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NHPP Activity 3A3 Deeply Buried / Subterranean Pleistocene and Early Holocene Archaeology

Research carried out 2011-2015, focused on locating the traces of the earliest people to colonise Britain.

Cover image of the Mesolithic Research and Conservation Framework 2013
A National Heritage Protection Plan project has produced a Research and Conservation Framework for the Mesolithic period, to complement the existing Framework for the Palaeolithic. © Historic England, The University of York, Council for British Archaeology

Scope of the activity

Following recent finds on the Norfolk coast, we now know that the early human occupation of Britain spans nearly a million years; this research therefore covered over 99% of the history of England in chronological terms, down to the end of the Mesolithic about 6,000 years ago. However, the record is intermittent and frequently sparse; very ancient sites of human activity are often deeply buried and found by chance, for example through quarrying or coastal erosion. Others may be closer to the surface, e.g. flint scatters, but are equally fragile or ephemeral.

Through the following projects, we worked towards developing models for predicting areas of high potential for such remains, techniques for location and recording, and partnerships with industry and other agencies to ensure reporting of finds.

Protection results

Designation through scheduling is not at present a viable means of protecting most Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites because most will not have structures associated with them (see the Designation selection guide for Sites of Early Human Activity below). Instead, the projects in Activity 3A3 synthesised current knowledge and develop techniques to understand where the most significant remains are likely to occur.

Archaeologists using a sieve to search for small finds
Fieldwork in the Stour Basin, Kent, included sieving for artefacts at Chislet Court Farm © Photograph courtesy of Francis Wenban-Smith

Projects in this activity

Review of Palaeolithic research: Lost Landscapes of Palaeolithic Britain 

Our knowledge of the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic periods in Britain (circa 900,000-40,000 BP) has been transformed by recent research and reporting initiatives, particularly ten years of work funded by the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund (ALSF), which is now closed. 
We have funded publication of a book about this research, published in the Oxford Archaeology Monograph series, entitled Lost Landscapes of Palaeolithic Britain. This volume makes the research more accessible to heritage professionals who are not specilists in the Palaeolithic period and contextualises it in relation to other research, notably the Ancient Human Origins of Britain (AHOB) project. We have developed priorities for future work through analysis of what has been achieved.

The Mesolithic (circa 9500-4000 cal BC) has often appeared to be the ‘Cinderella’ period of British prehistory, lacking the visually impressive monuments that characterise the Neolithic period or the Quaternary science context that underpins Palaeolithic research. Yet it is a phase of our history that spans some 5,000 years and contains internationally important sites, such as Starr Carr.

A recent survey of 'grey literature' reports has highlighted the extent and variety of Mesolithic archaeology across England. In order to define priorities for understanding and protecting Mesolithic sites and landscapes, and to help raise the profile of the period, we developed a new Research and Conservation Framework, comparable to the Palaeolithic period research framework published in 2008.

The Framework document was produced by York University and published by the CBA in autumn 2013. You can access a digital version of the Mesolithic Framework via the Archaeology Data Service website

Coastal exposures project

The cliffs of the East Anglian coast preserve a unique record of sediments, some of which have produced flint artefacts documenting the earliest known occupation of northern Europe. This internationally important resource is both complex and fragile, located on one of the fastest eroding coastlines in Britain and spanning terrestrial, intertidal and marine contexts. In order to manage it effectively we needed better understanding of the potential of the deposits and of the threats posed by the coastal environment.
We funded mapping and modelling of deposits across the present intertidal zone and the development of a finds reporting network to ensure that discoveries made on beaches with Cromer Forest-Bed exposures are recorded appropriately.
A consortium led by the British Museum is undertook these projects. The finds reporting project was completed in summer 2014. Find out more from the project website.

Contemporary photographic image showing coastal erosion at Happisburgh, Norfolk.
Coastal erosion at Happisburgh, Norfolk emphasising the need for better understanding and monitoring of the Palaeolithic evidence resource. © J. Last and Historic England

The colonisation of Britain by modern humans

This project involved the development of an online database (nicknamed Pamela) of finds from the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods, based on the archive of the late Roger Jacobi. It helps determine management decisions and research priorities.

Wessex Archaeology carried out the project. You can access the database of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Lithic Artefacts via the Archaeology Data Service website.  

North Peak environmentally sensitive area

This project was about publishing the results of a survey of Mesolithic findspots and modern erosion on the high gritstone moorland of the North Peak area of Derbyshire. It will help us to understand and manage fragile peat deposits and the archaeology they protect.

The project was carried out by the Peak District National Park Authority. The report has now been written.

image of information sheet on Palaeolithic finds identification produced by the National Ice Age Network
Information sheet on the identification of Palaeolithic finds produced by the National Ice Age Network. Guidance development was included in several projects within NHPP Activities 3A3 and 4G1 © University of Birmingham

Boxgrove Raised Beach mapping project

This project (also known as the Boxgrove Wider Area project) aims to map the ancient cliff-line (raised beach formation) around the Lower Palaeolithic site at Boxgrove, in order to help the research and management of this internationally significant resource.

University College London conducted the project.

Links with other activities

This Activity was closely linked to the Measure 4 Activity 4G1, which dealt with understanding the significance of known archaeology of the same period.

In addition, work in this area linked to projects undertaken within other NHPP Activities including:

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