by Nick Barton and Peter James
RENEWED excavations at Hengistbury Head in Dorset are uncovering one of the largest Upper Palaeolithic sites in Britain. Although the rich levels of flint artefacts there had already been examined twice before, the work was far from complete and left major problems outstanding about dating and stratigraphy. These difficulties have now been cleared up, and new on-site techniques, extensive laboratory study of the flint finds and a series of archaeological experiments are being combined to exploit the full potential of what may indeed be the largest unmixed assemblage from the Upper Palaeolithic in the whole of the British Isles. The work is now entering its third year, under the direction of Nick Barton from the Donald Baden-Powell Quaternary Research Centre, Oxford, and has been extended to include a valuable Mesolithic site close to the Palaeolithic area.
Since the prehistoric deposits lie on a very unstable cliff-top on the Hengistbury promontory there is considerable urgency to complete the work (see cover photo). Some 45 metres of land have been lost to the sea over the last 75 years alone and the cliff-face has already been eroded away to within a couple of feet of the areas under excavation. Their exposed position is, in a way, central to the interest offered by the Hengistbury discoveries. Unlike the more famous covered sites like Gough's Cave near Cheddar, which have given us a somewhat one-sided picture of Palaeolithic man's use of rock shelters, Hengistbury is revealing much needed evidence of his activities in the open country. The site, apparently the remains of a short-term hunting camp, provides
us with a singular opportunity to broaden our understanding of flint technology and subsistence patterns in Britain around 12,000 years ago, during the closing phases of the last Ice Age.
The Upper Palaeolithic site was first explored by Angela Mace in 1957 after a local antiquarian, Herbert Druitt, had drawn attention to the rich surface finds of flint artefacts. Mace's excavation provided a splendid collection of worked flint and the debris resulting from stone tool manufacture—the most obvious traces of prehistoric activity at the site—and she dated the assemblage to the Upper Palaeolithic period exclusively. The later work (1968-9) of John Campbell, however, disputed her conclusions and distinguished a Mesolithic occupation above the Palaeolithic. In fact in his disagreement with Mace he went so far as to say: "I suspect that only a few of Mace's 2,263 finds (namely, 9 of her backed tools) .. . are possibly Later Upper Palaeolithic, whilst most are more likely Mesolithic or younger." Mace, however, and not Campbell, seems to have been correct in her assessment of the site. The Upper Palaeolithic date of the flint artefacts has been confirmed by new typological studies and supported with six thermoluminescence results from heated flint of around 12,500 ± 1,150 years BP.
Ironically, conclusive evidence refuting the idea of a two-period occupation at the Mace-Campbell site was already available when Campbell wrote the above. As well as extending the excavated area, a large part of the current Hengistbury project has been concerned with "refitting " flin t fragment s uncovered by th e previou s excavations, as shown in the photos opposite. The exercise of reversing the ancient flint knappers' art by rejoining, where possible, several fragments to an original core, is a time consuming and laborious process akin to jigsaw puzzles—with no guarantee of a resulting picture!—but can often be very rewarding.
For one thing, it has resolved the controversy between the original excavators. Despite differences in depth of as much as 30cm it has been possible to refit numerous fragments from both of Campbell's "levels"; in one case, 12 of Campbell's "Mesolithic" artefacts were fitted back onto a core which Campbell himself identified as being Upper Palaeolithic. It is quite clear that some vertical displacement has taken place over the millennia, heavier (and sometimes more recognisably Palaeolithic) artefacts having sunk through the wind-blown sands well below their original position. A new approach to this problem has recently been developed with the help of Chris Bergman, Institute of Archaeology, London. It concerns the monitoring of experimental flint scatters in nearby sand dunes over an extended period to provide more data on natural processes affecting site-formation.
The refitting of flint fragments from Hengistbury has also provided us with invaluable evidence of the method s employed b y th e Palaeolithic stoneworker. In one instance as many as 63 flakes and blades were found to have been removed from a single core, clearly the handiwork of a highly skilled
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