Putting the Palaeolithic into Worcestershire’s HER

Andy Shaw (Wessex Archaeology Ltd)

Executive Summary

Worcestershire HER: updating record of extant Palaeolithic artefacts and extent of Pleistocene deposits, enabling (i) curators to identify deposits impacted by development, and (ii) targeted future interventions

Worcestershire, like most of the West Midlands, is not a focal point for the study of the Palaeolithic, with the focus being on the East and South-East of England. Despite this, discoveries of Palaeolithic artefacts and palaeoenvironmental remains within the county and the wider West Midlands have shown that the area has datasets that can contribute to national and international research questions.

Quantification and interpretation of these records has been hampered by poor baseline geoarchaeological datasets (artefacts and palaeoenvironmental evidence) and a lack of integration between these and British Geological Survey (BGS) mapping of Pleistocene deposits. This has resulted in difficulties identifying Pleistocene deposits with Palaeolithic potential that may be impacted on by development, resulting in Palaeolithic archaeology being poorly represented and protected through the planning process in Worcestershire. This project was a response to these issues.

It took extant information, updated it based on recent evidence and new interpretations, and placed it within the Historic Environment Record (HER), to allow curators to identify Pleistocene deposits being impacted by development and to allow future Pleistocene geoarchaeological interventions to be clearly justified and targeted.


Where: Worcestershire
Region: West Midlands & North
Palaeolithic period(s): all
Type of investigation: HER enhancement
Methods: Literature review; re-assessment of lithic and faunal collections; HER updating; GIS mapping and modelling
Type(s) of deposit: River terrace deposits; Colluvial and solifluction deposits
Features of interest: Enhancement of HER, enabling utilisation as tool to inform curators on areas of possible Palaeolithic potential

Project stages
  • Desk based assessment
  • Literature/mapping review (DBA)
  • Final Report
  • Deposit with HER and museum (and Oasis)
  • Publication (academic and/or public)

The project consisted of three phases. These were as follows:

  • Phase 1: Enhancement of the Palaeolithic in the HER – literature review, validating datasets, incorporation of datasets within the HER
  • Phase 2: Production of toolkit
  • Phase 3: Dissemination.

These phases were enacted as follows:

  • Phase 1: 04/2013-09/2013
  • Phase 2: 09/2013-11/2013
  • Phase 3: 11/2013-03/2014
  • Phase 3 (additional outputs): 04/2015-08/2015.

Archaeological Context

The origins of the project lay within the Shotton Project (Buteux et al. 2005). Funded by the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund (ASLF), this aimed to promote the Palaeolithic in the Midlands by raising public, curatorial and academic awareness. It recognised that curating the Palaeolithic resource in the Midlands required effective incorporation of archaeological and palaeoenvironmental data into the region’s HERs.

As an unfunded addition to the Shotton Project, Worcestershire HER staff worked with Quaternary scientists to classify the Pleistocene river terraces in Worcestershire (as mapped by the BGS) into dated groups, making the geological data more accessible to non-specialists (Buteux et al. 2005: 42–50).

Some new sites were also added onto the HER (Lang et al. 2008), but lack of funds meant that a comprehensive and systematic catalogue of all Palaeolithic material from the county could not be undertaken. The Putting the Palaeolithic into Worcestershire’s HER Project aimed to address this.

The project was funded by English Heritage as part of a wider programme aimed at rationalising and improving coverage of datasets in HER’s. The project design was a response to the National Heritage Protection Plan Call for Proposals (NHPP 4G1: Pleistocene and Early Holocene Archaeology; 6396: Palaeolithic and Mesolithic HER Enhancement 4G1.401), an objective of which is to make ‘sure that HERs contain accurate information about the nature, distribution and extent of early prehistoric sites; that the extent of deeply buried Pleistocene deposits with potential for Palaeolithic remains is mapped; and that palaeoenvironmental records are included’ (English Heritage 2012).

Where previously it had been difficult to present a cogent argument in the context of the National Planning Policy Framework, the project aimed to draw together extant datasets and develop a toolkit which could be used to guide Palaeolithic geoarchaeological interventions through the planning system.

The project was designed and implemented by Worcestershire County Council Archive and Archaeology Service (WAAS), with specialist input from Dr Andrew Shaw.

Methodology & Research Questions

The specific objectives were to:

  • Enhance understanding of the nature and variety of Pleistocene deposits and Palaeolithic archaeology in Worcestershire
  • Spatially define the presence of Pleistocene deposits
  • Utilise the HER as an evidence base for Palaeolithic archaeology in Worcestershire and develop it as a tool to aid curation of the Pleistocene resource
  • Provide a toolkit that archaeological advisory staff can use to ensure better protection and management of Palaeolithic archaeology and associated deposits.

Phase 1: Enhancement of the Palaeolithic in the HER

  • Literature review
    This utilised a wide variety of journals, publications, online resources and grey literature. Academic journals and publications were reviewed as part of this; these are often difficult to access in planning and commercial sectors as they are rarely deposited with HERs and are frequently inaccessible behind paywalls.
  • Validating datasets
    The base geological data used for the project was the 2013 British Geological survey mapping.

    The assessment of artefact collections was undertaken by Dr Andrew Shaw. Local and national museums were contacted to provide a list of Palaeolithic material in their collections. It is likely that the resulting catalogue of lithic artefacts is incomplete, as many museum collections have not been assessed by a specialist and misidentifications are probable. Nevertheless, over 250 pieces were assessed, 224 of which were identified as being Palaeolithic (Figure 1). The majority (213) were from the British Museum’s Whitehead collection, which has an associated catalogue with 6 or 8 figure grid references and notes on contexts. All but two of the remaining artefacts had grid references, but little contextual information.

    During the work a catalogue of Pleistocene faunal material collected from the region was identified in the British Museum, the collection itself being in the Natural History Museum. This unexpectedly gave the project access to records of over 2000 Pleistocene faunal remains. A variation in the project design was successfully requested from English Heritage to incorporate this dataset into the project GIS.
  • Incorporation of datasets within the HER
    To create and map records within the HER, new find-spots were created and existing ones updated. Artefactual and faunal material were spatially located within the GIS and given linked records in the HER database. These took the form of Event records that artefacts were then ‘hung from’. In many cases this resulted in a single find being related to a single Event. Rather than grouping artefacts into larger Events, this approach allowed the specific positional data of each artefact to be maintained (Figure 2).

    Areas of Palaeolithic potential were then modelled (Figure 3). This was achieved by using polygons taken from the British Geological Survey (BGS) data which were overlaid with the enhanced HER entries and merged into one polygon per member/deposit. Using this method, the project created 21 areas of Palaeolithic potential, each of which has an entry within the HER’s Geology layer. No scoring system for the areas of potential was given due to the high degree of uncertainty within the data and the fact that scoring would give false weighting of some areas over others with unquantifiable, but possibly equal or greater, potential.

Click to view the full image and then zoom in for more detail

Phase 2: Production of toolkit

The polygonised areas of potential, with supporting evidence, form the basis of the Palaeolithic Toolkit. This was designed to advise local planning authorities and archaeological contractors of the potential Palaeolithic deposits in Worcestershire.

It provides a brief background to the HER data for the Palaeolithic and guidelines on how to use it. Each period (individual Marine Isotope Stages) is represented by thematic text ‘setting the scene’ within Worcestershire; these reside as ‘Themes’ in the HER. There are direct links from these themes to the HER and GIS data, allowing a user to read the overview and then look at specific sites and phases.

The toolkit aims to highlight the potential and significance of Palaeolithic deposits. It includes short chronological synopses based on the data to give an overview of each period (including date, climate, flora and fauna, human presence) and defines the significance of the Palaeolithic deposits within a regional and national context. The toolkit and report are available online.

Phase 3: Dissemination

The toolkit and training sessions were formulated as online resources, which allows wide exposure and for it to be updated easily.

At the end of the project a project report was produced (Daffern and Russell 2014). An updated project design was also provided at the request of English Heritage to further disseminate the results.

Two articles re-evaluating the Palaeolithic archaeological record in Worcestershire (Shaw et al. 2015) and discussing the project methodology and results (Russell et al. 2018) have been published.

A planning guidance document titled ‘Palaeolithic research in Worcestershire: future work and research priorities’ has also been produced.

The project formed the basis for a successful Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant (Lost Landscapes of Worcestershire) awarded to Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service (WAAS), in partnership with Museums Worcestershire, to deliver events and exhibitions exploring the Palaeolithic archaeology of the West Midlands, culminating in exhibitions in The Hive and Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum in summer 2018.

Additional funding from West Midlands Museums Development has allowed the development of a touring exhibition at local museums.

Results and Significance

The project has enabled a reappraisal of extant Palaeolithic datasets in Worcestershire and the current biases and limitations of these datasets to be assessed.

These datasets have been used to significantly enhance Worcestershire’s HER, allowing it to be utilised as a tool to inform curators on areas of possible Palaeolithic potential. Areas of Palaeolithic potential have been defined, based on both extant artefacts and ecofacts, and the deposits present. The latter were mapped using BGS geological data as the base polygons for the areas.

The evidence gathered for Palaeolithic activity within Worcestershire was compared against the BGS data to show which deposits, geological members and terraces were associated with Palaeolithic deposits. There is much of Worcestershire where there has been no or very little impact on these deposits and as such the Palaeolithic data is sparse. In such regions the Palaeolithic potential is based on the nature of the deposits, rather than the presence or absence of extant datasets. This demonstrates the difficulties inherent in quantifying Palaeolithic potential based on extant ‘finds’ alone.

The results of the project have been used to inform Worcestershire's Emerging Minerals Local Plan. In the first phase of identifying potential future aggregate sites, all the options were assessed against the GIS data of Palaeolithic potential. This allowed the deposits which could be impacted to be assessed, giving minerals planners the ability to make more informed decisions.

Curatorial Perspective

The research carried out as part of the Historic England-funded project completely changed my understanding of the Palaeolithic in Worcestershire and the wider West Midlands. Having a consistent evidence base that includes not just known artefacts but details of potential is invaluable, particularly for a county that has comparatively little known artefactual evidence.

We now have the ability to target fieldwork because we have that evidence base. The project also educated me on the archaeological techniques that would be most appropriate for locating and understanding Palaeolithic archaeology and Pleistocene deposits.


This project demonstrates that with a relatively small budget and a clearly structured, simple methodology existing datasets can be used to very effectively enhance the Palaeolithic within a HER, allowing curators to identify areas with possible Palaeolithic potential. It has also greatly improved our understanding of the Palaeolithic artefactual record of the West Midlands. The project also demonstrates that such projects can act as catalysts for further funding to disseminate greater understanding of the Palaeolithic.

The project also highlights the limitations of using extant artefact and palaeoenvironmental datasets to model Palaeolithic potential. Whilst these allow the possible significance of deposits to be assessed, complexities and limitations within datasets do not allow robust, quantitative predictive models of Palaeolithic potential to be produced. Simply put, the BGS mapping allows areas with possible potential to be identified and extant geoarchaeological datasets provide some indication of a deposit’s regional and national significance: however, only targeted field evaluation allows Palaeolithic potential to be fully quantified at an individual locale.

In summary, this project demonstrates that extant data sources can be very successfully used to identify areas with possible Palaeolithic potential, and the evidence base generated by this project enables future fieldwork in Worcestershire to be targeted. Up-to-date HER records, which include both known Palaeolithic artefact findspots and Pleistocene deposits, provide accurate information to inform desk-based assessment. This enables the need for Palaeolithic archaeological and geoarchaeological evaluation to be highlighted early in the planning process.

Quantifying potential requires proportional and targeted field evaluation; this should include both sampling for artefacts and the recovery of suitable datasets for palaeoenvironmental assessment. Potential and risk can then be quantified and, should it prove necessary, appropriate mitigation strategies proposed.


Buteux, S.T.E., Keen, D.H. and Lang, A.T.O. 2005. 'Resource Assessment – The Shotton Project'. University of Birmingham.

Daffern, N. and Russell, O.K. 2014. 'Putting the Palaeolithic into Worcestershire's HER: creating an evidence base and toolkit Final Report and Assessment'. Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service: Worcestershire County Council and English Heritage.

Lang, A., Lockett, N., Bryant, V. and Hancox, E. 2008. 'Bringing the Quaternary into focus: a model for providing specialist information to non-specialist users'. Quaternary Newsletter 115: 2–13.

Russell, O., Daffern, N., Hancox. E. and Nash, A. 2018. 'Putting the Palaeolithic into Worcestershire’s HER: An evidence base for development management'. Internet Archaeology 47

Shaw, A.D., Daffern, N. and Russell, O. 2015. 'The Palaeolithic in Worcestershire, UK'. Lithics: The Journal of the Lithic Studies Society 36: 41–54.