Here’s a little thing really worth seeing if you are in central London. The British Museum runs a series of Asahi Shimbun Displays in a small gallery immediately to the right of the main south entrance. They are thoughtful, simple shows of contemporary art and antiquity, and always worth a quick pause (though for now the entrance security tent can take the edge off “quick”). The room is easily missed, and has been quiet whenever I’ve visited. I dropped in today to see the current display, Moving stories: three journeys, which closes on April 30.
It’s a powerful, contemplative experience. On one side you can watch three short extracts from a film in which the late Édouard Glissant, a Martinique poet and philosopher, talks about how migration (in these excerpts, mostly a traumatising experience) drives a creative cultural “multiplicity”. He likes borders, he says, because they separate worlds of distinctive interest, but the concept needs rethinking.
On the opposite wall are photos illustrating all the pages of a book (present in a nearby case) by an Iraqi artist living in the Netherlands, Sadik Kwaish Alfraji. He calls the graphic, melancholy work Ali’s Boat, after an 11-year-old nephew he visited in Iraq in 2014. The young man drew him a boat, and wrote across one corner, “I wish this boat takes me to you.” Alfraji’s response was a series of sketches and writings addressing the illusions and dangers of migratory dreams.
And in between the two is a box of a tunnel. On the floor is projected a full-scale image of footprints in the hardened, million-year-old mud of Happisburgh beach in Norfolk. Sarah M Duffy’s record photos have been animated so that as you stand among the prints, the tide comes in and you can no longer see toes, then retreats leaving little puddles in the prints which look like elongated windows into the past, clouded and rippling.
I was in Norfolk a couple of weeks ago, checking out the sites. The shore is changing fast, as homes are threatened by cliff falls and the internationally significant archaeology beneath everything is carved out and washed away by the sea. Compare the view then (above) with that from the same place in 2006, with excavation in progress (below). See how the groynes have been exposed and eroded, the concrete pillbox is being broken up and the cliff receding.
Inside the church (where an organist was limbering up for a recital) is an impressive font. The original is said to be 15th century, but it was recarved in the 19th, with a remarkably prescient hairy man with wooden club – a “woodhouse”, surely responsible for the footprints on the beach.
We have John Sell Cotman to thank (as for so much else) for this record of how the older font looked in its last days (with what look like a few bits of the ceiling). The original watercolour, made around 1811, is in the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Centre for British Art.
Here are a few more photos of the church I took in 2006.
These extraordinary images of one of the best preserved Happisburgh footprints were sent to me by Simon Parfitt. They are snapshots from a rotatable 3D image created by Sarah Duffy at York University with MeshLab software. They were only recently finished, too late for the journal and press images.
James Miles and Hembo Pagi used MeshLab for analysing the 3D photogrammetric imagery of Hoa Hakananai’a; we’ve now had three peer-reviewed articles on this study accepted, and they should all be published later this year. When made with high resolution photos, photogrammetric models seem to have significant advantages over the more traditional 3D laser models, not least because they contain real colours.
Nick Ashton’s blog at the British Museum has an interesting discussion, with some good responses to evolution-denial.
And below [added later in the day] is another image, of people leaving footprints at Happisburgh in 1931 (so one wonders what might have been beneath the cliff behind them, now long gone). It was taken by Douglas Jenkins, whose wife Mary Jenkins sits on the right. The shot is really about the two shirtless men (Henry Moore standing, Ben Nicholson sitting) and the two standing women (Irina Moore left, Barbara Hepworth right). The man on the left, looking like a luggage porter who would feel more at home indoors, is one of the great underrated British artists of the last century, the painter Ivon Hitchens.
There’s an interesting story behind this photo, described on the occasion of an exhibition about Moore, Hepworth and Nicholson – poor old Hitchens hardly gets a mention – at Norwich Castle in 2009. Hepworth wrote to the Nicholsons: “Do come and stay with us at Happisburgh… I enclose a photo of the farm – the colour is lovely. The country is quite flat but for a little hill with a tall flint church and a lighthouse… The beach is a ribbon of pale sand as far as the eye can see.”
“Henry, Barbara and I”, remembered John Skeaping, “used to pick up large iron-stone pebbles from the beach which were ideal for carving and polished up like bronze.”
There’s a lot of interest in this new find, and it’s worth saying more about. Things like this really do not come along every year.
There’s a great video made by the Natural History Museum of the team recording the prints, which Channel 4 has put online, with more detail in the film on the museum’s website. These stills are from the film. They give you an idea of the conditions under which the prints were recorded.
As scientific announcements go, that some of the world’s oldest human footprints have been found in Norfolk seems to raise more questions than it answers. How do we know the prints are not recent? They were, after all, found on the beach. If they really are so old, how did they survive? And most importantly, what do they tell us?
Not which species made them, for sure – only fossils would reveal that, and pending the discovery of remains of similar age, we are still guessing which variety of human walked northern Europe at this time. So could these prints be little more than a gift to headline writers, invoking Robinson Crusoe at his beach footprint moment, or the young American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, dreamily imagining the eternity of the soul, memorialised by “Footprints on the sands of time”? Should we care?
In a word, yes. This is a genuinely rare moment, one to engage both our emotions and our historical curiosity.
It happened in May last year. A small team of scientists were working on the Norfolk coast at Happisburgh (pronounced Hazeburra). They knew already that important remains were preserved there, dating back nearly a million years – by far the oldest signs of humans in northern Europe. Simple stone tools and butchered animal bones, though no human fossils, had been excavated at several locations on the shore, along with everything from mammoth teeth to insects and pine cones.
These remains had allowed the scientists to reconstruct the climate, landscape and fauna in rare detail, the more significant for the area’s latitude. Before these discoveries, it had been thought that early humans would have been unable to live so far north, and in such relatively challenging conditions – with winters, for example, cold enough to mean they almost certainly wore some form of clothing.
The ancient landscape is now buried beneath metres of sand and clay, dropped by glaciers and rivers that crossed the area in later millennia. But on the coast, the North Sea eats at the soft cliffs, consuming houses and roads and exposing one of the world’s most remarkable fossil worlds, preserved by the overlying geology.
On this occasion, the team were conducting a geophysical survey, to see if they could trace the ancient landscape, inland under the cliffs and then out to sea, where up to a point, it should be easier to study – though the loss of an expensive underwater survey explorer has not helped progress there.
It was a sunny day. Five men were walking along the beach. They were all from the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project (AHOB). This was a research programme about to come to the end of its 13 years, based at the London Natural History Museum but involving 60 scientists scattered across over 20 institutions and several countries. Its achievements form the subject of a landmark exhibition soon to open in London.
Simon Parfitt is AHOB’s leading animal specialist, based at the Natural History Museum and UCL. He was on the beach that day. He told me how Martin Bates, a University of Wales archaeologist who specialises in Britain’s submerged landscapes, suddenly “stopped in his tracks”. Bates gazed down at an expanse of hard, grey mud riddled with water-filled hollows. “These are human footprints”, he said.
He should know. Brothers Martin and Richard Bates (also there that day), and their father Denis, a retired geologist, had for some years been studying footprints exposed by the tides at Borth on the north Welsh coast. The Borth prints are thought to be bronze age, some 4,000 years old. Yet the global scarcity of footprints of such an early age as anything at Happisburgh would have to be, meant the others took some convincing. Surely these prints were recent?
“No,” said Martin. “The sediment’s too hard.” As he stood on the mud into which bare feet appeared to have sunk, his heavy boots made no impression. They didn’t look like anything they had seen that could be natural. But if they were prints, could they really be human?
A fortnight later they came back with Sarah Duffy, from York University, to record the surface using multi-image photogrammetry. With a few carefully taken high-resolution photos, and clever software, they would be able to create a 3D model of the surface which they could examine at leisure. It was a good move. With the weather changed to high seas and lashing rain, there was now little chance of studying the prints on the ground.
They had brought a hose to connect to a nearby standpipe, so they could sluice out the sand with which tides had filled the hollows. But a new cliff fall the day before had taken out the mains supply. As the light faded and the tide rose, they set up a human chain to bring buckets of water in from the sea. They left tired and bedraggled, still unsure of what they had found. A week later they returned to laser scan the prints, but by then they had all but disappeared. Nothing now survives.
Except Duffy’s photos. Once she had analysed them, helped by Isabelle De Groote of Liverpool John Moores University, there was no room for doubt.
Nick Ashton, an archaeologist at the British Museum and senior member of the AHOB project, is the lead author of the scientific paper describing the prints in the online journal PLOS ONE, due to be published later today. [Now online here.] He told me they could see 49 clear human footprints – though there were likely to be many more, less well preserved – including one with toes. The shapes and sizes of the prints tell us something about who made them. Ashton thinks there were probably five individuals, among them both adults and children. They ranged in height from 3ft to 5ft 8in (1m to 1.73m). They were heading south, probably close to the edge of a wide river known to have been flowing there out to sea.
Geological studies show that the hardened estuary mud that preserved the prints is the same age as the deposits nearby where they had earlier found the stone tools and fossil animals. The prints must be at least 800,000 years old, and possibly as much as 970,000. Chris Stringer, director of AHOB and research leader in human origins at the Natural History Museum, told me that without fossils they cannot determine which human species left its distinctive mark at Happisburgh. His best guess, from fossils of similar age found in Spain, is Homo antecessor, a contender for the first type of human to reach Europe from Africa.
Remarkable as they are, why do they matter? A key reason is that they prove that land surfaces have been preserved – literally, the ground on which early humans walked. These are extremely rare, but very precious, for in the right circumstances, they hold signs of early human behaviour. These might be moments such as the making of a tool, or the butchering of an animal – signs not just that these things happened, but of how they occurred, the nearest we can ever get to seeing an ancient mind at work. The international significance of the Norfolk sites has been raised to a new level.
The prints also, of course, tell us something direct about a group of people – a family, perhaps – wandering along the riverside. And the emotive power of the prints, the thought that at that place, for a few moments, individual humans gathered, thought and looked – what might they have seen? Did they talk? – will inspire scientists as much as the general public. And, as the team that found the prints must be thinking, perhaps grant givers too.
* Nick Ashton writes about the footprints in the latest edition of British Archaeology magazine.
“Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story”, opens at the Natural History Museum on February 13.
“Hominin footprints from Early Pleistocene deposits at Happisburgh, UK”, by Nick Ashton, Simon G Lewis, Isabelle De Groóte, Sarah M Duffy, Martin Bates, Richard Bates, Peter Hoare, Mark Lewis, Simon A Parfitt, Sylvia Peglar, Craig Williams and Chris Stringer. PLOS ONE February 7 2014
These photos show another site at Happisburgh under excavation, and in better weather!
Happisburgh has done it again! Already the location of the oldest human artefacts in northern Europe, and the furthest north any signs of early humans have been found, now the Norfolk coast has given us human footprints – nearly a million years old. They are by far the oldest outside Africa. As Nick Ashton (British Museum) writes in the new edition of British Archaeology, only those at Laetoli in Tanzania (3.6 million years) and at Ileret and Koobi Fora in Kenya (1.5 million years) are older. No human fossils have yet been found of this age in northern Europe, so we’re guessing which species made them: Chris Stringer (Natural History Museum) thinks Homo antecessor is the most likely candidate. More on this here.
You can read about this discovery in British Archaeology, along with a preview of the exhibition at the Natural History Museum which features the find, and much more (and which opens on February 13). I spoke to Chris Stringer about the show, and to Alfons Kennis, one of the Dutch twins who made the extraordinary life-sized models, one neanderthal, one early modern human – two ultra-realistic, stark naked men.
The magazine also goes to the British Museum. The first part of the BM’s new extension, under construction since 2011, opens in March with an exhibition about Vikings. I went to see the installation of its first exhibit – the conserved remains of the world’s largest Viking ship. And Astrid Kähler writes about the Dragon Harald Fairhair, a Viking longship launched last year, in the largest project of its kind ever undertaken. Ahead of its arrival in Britain and the US, we hear how it feels to be among the crew.
Broadcaster Dan Snow talks about the importance of history in his family, and first world war archaeology: “The history that we’re taught in schools is so riddled with myths and particular points of view, that I think archaeology can provide that extraordinarily objective, quite new connection with the past.” Dan Snow is the Council for British Archaeology’s new president.
There are also features on Northampton Castle, Gertrude Bell, Eastbourne Ancestors, and more, and Requiem, our annual tribute to archaeologists and lovers of antiquity who died in the past year.
If you are not already a member of the Council for British Archaeology, or a subscriber, you can find British Archaeology in Smiths, at the Apple Store and online. See http://www.britisharchaeology.org/ba135
And here’s something else that caught my eye in the work-in-progress Viking gallery – altogether a fabulous space – an information panel awaiting its moment, quietly chattering away to itself.