Nick Ashton
Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory, The British Museum

Executive Summary

Happisburgh: highly significant Lower Palaeolithic site (East Anglia) subject to coastal erosion.

The English Heritage-funded Cromer Forest-bed Formation (CF-bF) Projects ran from 2012–2016 with the aim of developing systems for understanding and monitoring the onshore and offshore archaeologically sensitive deposits around Happisburgh (Figure 1), which were known from the discovery and excavation of two Lower Palaeolithic sites in 2000 (Site 1) and 2005 (Site 3).

As they are subject to coastal erosion, a programme of onshore drilling and geophysics helped to map the extent of the channel deposits with which the sites are associated, and estimate their projections inland. In addition, cemented blocks of CF-bF material containing Pleistocene cut-marked bone have been recovered onshore. Offshore survey and diving has provided possible source locations for this material.

Many artefacts and fossils are also being found on the foreshore. Engagement with local collectors and members of the public has established better systems for regular monitoring, recovery and recording of this material.

The projects have highlighted the need for continuation of this work to understand future threats to CF-bF deposits, in particular prior to planned sea-defence improvements, which in the short term can lead to accelerated erosion of archaeologically sensitive deposits.

The project has also shown the need for a funded post(s) to maintain the links with collectors and recording of artefacts and fossils, which have added considerably to the size of assemblages from the CF-bF. Similar systems of investigation should be implemented on other parts of the coast where CF-bf deposits are exposed. For the full report see Ashton et al. (2018).


Where: Happisburgh (coastal site)
Region: East Midlands & East Anglia
Palaeolithic period(s): Lower Palaeolithic (MIS 25–13)
Type of investigation: Fieldwork
Methods: Boreholes; Geophysics; Offshore investigation
Type(s) of deposit: River channel deposits
Features of interest: Public involvement; Shoreline management; Earliest record of human activity in Britain

Project stages

  • Geotechnical/geoarchaeological survey
  • Literature/mapping review (DBA)
  • Test pitting/Borehole survey
  • Evaluation
  • Test pitting/boreholes
  • Evaluation
  • Excavation
  • Watching brief
  • Post-excavation assessment (and reporting)
  • Post-excavation analysis (and reporting)
  • Final Report
  • Deposit with HER and museum (and Oasis)
  • Publication (academic and/or public)

Development Context

The cliffs of Norfolk and Suffolk, composed predominantly of sands and clays, have been subject to long-term destruction from coastal erosion (see East Anglian Coastal Group Shoreline Management Plan (SMP) 6: Kelling to Lowestoft Ness).

In recent years it has accelerated around Happisburgh and caused destruction to CF-bF deposits at the base of the cliffs. Excavations from 2004–2012 led to the recognition of two main sites at Happisburgh (Sites 1 and 3) and beach material provided evidence of an offshore site, yet to be located (Figures 2–4). It was realised that there was need for a wider-scale understanding of the deposits and for longer-term monitoring.

In 2012 two projects were funded by English Heritage entitled 'Understanding the Cromer Forest-bed' (Project 6234) and 'Monitoring the Cromer Forest-bed' (EH Project 6441) (Ashton et al. 2018). Whilst not a normal commercial development the impacts of coastal erosion and management have similar impact on the Palaeolithic resource and as such, this is included as a relevant case study.

Archaeological Context

The CF-bF exposed on the Suffolk and Norfolk coasts is critical in understanding the earliest human occupation of northern Europe (Figure 1). Long recognised for its rich environmental information, it is only since 2000 that Lower Palaeolithic artefacts have been found within these sediments at Pakefield and Happisburgh (Parfitt et al. 2005, 2010; Ashton et al. 2008, 2014).

The combination of human evidence and environmental data allows the reconstruction of human habitats from the earliest occupation of northern Europe from almost 1 million to 0.5 million years ago.

Methodology and Research Questions

The long-term aim has been to find effective ways of dealing with the ongoing threat to the CF-bF. The projects divided into three main components:

  1. Map and establish the relationships of onshore CF-bF sediments through recording of new exposures, coring and geophysics. This would help identify CF-bF deposits under future threat.
  2. Explore the offshore zone through a range of survey techniques in combination with diving. It was hoped to identify areas of Pleistocene sediment and possible sources for the foreshore finds of iron-cemented blocks containing cut-marked bone.
  3. Engage with local collectors and members of the public to get better reporting and recording of artefacts and vertebrate fossils.


Several coring methods were attempted including hand-augering, Terrier mini percussion drilling, Cobra percussion coring and shell-auger drilling. The latter proved the most effective method, but from the cliff-top, which avoided tidal time constraints and difficulty of beach-access. Where possible, samples were taken for sedimentological and environmental analyses. As soon as wet sands were encountered sampling proved difficult.

Onshore geophysics

Three geophysical techniques, direct current resistivity imaging, electromagnetic ground conductivity mapping, and ground penetrating radar (GPR), were tested on the foreshore and the cliff-top. Direct current resistivity proved the most effective from both the cliff-top and the foreshore to depths up to 20m, distinguishing known channel features. Electromagnetic ground conductivity was a complementary method on the beach, to depths of 3 to 5m.

Offshore survey

Offshore survey data was compiled from existing sources for Happisburgh, swath bathymetry data from the Environment Agency (EA) and Norfolk County Council, lidar data from EA, and side-scan and sub-bottom data collected by Wessex Archaeology (2008). Analysis of these datasets enabled the identification of potential dive sites and possible source areas for derived material onshore.

Offshore diving

The two successful dives (2012 and 2015) were undertaken by HSE-qualified archaeological divers using a 30ft fishing vessel from Great Yarmouth. The 2012 dive was assisted by an ROV, with continuous video images linked to the boat. The ROV proved successful in identifying potential dive sites. It was not available in 2015, although a high frequency Sidescan system was used during slack water to provide substrate information. The use of through-water communications between the dive team and the vessel further helped the work.

Reporting and recording of finds

This was achieved through public talks and identification afternoons, or ‘fossil road-shows’, organised in conjunction with Norfolk Museums Service. Selected collectors have been equipped with digital cameras with GPS for better recording.


Onshore geological investigations

For this project 16 boreholes were drilled in and adjacent to Sites 1 and 3 (Figure 4). The geophysical survey extended the area of investigation along the coast up to 600m beyond the known sites, but also up to 150m inland. A total of 22 lines varied in length from 200 to 1200m. In combination with earlier work, three main units were identified in stratigraphic order: marine sands (Crag), overlying Chalk at a depth of -27m (West 1980; Moorlock et al. 2002); fluvial sediments composed of two main channel deposits exposed at beach level (Sites 1 and 3); glacial clays and sands, which form the cliffs (Lee et al. 2004).

At Site 1 the fluvial sediments consist of c. 1m of organic muds occupying a channel feature about 100m wide on a south–north orientation (Lewis et al. 2019). The underlying fluvial sands up to 1.5m depth seem to be part of the same channel feature. Both deposits contain artefacts. The geophysics from the beach and cliff-top could identify these channel sediments and possibly their inland extension immediately to the south, but less clearly inland. Bathymetric survey immediately offshore revealed an elongated 100m long platform, which has been interpreted as a continuation of the Site 1 channel to the north (Figure 5).

At Site 3 the channel deposits consist of a series of gravelly sands with overlying laminated sands and silts, proved to a maximum depth of 6m (Hill House Formation; Parfitt et al. 2010). These sediments extend from just to the north-west of Site 3 over some 430m along the beach to the vicinity of the old lifeboat ramp. Laminated sands and silts of shallower depth extend a further 300m to the south-east, and occasional artefacts have also been found. The geophysics was able to identify the Site 3 channel features, but their extent inland is not clear. During the geophysical survey an area of exposed laminated sands and silts revealed a human footprint surface, which was recorded using 3D photogrammetry, prior to erosion by the sea (Figure 3; Ashton et al. 2014).

Offshore survey and diving

An aim of the project was to establish the stratigraphic relationships between onshore and offshore sediments, although it is now clear from fieldwork and bathymetric data that most near-shore deposits have been cut out by marine erosion, other than the raised platform of sediments to the north of Site 1 (see above). However, it is probable that Pleistocene sediments have survived further offshore due to the iron-concreted blocks of gravel with Pleistocene vertebrate and plant material washed onto the foreshore between Happisburgh and Eccles. Observations by Reid (1890) of cemented sediments about 800m north-east of Site 1 were regarded as a possible source and so this location (H1) with other potential sites, identified from swath bathymetry (H2-4; M1-6), were targeted with a programme of survey and diving (Ashton et al. 2018).

In 2012 gravel was identified and sampled at H1 (at -10m), but subsequent analysis of the contained molluscs showed that it is a marine sediment. The other dives, H2–H4, were concealed by drifting sand.

In 2015 the ‘Monks’ was targeted, which is an elongated bank of concreted-gravel, previously reported at depths of -5 to -15m, about 2.5km offshore. Most dive sites (M1–5) were covered by drifting sand, although at M2 blocks of cemented gravel were found. At M6 gravel was located at -12m and a rhinoceros radius was recovered from the surface, possibly eroded from the gravel (Figure 6). The Monks is now regarded as one of the likely sources for the beach material, but more survey and diving is required to understand the nature of the deposit and its relationship to those onshore.

Monitoring and recording programme

The project has successfully engaged with local collectors and general public who regularly visit the beaches at Happisburgh and other exposures of CF-bF sediments on the coast. ‘Fossil Road Shows’ in conjunction with Norfolk Museum Service have increased the volume of recorded material and new collectors have been identified.

Of particular note are two volunteer co-workers who regularly monitor the beaches between Happisburgh and Horsey. Equipped with a camera with GPS, they are recovering and recording new flint artefacts and fossil vertebrates. Most material is from the surface, but so far the work has trebled the amount of material from Happisburgh Site 3 and added considerably to the assemblage from Site 1.

This work has also led to the potential identification of new sites with the methodology and results published in the Journal of Quaternary Science (Bynoe et al. 2021). In addition, artefact and bone-rich locations have been found at Eccles and Horsey to the south-east, although the source of this material is not clear. Mapping of the new finds is contributing to a better understanding of the movement of material in the tidal zone and will help in identifying possible offshore locations.

Identification of future threats

The accelerated erosion of the cliffs and the CF-bF at Happisburgh has in part been caused by the failure of 1950s wooden sea-defences. As the defences fail, they are removed and replaced with rock defences closer to the cliffs. Removal of the defences can initially accelerate erosion between the old and new defences.

In 2015 rock defences that had been emplaced in 2005 were moved about 25m towards the cliff and soon after sheet-piling from 1950s wooden defences was removed. During the work a watching brief and drilling programme was funded to record surviving CF-bF deposits (Lewis 2018). However, little of the CF-bF survived in the zone between the new and old defences. In this particular case, the archaeological needs were considered too late in the planning process and consequently CF-bF deposits were probably destroyed prior to recording. Instead, 10 boreholes were drilled on the landward side of the new defences and provide an important record of the current distribution of CF-bF deposits in this area.


The combination of drilling and geophysics has helped to show not only the limits of the Site 1 and Site 3 channels, but also their possible projection inland. The Shoreline Management Plan (SMP6) estimated the possible extent of future cliff erosion over three time periods (2005–2030, 2030–2055, 2055–2105), which shows strips along the coast of about 100m, 50m and 50m for each time frame. Ashton et al. (2018) used this data to estimate the size of archaeologically sensitive areas under threat with the conclusion that there would be considerably more sediment loss at Site 3 compared to Site 1 (Figure 4).

Key Insights

The EH-funded CF-bF projects led to:

  • Identification of best methods of survey in onshore environments;
  • Successful mapping of channels on the foreshore;
  • Collection and collation of new mapping data in the offshore zone;
  • Possible identification through diving of the source of some beach finds;
  • Successful implementation of recovery and recording systems of material from the foreshore with selected collectors;
  • Identification of possible areas under future threat.

The projects also identified future needs:

  • Onshore geoarchaeological investigation at Happisburgh using coring and geophysics for better mapping of the archaeologically significant deposits.
  • Geophysical investigations in the Happisburgh to Eccles offshore zone to provide better seabed and sub-surface mapping of potential offshore sites. The area around the Monks is of particular interest.
  • Developing long-term links with local collectors and improving public awareness to monitor and record new finds of artefacts and fossils.
  • Better dialogue with the planning authorities to ensure access to CF-bF deposits prior to any new coastal work
  • Using the case study at Happisburgh to investigate and monitor other coastal exposures for a broader regional study of the CF-bF on the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts.


This work was co-directed with Simon Lewis and Simon Parfitt and with specialist contributions from Martin Bates, Richard Bates, Rachel Bynoe, Justin Dix, Peter Hoare and Fraser Sturt. We thank Historic England (formerly English Heritage) for funding this work through Project Grants 6234 and 6441.

Contributions were also made by the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project funded by the Leverhulme Trust and by the Pathways to Ancient Britain Project funded by the Calleva Foundation.

We are also grateful to North Norfolk District Council for logistical support, site access and permission to undertake the work. Finally, we thank the local community in Happisburgh for their interest and support of the project.


Ashton, N.M., Lewis, S.G., De Groote, I., Duffy, S., Bates, M.B. Bates, C.R., Hoare, P.G., Lewis, M., Parfitt, S.A., Peglar, S., Williams, C. & Stringer, C.B. 2014. 'Hominin footprints from Early Pleistocene deposits at Happisburgh, UK'. PLoS ONE 9(2): e88329.

Ashton, N.M., Lewis, S.G., Parfitt, S.A., Bates, M.R., Bates, C.R., Bynoe, R., Dix, J., Hoare, P.G. & Sturt, F. 2018. 'Understanding and Monitoring the Cromer forest-bed Formation'. English Heritage Projects 6234 and 6441. Management Report. Research Report Series 62-2018.

Ashton, N.M., Parfitt, S.A., Lewis, S.G., Coope, G.R. & Larkin, N. 2008. Happisburgh 1 (TG388307). In: I. Candy, J.R. Lee & A.M. Harrison (eds.) 'The Quaternary of Northern East Anglia'. Field Guide: 151–156. Quaternary Research Association: London.

Bynoe, R., Ashton, N.M., Grimmer, T., Hoare, P.G., Leonard, J., Lewis, S.G., Nicholas, D. & Parfitt, S. 2021. 'Coastal curios? An analysis of ex situ beach finds for mapping new Palaeolithic sites at Happisburgh, UK'. Journal of Quaternary Science 36(2): 191-210

Lee, J.R., Booth, S.J., Hamblin, R.J.O., Jarrow, A.M., Kessler, H., Moorlock, B.S.P., Morigi, A.N., Palmer, A., Pawley, S.M., Riding, J.B. & Rose, J. 2004. 'A new stratigraphy for the glacial deposits around Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth, North Walsham and Cromer, East Anglia, UK'. Bulletin of the Geological Society of Norfolk 53: 3–60.

Lewis, S.G. 2018. Appendix 1. 'An assessment of the impact of works to remove coastal defences on archaeologically significant deposits at Happisburgh'. In N.M. Ashton, S.G. Lewis, S.A. Parfitt, M.R. Bates, C.R. Bates, R. Bynoe, J. Dix, P.G. Hoare & F. Sturt Understanding and Monitoring the Cromer forest-bed Formation. English Heritage Projects 6234 and 6441. Management Report. Research Report Series 62-2018.

Lewis, S.G., Ashton, N.M., Field, M., Hoare, P., Kamermans, H., Knul, M., Mücher, J., Parfitt, S., Roebroeks, W. & Sier, M. 2019. 'Human occupation of northern Europe in MIS 13: Happisburgh Site 1 (Norfolk, UK) and its European context'. Quaternary Science Reviews 211: 34–58.

Moorlock, B.S.P., Hamblin, R.J.O., Booth, S.J. & Woods, M.A. 2002. 'Geology of the Mundesley and North Walsham district a brief explanation of the geological map'. Sheet Explanation of the British Geological Survey, 1:50 000 Series Sheets 132 and 148 Mundesley and North Walsham (England and Wales). British Geological Survey: Keyworth.

Parfitt, S.A., Ashton, N.M., Lewis, S.G., Abel, R.L., Coope, G.R., Field, M.H., Gale, R., Hoare, P.G., Larkin, N.R., Lewis, M.D., Karloukovski, V., Maher, B.A., Peglar, S.M., Preece, R.C., Whittaker, J.E. & Stringer, C.B. 2010. 'Early Pleistocene human occupation at the edge of the boreal zone in northwest Europe'. Nature 466: 229–233.

Parfitt, S.A., Barendregt, R.W., Breda, M., Candy, I., Collins, M.J., Coope, G.R., Durbidge, P., Field, M.H., Lee, J.R., Lister, A.M., Mutch, R., Penkman, K.E.H., Preece, R.C., Rose, J., Stringer, C.B., Symmons, R., Whittaker, J.E., Wymer, J.J. & Stuart A.J. 2005. 'The earliest record of human activity in Northern Europe'. Nature 438: 1008–1012.

Reid, C. 1890. 'The Pliocene Deposits of Britain'. Memoir of the Geological Survey: UK.

Wessex Archaeology 2008. 'Seabed Prehistory: Gauging the Effects of Marine Aggregate Dredging'. Final Report, volume VII, Happisburgh and Pakefield exposures. English Heritage: London.

West, R.G. 1980. 'The pre-glacial Pleistocene of the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts'. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.