The ancient Thames and the Lower Palaeolithic occupation of Britain
Stones may hold key to why we are here
January 28, 2004 10:06
They may not look like the greatest talkers, but these stones have a story to tell.
Hundreds of thousands of years ago they were washed down to East Anglia with a vast river that cut through the middle of England.
But what the experts are puzzling over today is where this river ran its course.
If they can plot its course and date it accurately, they could prove there were humans living in Britain 500,000 years ago and fill a gap in our pre-historic knowledge.
And a hand-axe discovered at Lakenheath in the 1800s could be the vital link they need.
This is part of an historical puzzle being pieced together by archaeologists across the country as part of the national Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) survey.
Yesterday, members of AHOB were at Maidscross Heath, Lakenheath in Suffolk, taking samples from the site of the ancient riverbed to help them track its course.
The site was chosen because there was already a hole there – it served as a quarry in the second world war – but also because antiquarian geologist RW Flower found a hand-axe on the heath in 1869.
In three pits made on Monday, the scientists have already found gravel deposits, which prove the river ran from the West Midlands down through Suffolk and Norfolk. Its course is lost in the sea at Yarmouth, but it would have gone on to meet other massive Continental rivers in a delta.
Archaeologist Nick Ashton, the British Museum's senior curator in the department of pre-history and Europe, said they are trying to look at when humans were here and what kind of climate they were living in.
The evidence suggests the hand-axe found at Lakenheath was probably carried onto the site by the river from somewhere else in England.
"There is a huge gap in human occupation between 250,000 and 60,000 years ago. There seems to be a complete absence of humans in Britain – probably because of the creation of the English Channel.
"This site is really quite exciting as it proves the first human occupation was ½million years ago, and could have been slightly earlier.
"We are looking at dating this site. The hand-axe found by Flower is slightly rolled smooth, caused by it rolling in river gravel. This (site) would not have been where it was made. The axe could have been eroded out of an even earlier deposit, which means it is at least ½million years old, possibly even 600,000 years old," he added.
Simon Lewis, a lecturer at Queen Mary College of London, said this river bed was an exciting find.
"We're here because Maidscross Heath is an area we don't know much about geologically. The river sequence in this area is a very important part of the development of East Anglia.
"Drainage altered beyond recognition during glaciation 450,000 years ago."
At that time the River Thames flowed through Suffolk and Essex, but it was diverted to its present course by the pressure of the ice. That ice sheet covered the Lakenheath site and its deposits were destructive, eventually carving out the Wash and the Fens.
"We are looking at sites like these in Norfolk and Suffolk, trying to recognise certain distinguishing things in the river deposits," said Dr Lewis.
At Lakenheath there is evidence of quartzite and quartz that has travelled from a very old deposit in the West Midlands.
Sites with similar deposits run south to Ingham, near Bury St Edmunds, through central Suffolk near the Waveney Valley into eastern Suffolk and then Norfolk, said Dr Lewis.
"Lakenheath is a fragment of this river's story. It flowed out across to Great Yarmouth and out to a massive delta where it met the Rhine and other large continental rivers," he said.
Specialists from several institutes and universities across the country are working together to investigate when people first arrived in Britain, and what factors led to their survival.