South West England – Lower and Middle Palaeolithic Archaeology (c.700,000–40,000 BP)

The South West contains a diverse variety of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology of differing degrees of significance. This reflects the nature of the archaeological material itself, the histories of research in different parts of the region and, with regard to the Palaeolithic period, the differential preservation of Pleistocene landforms and deposits throughout the region. One of the key features of the Palaeolithic archaeology is the presence of a significant cave-based resource in south Devon and northern Somerset.


In terms of an open-landscape Palaeolithic record, there is an inevitable bias towards those areas with both appropriate deposits and a history of active research and collection.

The Mesolithic archaeology of the region is also geographically variable, with a particularly rich record in the Somerset area (reflecting a strong research focus upon both the Mendip caves and Somerset Levels) when compared to the more minor record from the west of the region (Devon and Cornwall).

For the Palaeolithic periods the open-landscape archaeology is dominated by lithic scatters (predominantly of deeply buried artefacts, frequently in fluvial deposits, and particularly true in the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic), although occupation sites such as Hengistbury Head (Barton 1992) and Kent’s Cavern (Campbell and Sampson 1971) are also present.

Overall, the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology of this region is generally rather poorly known, reflecting an absence of robust geochronological frameworks, the predominance of research into a handful of cave and open sites over the lithic scatter
resource (whether located on the surface or deeply buried) and the absence of any major syntheses.


Chronology The Palaeolithic and Mesolithic fall within the Quaternary Period, the most recent subdivision of the geological record. The Quaternary is divided into the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs, and the Late Upper Palaeolithic to Early Mesolithic transition at c.10,000 BP broadly marks the start of the Holocene. The chronology of the British Palaeolithic and Mesolithic is discussed here in terms of oxygen isotope stages (OIS, also known as marine isotope stages, MIS) for the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic
(c.700,000–40,000 BP), while the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods (c.40,000–5500 BP) are discussed with reference to named sub-stages of the Devensian and the Holocene, reflecting the nature of existing geochronological schemes.

The earliest occupation of Britain has typically been considered to date to c.500,000 BP. However, recent discoveries from the Cromer Forest-bed formation at Pakefield on the Suffolk coast (Parfitt et al. 2005) have indicated that the earliest hominin presence dates back to either c.680,000 BP (OIS 17) or c.750,000 BP (OIS 19).

The key periods can be defined as follows:

Lower Palaeolithic 700,000–250/200,000 BP
Middle Palaeolithic 250/200,000–40,000 BP
Upper Palaeolithic 40,000–10,000 BP
Early Mesolithic 10,000–8500 BP
Later Mesolithic 8500–5500 BP

The Middle Pleistocene (c.780–125,000 BP) is characterised by a series of glacials (even-numbered OIS) and interglacials (odd-numbered OIS) with conditions generally alternating between wooded environments (associated with full interglacial conditions), opensteppe grasslands (associated with early glacial conditions) and glacial tundra (associated with full glacial conditions). The Late Pleistocene (c.125–10,000 BP) is slightly more complicated, reflecting the higher resolution records available for this period.

The Late Pleistocene can be summarised as follows:

Stage 5e (128–117,000 BP) Full interglacial conditions (oak/elm woodland, hot summers and mild winters).

Stages 5d–5a (117–71,000 BP) Generally cool temperate conditions with oscillations between warm interstadial (5c and 5a with forest habitats) and cool stadial environments (5d and 5b with tundra-type habitats).

Stage 4 (71–59,000 BP) Very cold conditions (although Britain was predominantly ice-free, open tundra habitats were dominant, with short, mild summers and long, cold winters).

Stage 3 (59–24,000 BP) Generally cold and dry conditions, although the period is characterised by sharply oscillating climates, ranging between milder periods (featuring woodland development, although on a reduced scale compared to OIS- 5c and 5a) and short cooling episodes, in which dry, grassland “mammoth-steppe” environments were dominant.

Stage 2 (24-13,000 BP) Full glacial conditions, with extensive ice sheets in northern England, Wales and Scotland, and barren, polar-desert type environments.

The glacial and interglacial cycles of both the Middle and Late Pleistocene resulted in dramatically fluctuating sea levels.

The Late Glacial period (after the Last Glacial Maximum at c.18,000 BP and the end of the full glacial conditions associated with OIS 2) is characterised overall by a dramatic warming. The period, however, is divided into several phases of climatic fluctuations prior to the onset of the Holocene. The north-western European tradition is to undertake this division on the basis of characteristic pollen zones (Zones I–III) but in Britain the Late Glacial is often more simply described using named biozones, principally the Windermere interstadial from c.13,000 BP to c.10,800 BP and the Loch Lomond stadial from c.10,800 BP to 10,000 BP, the approximate start of the Holocene.

Direct dates for the Middle and Late Pleistocene are relatively scarce in the South West, especially for river terrace and open-landscape deposits. This situation has however begun to change recently. Toms et al. (2005) produced a series of Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dates for the river terrace deposits (gravels, sands and organic clays) at Broom on the River Axe, spanning late OIS 9 and OIS 8. Two dates have also been obtained from terrace deposits associated with the River Exe (although these have
not yet been published). At Five Fords by the River Culm (a tributary of the River Exe), an OSL sample on a river terrace sand deposit has yielded a date of 39,450±2930 BP (work by Tony Brown, University of Exeter).

Dates have also been obtained for the late Lower Palaeolithic site at Harnham, near Salisbury, where the application of OSL and Amino Acid dating has yielded dates for a buried tributary valley (of the Avon) of c.250,000 BP (Whittaker et al. 2004).

Dates for the cave deposits of the region are more widespread however, principally reflecting the presence of dateable materials, such as humanly modified animal bone. There is a radiocarbon date of 40,400±1600 BP from the Hyaena Den,Wookey Hole (OxA-4782), and there are 17 radiocarbon dates from Gough’s Cave, ranging from 13,850–12,950 cal BP (OxA-3413) to 12,000–11,450 cal BP (OxA-2795, Jacobi 2000, 51). There is also a wide range of other Late Upper Palaeolithic radiocarbon dates for various cave sites in the South West, including Gough’s Old Cave, Soldier’s Hole and Sun Hole in the Cheddar
region, and Kent’s Cavern, Three Holes, and Pixies’ Hole in Devon.

Assemblages have also been dated on the basis of the presence of diagnostic artefacts and comparisons with absolutely dated assemblages in other parts of Britain and the continent.


Lower and Middle Palaeolithic Archaeology (c.700,000–40,000 BP)

Summary The Lower and Middle Palaeolithic archaeological record for the SouthWest is, as is the case for the rest of the country, dominated by lithic findspots rather than sites, of which the majority are associated with fluvial deposits, typically river gravels. The record is richest in the east of the region, where there is a relatively dense concentration of findspots associated with the terrace landforms and deposits of the now-extinct Solent River and its upper tributaries: the Frome and Piddle, the Wiltshire/Hampshire Avon and the Stour (Wessex Archaeology 1993; Wymer 1999).

In the west of the region the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic resource decreases in the number, concentration and richness of findspots (many are single artefact finds), although there remain notable clusters in the Bristol Avon valley (Roe 1974; Bates 2003; Bates and Wenban-Smith 2005) and the Axe valley (Reid Moir 1936; Shakesby and Stephens 1984; Green 1988; Marshall 2001; Hosfield and Chambers 2002; 2004).

The South West is of course distinctive for its Lower and Middle Palaeolithic-age caves, including Kent’s Cavern (Campbell and Sampson 1971; Straw 1995; 1996), Windmill Cave, Brixham, the Hyaena Den at Wookey Hole (Tratman et al. 1971), Uphill Cave (Harrison 1977) and Westbury-sub-Mendip (Bishop 1975).

The chronology of the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic archaeology of the region is limited, because of a number of inter-connected factors.

• The majority of the lithic record for the Lower Palaeolithic, and some of the lithic record for the Middle Palaeolithic, is undiagnostic in terms of chronological affiliation (for example, handaxes in the UK span the period from the pre-Anglian Cromerian Complex (pre-500,000 BP to c.40,0000 BP).

• The number of surface scatters and individual finds in the region, which cannot be associated with a specific, dateable deposit.

• The general lack of absolute geochronologies associated with fluvial terrace deposits
and other, dateable, Pleistocene sediments.

Nonetheless, there is some chronological evidence, principally relating to the region’s cave deposits (based both on sediment dating and classification of faunal assemblages) but also to diagnostic lithic material such as the bout coupé handaxes that are associated with the Middle Palaeolithic period (Wymer 1999; White and Jacobi 2002).

Direct evidence for on-site hominin behaviour is very limited (with the principal exception of the Harnham site near Salisbury (Whittaker et al. 2004), reflecting the paucity of site-based evidence in the archaeological record.


The SouthWest Resource The two richest areas of Lower and Middle Palaeolithic
archaeology in the region are the extreme east of the region (where there is a rich open landscape archaeology associated with the Solent River system, see for example, Hosfield 1999;Wymer 1999; Wenban-Smith and Hosfield 2001) and the north of the region, where there is a rich archaeology associated both with the Somerset caves area (including both cave-based and open-landscape archaeology, Jacobi 2000; Norman 2000) and also the deposits of the Bristol Avon (Bates and Wenban-Smith 2005). To the west and south-west of these areas the archaeological record becomes more modest, although there remain occasional hotspots such as the Axe valley gravels (Green 1988) and the south Devon caves (Wymer 1999).

The Lower and Middle Palaeolithic archaeology of Wiltshire is dominated by open-landscape findspots associated with theWiltshire Avon and its tributaries. The upper reaches of the Avon valley however are characterised by a general paucity of findspots associated with the gravels, with only sparse discoveries of handaxes from these terrace deposits, although there are also a small number of surface sites (on the chalk or clay-with-flints) fringing the valley. This pattern also characterises the tributary valleys of the Nadder, the Wylye and the Winterbourne, all of which are confluent with the Avon at Salisbury (Wymer 1999).

To the south of Salisbury on the modern south coast there is a series of relatively rich findspots, all associated with the fluvial deposits of the Stour (such as the Railway Ballast Pit at Corfe Mullen, producing nearly 200 handaxes) and the Solent River. In the Bournemouth region, where the gravels of the two river meet, there are rich findspots, yielding at least 50 handaxes, and occasional Levallois flakes in some cases, at Moordown, Kings Park, Queens Park and Winton, amongst other locations. All of this material is suggested by Wymer (1999) to date between OIS 11 and OIS 8.

At the estuary of the combined Avon and Stour (in the extreme south-east of the South West region), there are also Levallois flakes, cores and bout coupé handaxes associated with low-level terraces. The terrace sequence and age is controversial, but the material alone seems to be a clear indicator of a Middle Palaeolithic occupation (Wymer 1999).

The major concentration of artefacts in the Bristol area is at Shirehampton and Abbots Leigh, at the northern end of Clifton Gorge (Wymer 1999; Bates and Wenban-Smith 2005).

To the south of Bristol is the key area of the Somerset caves. These sites have yielded both lithics and rich faunal records, for example the Mousterian artefacts (including bout coupé handaxes) and distinctive Devensian faunas from Rhinoceros Hole and the Hyaena Den at Wookey Hole (Wymer 1999, 91; Jacobi 2000, 45–46), and also (to the west of this area) the Devensian Stage fauna and Late Middle Palaeolithic artefacts from Uphill Quarry. Also of critical importance to British Quaternary Studies is the site of Westbury-sub-Mendip, with its distinctive Cromerian fauna, found in association with a sparse assemblage of artefacts (Andrews et al. 1999).

Other parts of Somerset have also yielded a rich Lower Palaeolithic archaeology, with a series of important surface findspots identified in the Vale of Taunton at Kibbear, Norton Fitzwarren hillfort, and Cotlake Hill (Norman 2000). Nineteen greensand chert handaxes
(from a total of c.100 artefacts) have been recovered from Norton Fitzwarren.

Cotlake Hill has yielded several hundred Lower Palaeolithic artefacts made in greensand chert, including at least 100 whole and broken handaxes (Norman 2000, 56–7). The artefacts were all recovered from head deposits, and weathering and frost damage suggests that the artefacts have been exposed at or near the surface for a considerable period.

Small numbers of artefacts have also been recovered from the alluvial deposits in the Tone valley at Bradford-on-Tone (Wymer 1999, 187). The only other major findspot of significance in Somerset is at Watchet, where the Doniford Gravels have yielded c.200 artefacts (including one Levallois flake and at least 24 handaxes and 29 cores), recovered from the beach and foreshore below the cliff exposures of the gravels (Wymer 1999, 186–7). Single handaxes have also been recovered inshore at Watchet and Williton, also from the Doniford Gravels.

The Lower and Middle Palaeolithic archaeology of Devon is perhaps best known because of the cave sites of Kent’s Cavern, Torquay and Windmill Cave, Brixham. Kent’s Cavern has produced evidence of both Lower and Middle Palaeolithic occupation.

A handaxe with parallels to the Lower Palaeolithic examples at Kent’s Cavern has also been recovered from Windmill Cave at Brixham.

A small number of Levallois artefacts have been recovered from Cow Cave, Chudleigh. This material has been suggested to be of early Middle Palaeolithic age, although there are also claims of Upper Palaeolithic material from the site, and a handaxe tip of probable Lower Palaeolithic age.

In general, the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic archaeological evidence further west is characterised by a background scatter of single artefact and small (fewer than ten artefacts) findspots. These low-level background scatters are dominant in the extreme west of the region, where there is little other evidence for Lower and/or Middle Palaeolithic occupation.

A key contribution to the Palaeolithic archaeology of Cornwall has been made by the Lizard Research Project (G Smith 1987) which has identified a number of finds in the St
Keverne and Landewednack areas. With the exception of the Levallois core (probably Middle Palaeolithic in age), the material could be of any age within the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic periods.

(Source: “The Archaeology of South West England”, South West Archaeological Research Framework, Resource Assessment and Research Agenda, Edited by C J Webster, Somerset County Council 2007, Published by Somerset Heritage Service)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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