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Britain’s deeper human history

Replica of the Happisburgh axe above the beach where it was found. Replica of the Happisburgh axe above the beach where it was found. Tom Hart
19 Feb
A vanishing UK coastline reveals a deeper human history

Around 500,000 years ago, the early human species Heidelberg Man was in Norfolk, and he was eating well.

Evidence for Heidelberg Man’s presence in Britain came during a dog walk on the beach at the Norfolk village of Happisburgh. ‘When the walker found the object he had no idea it would be as important as it became,’ says John Davies, chief curator at the Norfolk Museum service.

At that point all the walker had found was an unusual black object sticking up in the sand. ‘The archaeologists realised that the object was man-made at once. Straight lines, after all, don’t occur in nature,’ says Davies.

This was the Happisburgh hand-axe, a versatile tool for a Heidelberg Man keen to butcher, cut and chop animal remains A retiree working for the museum service was able to identify the find’s significance at once. Similar objects had previously turned up in the museum, but without the geological context. The axe had ancient mud and organic matter around it. This meant it was possible to date the find to 500,000 years ago, evidence for very early human activity in northern Europe.

P2118330Somewhere under this beach there’s a lot of human history (Image: Tom Hart)

‘Not bad condition considering it has had a glacier on top of it,’ says David Waterhouse, curator of natural history at the Norfolk Museum Service.

Axe technology was stable. Very stable. When Tim Pestell, senior curator of archaeology for the Norfolk Museum Service, holds up a similar axe made 30,000 years ago it’s hard to tell the difference. To be fair to Heidelberg Man’s creativity, evidence from South Africa suggests that the species could construct more sophisticated tools like spears.

Heidelberg Man had a few other known characteristics. ‘There is evidence of cannibalism in this species,’ says Davies. ‘It may have been ritualistic as there was food around. Further into Europe there are signs of language, and the use of fire.’

When found, the Happisburgh axe was in a dangerous position; worms were already breaking small chips off. Once rescued from the beach, the axe became one element in a six-year project to excavate the beach at Happisburgh, a project that led to the discovery of even deeper history on the coast – footprints dated to around 800,000 years ago. These were made by Homo antecessor, a human species senior to Heidelberg Man. And, as with so much on the Norfolk coastline, the sea wiped away the footprints after two weeks.

P2118338The Cromer Forest bed formation was laid down 700,000 years ago (Image: Tom Hart)

The excavation project at Happisburgh dug up to two metres beneath the beach using mechanical diggers, moving tons of sand and gravel layers. Although work concluded in 2010 there are still valuable pickings. Just last week, for instance, fossilised deer footprints were found.

‘We’d love to be out here everyday, but it’s more about a network of people,’ says Waterhouse. ‘There are what might be called super volunteers that the British Museum and Natural History Museum have under their wing. They have cameras with GPS, and take a pictures of finds in situ. The object is recorded exactly where it is found.’ Finding objects might be relatively easy, but it’s less useful without the geological context.

Norfolk’s receding coast might be unhappy news for current humans, but as the coast falls back, the country’s deep history will be further uncovered.

Visit Norfolk has more information on the Deep History Coast

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