Summary of Jim Rose’s talk

TVGS meeting, 22 Jan 2024,

with Professor Jim Rose, Royal Holloway University

“The earliest Humans in the British Isles – the geological context”

We are extremely grateful to Prof Jim Rose for delivering a most entertaining talk, covering his personal experiences as well as the findings of others, in revealing the story of humans in England upto a million years ago.  As always, it was a process of fitting together a selection of jigsaw pieces to achieve a coherent picture.  Some of the pieces are fascinating in themselves, and each was explained with great clarity.

This is my personal account, selecting some of the highlights of the evening, with some very helpful corrections supplied by Jim. It is by no means comprehensive.

Gravel extraction activity, working with geologists in recent decades across central and eastern England, revealed a consistent sequence of river deposits from a source in the West Midlands passing close to Stratford on Avon, northeast to Melton Mowbray, east then south to the vicinity of Cambridge and on to Great Yarmouth and the North Sea.  No modern river follows this course, but the mix of clasts found in the gravels showed that this was all part of the same river.  It was named the River Bytham after a village named Castle Bytham where deposits were first discovered.  Further, glacial deposits of Anglian age were found to lie on top of these gravels, proving that the river pre-dated the Anglian glaciation, approx. 450,000 years ago.

The East Anglian coast does not need the diggers of gravel extraction companies to reveal the secrets of Quaternary geology; vigilant geologists can work with the help of marine erosion alone.  At Pakefield near Lowestoft, they started to discover evidence of early humans among a famous deposit known as the ‘Rootlet Bed’ of the Cromer Forest-bed, which in this locality is a floodplain of the Bytham river.  Likewise, the discovery of hand axes and animal bones with butchery marks at the coast at Happisburgh caused great excitement, capped only by the discovery of human footprints found in associated estuarine muds.  The evidence had to be captured quickly before the sea washed it all away.  Evidence of human occupation in this pre-Anglian era was discovered elsewhere along the old river channel.  Happisburgh is unrelated to the River Bytham but the estuarine deposits here are also overlain by Anglian-age glacial deposits.

One of the most significant finds was a hand axe discovered at Waverley Wood near Coventry made of rock from the Lake District.  There are no glacial erratics found in the Bytham river gravels, so this must have been carried to East Anglia by people before it became lost in the Bytham river and then buried in the river sediments.  This highly valued piece of Earth Heritage must also have been highly valued by its owner all those years ago!

The Bytham river deposits also contain much evidence in the form of fossils and other signatures indicative of the climate prevailing at the time that humans were present, showing that at least for some of the time, Britain had a Mediterranean-style climate.  As Britain was at that time fully connected to the rest of Europe, humans would have been able to travel freely north and south as the climate changed.

The exact time that the humans were present is much more difficult to establish. Almost all dating methods failed to give reliable results. The only really firm evidence comes from the paleo-magnetic assessments, which showed that the gravels were deposited before the last magnetic reversal event 780,000 years ago: when these gravels were deposited magnetic North pointed the ‘wrong’ way!

The best estimates of dating suggest that the humans at Pakefield, living in marshy areas near the mouth of the Bytham river were present about 800,000 years ago, while those at Happisburgh in the estuary further north had been there even earlier, nearly one million years ago.

It was a real privilege to hear first hand the story of these amazing discoveries and to be able to handle some of the genuine artefacts that Jim had brought with him, as well as casts of some of the most valuable hand axes that are, understandably, kept in museums.

Many thanks, Jim.

Kay Hughes,

25 Jan 2024

Happisburg flint axe

Flint axe found at Happisburgh