Why the Old Stone Age Still Matters
Exploring the importance of evidence about early human activity in Britain.
The latest winner of the Current Archaeology 'Book of the Year' award is a volume entitled Lost Landscapes of Palaeolithic Britain.
This is gratifying not only in general terms, because the significance of the oldest and least visible part of our heritage can easily be overlooked, but also more personally, because the book was conceived and commissioned by Historic England.
Lost Landscapes was devised as a means of disseminating in an accessible way a decade of work on the Palaeolithic, carried out with funding from the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund (ASLF), that is otherwise chiefly available only as unpublished 'grey literature’. Many of the ALSF projects comprised studies to map, model and interpret deposits and finds of this period in areas subject to quarrying, hence the focus on landscapes.
Helping the sector
Since the book was published last year, our objectives have turned to producing updated advice and guidance on different aspects of Palaeolithic archaeology so that curators, contractors and consultants have the principles and case studies to hand that will help guide their responses to future planning applications and discoveries.
We think this is important because Palaeolithic archaeology is in some ways rather different to that of later periods: it is frequently deeply buried, contained in Pleistocene deposits that make up what most archaeologists would term 'the natural', and it is hard to spot, comprising scatters of stone tools and/or palaeoenvironmental deposits, rather than buildings or cut features.
Consequently, heritage professionals who are not Palaeolithic specialists may benefit from assistance in designing and carrying out assessments and evaluations.
Early humans in Britain
Of course this rather begs the question of why we should bother promoting the Palaeolithic, if its remains are so tenuous and hard to find.
The simple answer is that major finds are almost always internationally significant: the evidence of what makes us human, and why we are here at all. Almost one million years ago hominins probably belonging to a species called Homo antecessor left stone tools and footprints on a beach in Norfolk, the most northerly point on the planet that humans had yet reached. Half a million years later another type of early human, Homo heidelbergensis, used finely crafted handaxes to butcher animal carcasses on the south coast at Boxgrove. Neanderthals and modern humans followed, all four species part of the bigger picture of ebbs and flows in the human journey out of Africa.
The global human story
In recent years Pleistocene humans around the world have been much in the news, mainly because of astonishing new fossil discoveries, including the 'hobbits' of Indonesia (Homo floresiensis), the remarkably young remains of a 'primitive' form of human, named Homo naledi, from a cave in South Africa, and the equally notable remains of very ancient modern humans from Morocco. Just as newsworthy have been the results of DNA studies of modern people and ancient remains, which collectively demonstrate the extent of hybridisation between modern humans, Neanderthals and the mysterious 'Denisovans' during the last Ice Age, further complicating the story of human evolution.
Deep time and the present
Britain does not have many Pleistocene human remains but amidst the media hype for fossils and DNA it is important not to forget the bread and butter of archaeological research: the artefacts and ecofacts. Appreciating the aesthetics of a finely made handaxe reminds us of our shared humanity across and beyond our own species, while evidence for the butchery of mammoth or rhino bones evokes the challenges of living in environments that were very different to those of modern Britain.
The deep past continues to be relevant in today's world. It is pertinent to remember the human story common to us all, much evidence for which remains buried or submerged in those 'lost landscapes'
Dr Jonathan Last is an archaeologist specialising in prehistory. He has worked in various roles for English Heritage and Historic England since 2001. He is currently Landscape Strategy Manager in the Historic Places Investigation team.
Lost Landscapes of Palaeolithic Britain by Mark White and colleagues is available as a free download from the Oxford Archaeology website