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Pleistocene and Early Holocene Archaeology NHPP Activity 4G1

Research carried out 2011-2015 on understanding the significance and management issues of the very ancient and fragile heritage of the first human colonisers of Britain. This work formed part of the National Heritage Protection Plan.

A handaxe from Dunbridge, Hampshire: EH funded recording work by Wessex Archaeology
A handaxe from Dunbridge, Hampshire: EH funded recording work by Wessex Archaeology © English Heritage and Wessex 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 NHPP Activity, along with its sister Activity 3A3, therefore covers over 99% of the history of England in chronological terms, down to the end of the Mesolithic about 6000 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.

Alongside work to establish approaches to predict where Palaeolithic and Mesolithic evidence is likely to be found (see Activity 3A3), we developed the framework for assessing the significance of ancient sites, which present challenges in developing protection and management.

Protection results

Designation (scheduling) is not at present a viable means of protecting most Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites (see the selection guide for Sites of Early Human Activity). Instead, the projects in Activity 4G1 aimed to ensure that the significance of early prehistoric deposits and their palaeoenvironmental context is recognised appropriately, and to improve their consideration within the planning process.

Projects in activity 4G1

Review of the Mesolithic of the wetland/dryland edge

The most significant areas for Early Holocene archaeology in England are those landscapes where settlement material may be directly associated with palaeoenvironmental evidence. We commissioned two projects to synthesise published and unpublished work in areas of high potential under development pressure or at risk from other processes, and undertake targeted fieldwork to map sedimentary potential for stratified Mesolithic sites on the wetland/dryland edge. We also co-funded a PhD project on a similar theme (see below).
Environmental Change and Human Activities at the Dryland-Wetland Interface During the Mesolithic

This PhD research project at Reading University aimed to improve understanding of the relationship between Mesolithic archaeological sites in Surrey and their landscape setting, and enhance knowledge of the environmental impact and context of Mesolithic human activities. Surrey is rich in Mesolithic archaeology and preliminary studies suggest a clear relationship between human activities at the interface between the dry land and wetlands e.g. former mounds caused by groundwater pressure (known as pingos) and valley mires.

The research aimed to compile a fully integrated archaeological and palaeoenvironmental database permitting analysis of spatial and temporal relationships using GIS. Field investigations will collected samples for laboratory analysis from wetlands adjacent to key Mesolithic archaeological sites.

The Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic in the Middle Kennet Valley

This project developed approaches to predicting the survival and potential of early prehistoric land-surfaces and remains, using the Middle Kennet Valley, Berkshire, as a case study. The results aid assessments of the significance and distribution of Late Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sedimentary deposits and palaeoenvironmental preservation (waterlogged remains, pollen and archaeozoological material).

Initially, data relating to archaeology, sediments, palaeoenvironment and geochronology was brought together in a GIS, allowing spatial relationships between archaeological remains and sedimentary units to be assessed. A predictive model of where archaeologically rich deposits may be found within the study area was then tested and refined through borehole and geophysical survey, accompanied by a programme of radiocarbon dating.

An image of a reconstruction drawing showing an artists impression of a group of mesolithic foragers
This reconstruction of Mesolithic foragers was produced for the 'Unlocking the Past' project in Worcestershire, funded by the ALSF © Worcestershire County Council

Palaeolithic and Mesolithic HER enhancement

In order to flag up the relevance of early prehistoric research to developers, heritage managers and others involved in the planning process, this information must reach the sources of data that they would normally consult: especially the relevant Historic Environment Records (HERs). This applies to both new projects and existing collections; it needs to include archaeology (stone tools), deposit mapping and geoconservation/palaeoenvironmental sites. We therefore commissioned a number of projects to enhance the representation of early prehistory on HERs and held an e-conference to discuss improving terminologies for recording evidence of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods.

Enhancing the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic records of the South Yorkshire SMR

The project, aimed to enhance the information held by the South Yorkshire Sites and Monuments Record (SMR) relating to known and potential Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites and find-spots within the county by collating information from other data sets or documentary sources and producing GIS-based maps highlighting areas of potential. South Yorkshire contains a number of distinct landscape types in which there is high potential for the survival of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic remains, primarily in the low-lying, seasonally waterlogged areas on the eastern side of the county and the upland areas on the county’s western side, especially within the Peak District National Park. Despite this clear potential, threats to the condition and survival of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites from commercial development and extensive peat erosion are very real.

The project was undertaken by West Yorkshire Archaeological Services with support from South Yorkshire Archaeology Service. Further information is available from the project blog.

Enhancement of Early Prehistoric information within the Norfolk HER

This project included the enhancement of over 2,250 existing HER records relating to early prehistoric sites and finds in Norfolk, as well as the integration into the Norfolk HER of new written, photographic and spatial information from museum collections, the J.J. Wymer archive and the excavations at Happisburgh. A targeted programme of outreach raised public awareness of Norfolk’s internationally significant early prehistoric past, and further facilitate artefact reporting in areas of high archaeological potential. Norfolk County Council undertook this project.

Putting the Palaeolithic into Worcestershire's HER

Worcestershire, like the majority of the West Midlands, is not considered a focal point for the study of the Palaeolithic. Despite this, discoveries of Palaeolithic artefactual and palaeoenvironmental remains within the county and the wider West Midlands have shown that the area has the potential to contribute to national and international research aims for the period. However, because research on the Palaeolithic is carried out by Quaternary scientists or archaeologists with specialist knowledge of Quaternary science the reports are difficult for non-specialists to assess. The result is that Palaeolithic archaeology was poorly represented on the HER and as such was often poorly protected through the planning process. The project aimed to take this specialist information, update it based on recent evidence and new interpretations, and place it within the HER in such a way that it can be interpreted and used by non-specialists.

Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service carried out the project.

Managing the Essex Pleistocene

The project aimed to create a predictive model by which the potential for survival of Palaeolithic archaeology within any given area of Essex can be quickly assessed, and its nature and significance understood. This will be used to influence strategic plan-making and respond to development. The Project utilised existing and new GIS datasets, synthesised the results of relevant ALSF projects and incorporated new potential Local Geological Sites (LGS). The project aimed to demonstrate how a GIS resource can be used by non-specialists to inform understanding of the Palaeolithic resource.

Essex County Council carried out the project and you can see their resulting report on Managing the Essex Pleictocene.

Links with other activities

This activity was closely linked to Activity 3A3 on identifying the heritage of early humans.

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

Archaeologists taking a core of deposits
Coring to investigate Mesolithic deposits at Victoria Park, Newbury, as part of the Kennet Valley project © Photograph by Cathie Barnett.
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