thinking about archaeology

Plinth box 1

700,000-year-old stone artefact from Pakefield  (Phil Crabb, Natural History Museum)

700,000-year-old stone artefact from Pakefield (Phil Crabb, Natural History Museum)

Site: Pakefield, Suffolk

Date: 750–680,000 years ago

What it represents: The first human species north of the Alps

The plinth stone: A flake, struck from a larger piece, that could have been used for cutting plants or animal flesh, or could be a byproduct of making a tool

Provenance: Excavated on July 4 2006, from the “Unio-bed” in the Cromer Forest-Bed Formation exposed along the foot of the beach cliff between Pakefield and Kessingland

Material: Mottled grey and yellow flint

Maximum dimension: 47mm

Weight: 30gm

Loaned by: Simon Parfitt and Andrew J Snelling, to be accessioned by the Natural History Museum

This fresh flint flake is one of two excavated by Andrew J Snelling, adding to the collection of some 30 pieces from the cliff south of Pakefield, Suffolk, that currently are considered to be the oldest unequivocal evidence for humans in northern Europe. Research and excavations are continuing here and at Happisburgh, Norfolk, within the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project (AHOB), directed by Chris Stringer at the Natural History Museum, London.

For two centuries people had searched in vain for flint tools in a geological deposit on the East Anglian coast known for its prolific animal fossils. Named the Cromer Forest-bed Formation for the very rare preservation of plants, this deposit is well over 500,000 years old – for long thought to be much older than any known human-made artefacts in Europe.

Simon Parfitt, at the Natural History Museum, was the first to find signs of humanity in this deposit. In 1998 he saw marks on a bison bone that had been found in the Cromer Forest-bed at Happisburgh in around 1897. At the time, he was working on the Boxgrove animal bones, where cutmarks from flint tools are common and very well-preserved: the bison bone carried the same type of mark.

Two years later geologists held a field meeting at Pakefield, where a fine exposure of the Cromer Forest-bed had been recorded in the 19th century. The deposits had been buried for most of the last century, but were now eroding again. At that meeting was found the first actual artefact, a small flint flake.

Then in 2002 local fossil collectors Paul Durbidge and Bob Mutch found the first flint that was without doubt sealed in this deposit, in a small excavation. The definitive proof had finally been found that there were humans in northern Europe some 700,000 years ago. These East Anglian flints remain the oldest known from the region.

Plant and animal remains indicate a Mediterranean climate and temperate woodland for the Pakefield hominins, which they shared with creatures such as a 4m high mammoth, lions, hippos and hyenas on the marshy banks of a wide river mouth. As yet, however, we do not know who the hominins themselves were: fossils this old have yet to be found in northern Europe. There are some from Italy and Spain, but scientists are divided as to what species of Homo are represented there. The best that can currently be said about the Pakefield hominin is that it is probably related to Homo erectus.

Mike Pitts, 2006. On this beach, 700,000 years ago… Guardian G2, Jan 6

Simon Parfitt, René Barendregt, Marzia Breda & 16 others, 2005. The earliest humans in Northern Europe: artefacts from the Cromer Forest-bed Formation at Pakefield, Suffolk, UK. Nature 438, 1008–12

Simon Parfitt, Anthony Stuart, Christopher Stringer & Richard C. Preece, 2005. Pakefield: a weekend to remember. British Archaeology Jan/Feb 2006, 18–27

Simon Parfitt, Andrew Snelling, Adrian Evans & Roger Jacobi, 2009. Further discoveries of lower palaeolithic stone tools in the Cromer Forest-bed Formation at Pakefield-Kessingland. Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology & History 41, 489–95

Chris Stringer, 2006. Homo Britannicus. Penguin

A postcard from Pakefield early 20th century

A postcard from Pakefield early 20th century

The Cromer Forest-bed at the base of the cliff at Pakefield, 2002 (Simon Parfitt)

The Cromer Forest-bed at the base of the cliff at Pakefield, 2002 (Simon Parfitt)

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