cutmarked bone. We found a second handaxe in 2004, and I have now identified clear cutmarks and an impact scar, probably caused by a hominin extracting marrow, on a new bovid femur (a leg bone from a bison-like animal).

Pakefield falls into the collecting patch of Bob Mutch and Paul Durbidge. While the former amassed a huge, important group of animal bones, now acquired by the Natural History Museum, Durbidge focussed on locating in situ flint artefacts. Helped by archaeologist John Wymer, in 2002 he sent such a flake to the museum. In April the following year Andy Currant, Rob Symmons and I took a weekend out to see if we could prove to ourselves that flints were there in the Unio-bed.

Durbidge had cleared an area for us at the bottom of the cliff. It is a frightening place to work, between the sea and falling rocks and sand. Our dig was tiny, but we found three flint flakes, as well as microdebitage in the sieving residues proving that knapping had occurred on the spot. We filled our Land Rover with washed sediment and returned to London.

The sediments contained a huge amount of microscopic mammal bones - important evidence rarely seen in the Cromer Forest-bed, with teeth from squirrel and hamster, a very rare extinct aquatic shrew, a bat and other small creatures. I also identified a second species of Mimomys vole. In European Russia this is known to have died out before MIS16, an extremely severe cold stage, consistent with an age of 700,000 years ago.

Flint tools

At Happisburgh and Pakefield, we had finally proved that evidence for early hominins can be found in the Cromer Forest-bed; and at Pakefield that some of that evidence dates back at least 200,000 years before their previously accepted arrival in northern Europe. As Tony Stuart describes below, the evidence of mammals, insects and plant remains reveals a lush environment with a temperature significantly warmer than today. This must have been a highly favourable habitat for early humans. So why has it taken so long to find them?

We now have 32 artefacts from Pakefield, all small flint flakes, except for a simple core, and all in sharp condition. They come from four different contexts, suggesting humans were a regular feature of the landscape: the oldest was in estuarine silt, which also contained dolphin and walrus remains.

Significantly, the flakes were made from water-worn nodules. Large blocks of flint fresh from the chalk, like those used to make handaxes at Boxgrove, were not available to these hominins. Once rolled about in river gravel, their small tools would be difficult to distinguish from natural flints. The only hope of spotting them is to look carefully in undisturbed deposits.

Now that we know hominins were there, the Norfolk-Suffolk coast acquires a dramatic new significance. Intermittently along 80km - surely one of the world's largest archaeological sections - evidence for northern Europe's first known humans is almost daily tumbling into the sea. The true quest has at last begun.

Pakefield is important...

...says Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology

To be lead author of a cover story in Nature is an honour shared by few scientists. This is the peak of Simon Parfitt's career - so far. I first met him at an excavation in West Sussex, shortly after Nature had led with another early human discovery, a fossil from Boxgrove. Mark Roberts, Chris Stringer and Parfitt outlined their case that, buried 500,000 years ago, this was perhaps the oldest contexted hominin from Europe, a leg bone they suggested was Homo heidelbergensis.

The report created international interest. Other European archaeologists claimed their own finds were older. The debate even confronted London underground commuters: a poster announced that a Cardiff professor had proved Boxgrove to be only 400,000 years old. "Don't try getting into Cardiff University", it declared, "by lying about your age".

Boxgrove was an astonishing excavation. Over several years, a large area of pristine ancient land surface was exposed, where hominins had gathered round a water hole, perhaps hunting, making fine flint tools and butchering animals like rhino and cave bear. It remains arguably the best preserved and examined site of its age, at, yes, half a million years, anywhere in the world.

There are no butchered bones at Pakefield, no handaxes and no human fossils. So what makes a small weekend dig on the Suffolk coast potentially more significant than Boxgrove?

For a start, Pakefield is much older. Before Boxgrove, the first accepted evidence for humans in Britain dated from 400,000 years ago. Boxgrove pushed that back: but some archaeologists thought not far enough. Those who saw evidence of humans in Europe before half a million years became the "long chronologists", opposed to the more conservative "short chronologists". At a conference in Tautavel, France, in 1993, the short chronology case seemed to win: claims for stone tools of greater age withered under scrutiny.

The following year, after some heavy erosion, local collectors Paul Durbidge and Bob Mutch started to pay close attention to the shore around Pakefield. For two centuries people had searched in vain for flint tools in a particular deposit on the East Anglian coast known for its animal fossils. This time, however, Durbidge was interested only in stratified finds. The best time of year for exposure is winter, so dodging storms and falls from a cliff, the two friends excavated two or three small sections. In 2002 they found a flint flake - an undisputed artefact.

There are many questions to be answered about humans in the north this long ago, not least, as Chris Stringer explains, as to which species they were. The implications, however, reach further. If evidence for hominins 700,000 years ago could be not just missed, but scrutinised and rejected in part of the world with probably the highest density of collectors and scientists, what might we yet find, in older deposits here and elsewhere? Modern humans traded tools and raw materials over some distance, but early species apparently did not. So if good material for making stone tools was hard to find, so too will be signs that hominins were once there - in Asia, Australasia and the Americas as much as in northern Europe.

Exotic world before Suffolk

Tony Stuart describes the landscape seen by Pakefield's first humans.

Time-travelling naturalists 700,000 years ago in what is now Suffolk at first might not notice anything odd about the vegetation or wildlife, much of which would be very similar to that of the woodlands and fens of East Anglia, today - although maybe they would have felt that it was a little warm for the time of year. However, in a short while familiarity would have given way to astonishment, as they heard the roar of a lion and the sinister whooping of hyenas, and encountered a giant 4m high ancestral mammoth crashing through a woodland glade on its way to the river, upsetting the hippos lazily hauled out on the bank.

Our extensive knowledge of the ancient environment of Pakefield has been assembled from the work of a number of specialists who are authors of the paper in Nature. Most of the plants and animals recorded from Pakefield are still found in southern Britain today, indicating a broadly similar climate, but the presence of a few frost-sensitive species, such as hippos, water chestnut (Trapa natans), floating water fern (Salvinia natans), a heather (Corema album) and certain beetles, indicates that summers were rather warmer and winters rather milder than now. Other evidence of warmer climatic conditions comes from geochemical studies of the sediments. Characteristic carbonate nodules found in the fossil soil of the "Rootlet bed" imply cool wet winters and warm dry summers, showing similarities to the Mediterranean climates of southern Europe today.

From the plants and insects (mainly beetles) and other fossil remains, we can infer the presence of marshy areas on the floodplain with reed beds and alder swamp fringing a slow-flowing meandering river. There were abundant water plants including white water lilies and water soldier, and freshwater fishes such as pike, tench and rudd, all native to the region today. Temperate broadleaved woodland comprising oak, hornbeam, elm, maple and other trees and shrubs grew on drier ground. More open areas of grasses and herbs formed a mosaic with the woodland vegetation or grew preferentially on the river floodplain, or both.

This wide range of habitats and plant food supported a rich fauna of herbivorous mammals, including voles and mice, the European common hamster, beaver, extinct giant beaver (Trogontherium cuvieri), wild boar, fallow deer, roe deer, three species of extinct giant deer ("Irish elk"), a giant moose (Cervalces latifrons), an extinct bison, two species of horse, an extinct rhino, and largest of all, straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) and Mammuthus trogontherii, an ancestor of the (smaller) woolly mammoth of the later ice ages. In turn these animals were hunted or scavenged by a range of carnivores, including lion, spotted hyena (evidenced by its characteristic fossilised droppings as well as skeletal remains), wolf, bear and the spectacular sabretooth cat, Homotherium species.

The first humans north of the Alps

Chris Stringer wonders who the Pakefield hominins were.

The discovery of a human shinbone at Boxgrove in 1993 really hit the headlines. The bone, and two teeth found in 1995, were attributed to the species Homo heidelbergensis. This was named in 1908 from a heavy jawbone found at Mauer, near Heidelberg, Germany. Until recently, the species was believed to represent Europe's oldest inhabitants, from about half a million years ago. Now fossil discoveries from Spain and Italy have pushed back the earliest human presence in southern Europe to at least 800,000 years ago, with some archaeologists arguing for stone tools even older. Finds from the Caucasus, at the gateway to Europe, hint at the possibility of a still earlier presence.

Homo erectus appeared in Africa and spread from there over a million years ago - the first species known to have done so (unless the strange "hobbit" from Flores, Indonesia is evidence of an even earlier wave). It was thought these early humans first spread eastwards to China and Indonesia, but startling finds in western Asia at a Georgian site called Dmanisi suggest a different story. As well as the fossils of scimitar-toothed cats, rhinos and giant ostriches, Georgian scientists and their collaborators have found crude stone tools, five small-brained human skulls, four lower jaws and many bones of the skeleton. Animals and argon-argon dating place the site at about 1.7m years old, very close in age to comparable finds from Kenya that are often referred to the more primitive human species Homo ergaster. If people were in the Caucasus over 1.5m years ago, could they have moved westwards then? The European evidence is not clear until later than this, but I think we should keep an open mind on the question.

At Orce, southern Spain, some archaeologists believe they can date undoubted stone tools as far back as 1.5m years, but this remains highly controversial. From a later date, a fossil human braincase with large brow ridges, resembling both Herectus and Hheidelbergensis, has been discovered at Ceprano, an open site in central Italy. It derives from levels that elsewhere in the region contain simple stone tools, with an approximate date of 800,000 years ago.

From a similar age, but with better dating, a locality called Gran Dolina at Atapuerca, northern Spain has produced tools and fragmentary fossils of several adults and children. The remains include part of the face of a child, two lower jaws, teeth and limb bones, many showing cut marks from stone tools (evidence of cannibalism?). The Spanish team named a new species Homo antecessor ("Pioneer Man") for the remains, although they show features variously attributed to H ergaster, H erectus, H heidelbergensis and even H sapiens; the status and evolutionary position of this species are still unclear.

The stone tools from Pakefield are by far the oldest evidence we have for people in Europe north of the Alps. There has been much discussion about what social, technological or bodily adaptations humans would have needed to colonise north-west Europe compared with their occupation further south, but the Mediterranean climate reconstructed for ancient Pakefield implies that these pioneers found familiar climatic conditions. So who were they?

Well, the similarities of environment between Britain and northern Spain at that time suggest they could have been the same species as found at Gran Dolina. How, then, do these early Europeans relate to the people we find later on at Boxgrove and Mauer? That is a difficult question to answer. We do not yet know whether there was a local evolutionary transition to heidelbergensis, perhaps with a change to handaxe making, or whether new people and new technology came into western Europe, replacing or absorbing the previous inhabitants. Perhaps Pakefield or Happisburgh will yield further evidence to help us solve these fascinating questions.

The MIS16 debate

Richard Preece assesses two opposing views on Britain's earliest archaeology.

There is currently intense debate amongst specialists about the date of key geological deposits in East Anglia. The arguments can be difficult to follow, but are important in establishing the true age of northern Europe's first humans.

It has been known for many years that at least three Middle Pleistocene tills (glacial "boulder clays") occur in the area around Cromer on the north Norfolk coast. These three Cromer tills have traditionally been thought to represent different glacial episodes within a single cold stage, namely the Anglian, conventionally correlated with marine isotope stage 12, c478-423,000 years ago.

The belief that these three tills (the Happisburgh, Walcott and Runton/Bacton tills) belong to one cold stage has recently been challenged. In this new scheme, only the Walcott till is said to have been deposited during the Anglian; the earliest, the Happisburgh till, was emplaced during an older glaciation, perhaps within MIS16, c659-620,000 years ago.

This new interpretation is based on the occurrence of reworked lumps of till (clasts), erratics and heavy minerals from the third youngest terrace of the pre-glacial Bytham river in southern Norfolk. At Leet Hill, a critical site in this debate, the heavy minerals show a progressive increase in glacially sourced materials through these terrace deposits; the clasts are thought to have been derived from sediments left by the Happisburgh glaciation.

Since the sequence at Leet Hill is overlain by Anglian sediments including the Lowestoft till, a lateral equivalent of the Walcott till, a pre-MIS12 age has been claimed for the Happisburgh glaciation. Attribution to an age as old as MIS16 is derived from correlation with the terrace stratigraphy of the Bytham river. This invokes the model for climatic forcing of terrace formation derived from rivers like the (lower) Thames, where there is good empirical evidence for a precise match between terraces and the 100,000-year cycles of Middle Pleistocene glaciations. However, this model breaks down when glaciation intervenes. Thus in the Thames, the Anglian is represented beneath the surfaces of three terraces.

Vole clock

This new interpretation of the glacial sequence of eastern England poses a number of serious problems when the biostratigraphical evidence is considered. The sequence demonstrably overlies the Cromer Forest-bed Formation that includes the stratotype (agreed reference section) of the Cromerian Stage at West Runton. The organic sediments there have yielded an extremely rich fauna of vertebrates, molluscs and other fossils, indicating a fully temperate climate. This interglacial stage was originally thought immediately to precede the Anglian Stage, but other temperate stages within the so-called "Cromerian Complex" are now thought to have intervened, though the deposits are missing at West Runton itself.

Critical evidence for this expanded sequence comes from studies of water vole evolution. Sediments deposited during the later part of the Cromerian Complex contain Arvicola (voles with unrooted molar teeth), whereas those from the early part contain Mimomys (their ancestor with rooted molars). This "vole clock" has often been used in early Middle Pleistocene Europe: famous archaeological sites, such as Miesenheim (Germany) and Boxgrove, which yielded Arvicola, are thought to be younger than West Runton and Pakefield, with Mimomys.

Combining the evidence of vertebrates such as these with molluscs, it appears that as many as five distinct temperate stages may occur during the Cromerian Complex in Britain, at least three of which have Mimomys. The sediments representing these stages have normal polarity, that is they were laid down when the north pole was as it is now - the two poles periodically flip over. So these stages must be accommodated between the last magnetic reversal boundary at around 780,000 years ago (within MIS19), and 480,000 (mis12). Each of these temperate stages is therefore unlikely to represent a complete marine isotope stage but probably includes substages within them.

Amino acid promise

The main difficulty in trying to reconcile these two views relates to evidence from Happisburgh, where the Happisburgh till at its type locality overlies organic Cromer Forest-bed Formation sediments yielding Arvicola and the all-important flint artefacts. If the revised interpretation of the glacial sequence is correct and the Happisburgh till dates from MIS16, then the artefacts must be at least as old as MIS17 - a minimum 680,000 years. The problem then is to squeeze these newly-recognized temperate stages into the extremely narrow time interval between MIS19 and MIS17.

The biostratigraphers (Lister, Parfitt, Preece, Stuart) believe that this is not possible, and that the faunal differences seen during this interval imply a much longer period. Their view is therefore consistent with the orthodox interpretation that the Cromer tills belong to the Anglian. The glacial stratigraphers (Jon Lee, Brian Moorlock and Richard Hamblin, British Geological Survey, and Jim Rose, Royal Holloway University of London) attach no importance to the occurrence of Arvicola or Mimomys and dismiss the biostratigraphical viewpoint as being insufficiently "robust", since it cannot be tied securely to the mis chronology. They overlook the fact that the terrace model they invoke is itself underpinned by similar biostratigraphical arguments.

The application of new amino acid racemisation dating techniques being developed by Kirsty Penkman and Matthew Collins at the University of York, holds much promise in resolving this debate. Preliminary work shows that sites with Arvicola and Mimomys do indeed fall into two discrete amino acid groups. The debate continues.

About the authors

Simon Parfitt and Chris Stringer are at the Natural History Museum, Parfitt also at UCL Institute of Archaeology. Tony Stuart is at the Department of Biology, University College London (UCL) and University of Durham School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. Richard Preece is at the Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge. The work described here is funded by the Leverhulme Trust, English Heritage and UCL.

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