|16 March 2008
Stone age bones and axes found off Norfolk coast
Some of the world's best preserved prehistoric landscapes survive in pristine condition at the bottom of the North Sea, archaeologists claimed. The weapons of the stone age Norfolk men who hunted mammoths on what is now the bed of the North Sea have turned up in Holland, spotted by an amateur archaeologist in a load of gravel. The 28 finely worked hand axes are believed to date from at least 50,000-60,000 years ago - possibly far older - and were described by archaeologist Phil Harding as "the single most important find of ice age material from below the North Sea". If the dating is correct - and it may be established by the fragments of bone and tooth found in the same load of gravel - the people who worked them by chipping away flakes of stone to leave a blade as sharp as a modern kitchen knife were probably Neanderthal, not Homo sapiens
The lower sea level at the time, with huge volumes of water locked up in the ice age polar ice caps, meant that the area the tools were dredged from, eight miles off Great Yarmouth and under 25 metres of seawater, was then dry land, and Britain was not yet an island. They were found by an amateur enthusiast, Jan Meulmeester, who regularly hunts through the marine sand and gravel dredged near his home in Flushing, in the south-western Netherlands. His find was reported last month, and an initial appraisal by Wessex Archaeology, which monitors quarrying and dredging finds, suggested it could be of immense significance.
It had been feared that the ice sheets that destroyed most pre-ice age British landscapes had done the same to the land surfaces which existed where the North Sea is now. But archaeologists are now certain that hundreds or even thousands of square miles of post-ice age prehistoric landscapes do survive there. On land they have largely been destroyed or degraded by centuries of agriculture, later human settlement and natural erosion.
The North Sea is of immense value to archaeologists and is the largest area of drowned landscape in Europe. "It's vital that parts of it should be considered as a potential World Heritage site," said Professor Vince Gaffney of the University of Birmingham, a leading authority on North Sea archaeology. Professor Chris Stringer, Research Leader in Human Origins at the Natural History Museum, said: "The quality and quantity of material from the North Sea shows what a rich resource it is for helping to reconstruct missing phases of our prehistory."
Detailed archaeological research at the bottom of the North Sea would be likely to solve a host of Stone Age mysteries. It should help establish when Britain was recolonised by humans after a 100,000-year uninhabited period.
English Heritage archaeologists are now joining their counterparts in the Netherlands to study the find. What is exciting the experts this time is that the fact that the axes were dredged up with a quantity of silt means they have probably been lying buried in mud exactly where they were dropped so many millennia ago.
Sources: The Guardian, The Independent, BBC News (10 March), Wessex Archaeology (March 2008)
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