Rhinos on the downs

Fairweather Eden
October 3, 1997

In spring 1995, my ten-year-old daughter came home from her school in Bognor Regis full of stories told to her class by a group of archaeologists. They had been visited by Boxgrove men and women, eagerly impressing their youthful audience with tales of elephants, rhinos, lions, and early human-like creatures that had lived just a few miles away some half a million years before. The immediacy of such imagery was not confined to the young, as a succession of local, national and international press and television items over previous years had shown. Now, in Fairweather Eden, we have a well-illustrated popular account of the astonishing discoveries at what must be one of the most significant archaeological investigations into the early human occupation of northern Europe this century.

The book is written in a way that veers from jaunty, American-style anecdotes of the excavators' personal lives to a more compelling narrative of discoveries, analyses, experiments and developing interpretations, as well as inevitable frustrations that threatened to blow the project off course. The thumbnail sketch "bios" often appear uncomfortably self-conscious, but overall the short rapid-fire chapters work well - retaining the reader's interest and giving pace and colour to what is a complex yet fascinating story.

Until the early 1980s, the area around the small West Sussex village of Halnaker was typical sleepy English countryside, with a scattering of old sand and gravel quarries close to Boxgrove Common. Half a million years ago, however, this was coastal plain being formed by a succession of high sea levels. Fortuitously preserved in the shadow of the old sea cliff was a 100-200m-wide band of sediment known as the Slindon Silts that, further out, was eventually destroyed by mud and gravel outflows resulting from glaciation further north. Quarrying had stripped away the accumulated debris, allowing archaeologists a window into a past so remote that it was several years before its true age was gauged. In fact, as the excavators soon discovered, while West Sussex gravel pits had yielded large quantities of often beautifully preserved hand-axes, Boxgrove was unique in possessing fossil living floors. These produced not isolated, decontextualised finds, but a wealth of excellently preserved hand-axes and animal bones lying on the now exposed surface where they had been abandoned 500,000 years before. It was this unique aspect of Boxgrove that attracted the attention and substantial financial support of English Heritage.

Part of the book's attraction is the attempt by the authors to locate their site in intersecting spheres of time and space by drawing together diverse strands of evidence. Indeed, it is the multidisciplinary effort required of modern excavations that is part of the attraction of archaeology today. Mark Roberts, the obsessive, moving force behind the project, and a constantly shifting crew of excavators, supervisors and specialists, addressed a variety of crucial issues. They examined the complexities of local Sussex geology, and familiarised themselves with the 19th-century work of William Buckland at Kirkland Cave, John McEnery at Kent's Hole and Boucher de Perthes in the Somme valley of northern France.

They thought about the implications for early human cognition as displayed in the skilful manufacture of hand-axes, whether or not their evidence supported notions of man-the-hunter or, as many experts believe, an opportunistic scavenger of kills made by other, more specialist carnivores. And they considered (and practised) the art of flint knapping itself, and analysed the kinds of microwear polish produced by different activities. Finally however, it was the quantity and quality of evidence coming from Boxgrove that drove Roberts and his team on and secured English Heritage's continuing support. The preservation of animals bones was especially notable, with remains of rhino, bison, spotted hyena, elephant, and lion all readily identified. This not only added vivid detail to the reconstruction of the Boxgrove environment but was critical also in assessing the site's true age. It was the discovery of a tooth from a kind of rhinoceros that became extinct around 480,000 years ago that led to the overturning of the once more likely date of 200,000 years ago. In addition, this discovery undermined the previous reliance on pollen analysis as it showed that differences in vegetation were insufficiently fine grained to differentiate between one interglacial period and another. Boxgrove joined a small but select group of sites whose fauna did not survive the Anglian glaciation.

Hardly less significant archaeologically - and more headline grabbing - was the discovery of human remains. Two teeth and a broken tibia were identified as Homo heidelbergensis, a separate species that was ancestor to both the Neanderthals and modern humans, Homo sapiens. Intriguingly, the long-bone appeared to have been partly chewed, probably by a wolf or lion, though whether this act was also the cause of death is not known.

Every reviewer is drawn to one aspect of a site that fires his imagination or specialist interest. For me it is the superb preservation of the flint remains. Boxgrove has produced arguably the best-preserved British flint site from the ice-age period - the sophistication of the tools challenging the notion that such refined artefacts must be younger rather than older. But it was the context as much as the tools themselves that was astonishing. Finished tools lay alongside the waste material produced in the manufacturing process, allowing for the reconstruction of the original flint core. In one instance, 1,715 pieces of flint were individually recorded, along with thousands of small chips, and even the original dust. This kind of detail, alongside experiments in flint knapping, suggested that the axe makers were left-handed.

By telling so many stories at once, rather than opting for a straightforward account, the authors have added to the book's popular appeal as well as highlighted Boxgrove's multidisciplinary significance. A subtext throughout is the dedication needed to succeed - often against the odds - in such a long and painstaking investigation. While specialists await the final report, the rest of us can ponder the enormous range of evidence presented here, and wonder - as Mark Roberts himself must doubtless have done - what might yet await discovery beneath the Sussex soil, just a few miles from his own front door.

Nicholas J. Saunders is lecturer in anthropology, University College, London and visiting fellow in archaeology, Southampton University.

Fairweather Eden: Life in Britain Half a Million Years Ago as Revealed by the Excavations at Boxgrove

Author - Michael Pitts and Mark Roberts
ISBN - 0 7126 7686 4
Publisher - Century
Price - £17.99
Pages - 356

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