Come to north-east Norfolk’s unique Deep History Coast, cradle of British civilisation, and walk in the footsteps left by the UK’s first tourists nearly one million years ago. Yes, in Norfolk!
This is the land that has changed our understanding of pre-prehistoric times (hence Deep History – this is Earth’s equivalent of Deep Space), containing the most important archaeological site in Western Europe, the best preserved Neanderthal site in the country and the only county where evidence of four species of human have been found.
This is where, pre-Ice Age, a land mass connected Britain to the Continent, and 850,000-year-old footprints, the oldest evidence of humans outside Africa’s Great Rift Valley, have been left at Happisburgh by our first visitors, nomads hunting mammoths, bison, rhinos and deer – if they could get them before the lions and hyaenas.
The find came purely by chance in 2013, when a team of British Museum, Natural History Museum and Queen Mary University of London scientists were conducting a geophysics survey on the shoreline, which had just been scoured by high seas to reveal estuary mud.
This area would have been a great plain – similar to East Africa’s Serengeti – that was grazed by animals similar to those still found in Africa and the footmarks were in what would have been an estuary of a river system that flowed into the North Sea and included the Thames (yes, the Thames used to be in Norfolk!) which was fed by an extinct river called the Bytham from the Midlands.
Using 3-D photography the hollows revealed in the mud were found to be the marks of heels and toes – five people, adults and children, the tallest standing at 5ft 9in. It’s thought the nomads were perhaps pausing to gather plants or shellfish.
The link to the European mainland, known as Doggerland, was lost only after the final thawing of the Ice Age as late as 7,000 years ago. At the time Doggerland separated The Thames estuary and the southern North Sea.
Who knows what you might find for yourself beachcombing on Norfolk’s ever-changing Deep History Coast, 16 miles from West Runton to Happisburgh via Cromer’s chalk reef (the reason Cromer crab is so sweet), the Cromer Ridge (the highest point in East Anglia – yes, really!) and prehistoric Cromer Forest-bed which stretches from Weybourne to Pakefield in Suffolk. There are more than 20,000 fossil finds a year!
PS Norfolk is also the only county in the UK where evidence has been found of the four human species – Homo antecessor, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis, and our own species Homo sapiens.
The Happisburgh hand axe – the ‘i-axe’ of its day
A little later, at around 550,000 years ago, a flint hand axe was made that was also found at Happisburgh. The Palaeolithic tool had been preserved in a dense peaty deposit in a former forest. Discovered by a dog-walker in 2000, it led to other even older significant tool and bone finds at a spot that gives up its secrets as coastal erosion takes hold.
At the time this find pushed back the evidence for human colonisation this far north by at least 100,000 years.
The flint tool – which can be seen at Norwich Castle Museum – was cutting edge technology of its time, the Swiss Army knife of its day. Some objects are so important they change our knowledge of human history – and this is one.
Analysis of pollen in the silt allows us to build a picture of temperate woodland with pine, alder, oak, elm and hornbeam in evidence at the time the handaxe was made. At this time the land here would have had lions, giant hippos and mammoths roaming.
Look out for chunks of amber that are sometimes found here, some as large as a fist.
The West Runton Mammoth – not a woolly story
Dated around 600,000 years ago is the West Runton Mammoth (it wasn’t a woolly one); the most complete specimen of the species to have been found in the world and the oldest mammoth skeleton to have been found in the UK.
The pelvic bone of this large elephant was found at the bottom of cliffs by West Runton couple Harold and Margaret Hems in December 1990 after a weather-ravaged night.
A year later, another storm revealed more bones and in January 1992 an exploratory dig was carried out, followed by a three-month excavation in 1995. It unearthed the most complete skeleton of a mammoth, from the species Mammuthus trogontherii – the Steppe Mammoth. Eighty five per cent of it was there – with the only missing bits having been nibbled off by scavenging hyaenas (some of the bones have hyaena bitemarks and fossilised hyaena poo has been dissected and found to contain mammoth bone!). At 4m tall at the shoulder, and weighing 10 tonnes, it is the biggest elephant skeleton ever found, and twice as large as anything found on the Jurassic Coast.
You can now see some of it in Cromer Museum, Norwich Castle Museum and the mighty skull, tusks and more bones are in The Norfolk Collections Centre at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse (above).
Rhino teeth and bones have also been found in the West Runton Freshwater Bed.
The remains of a Woolly Mammoth butchery have been found in Lynford in the Brecks, and at nearby West Tofts, a 250,000-year old flint handaxe was found that features a fossil scallop shell in its centre. The artefact’s maker had carefully chipped around the fossil so it sat undamaged in the centre of the axe – an early example of artistic awareness.
You can see how Cromer’s geology is of international importance here.
Cromer Forest-bed Fossil project.
More recently, just 21 centuries before Christ, in other words 4200 years ago, Seahenge was created (compared to the finds above, Seahenge was practically yesterday!)
Found on the beach at Holme-next-the-Sea, near the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Holme Dunes, close to Hunstanton, after tidal surges in Spring 1998, like Stonehenge it was constructed in circles, although Seahenge was made of tree trunks, and both probably had religious or ritualistic purposes. Seahenge, one of Norfolk’s 7 Wonders, can now be seen in a museum, at King’s Lynn.
Originally constructed inland, Seahenge had an inverted tree trunk at the centre of an oval 56-post enclosure.
Archaeologists clashed with protestors when they began removing the Bronze Age timbers from the beach. They found the oak trees were felled in 2049BC and by analysing axe marks found society was more advanced than had been believed, because metal tools were commonplace.