happisburgh Palaeolithic Britain iversity)
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Parfitt (UCL / NHM
iMages above & inset The Cromer Forest Bed is so-called because it preserves the remains of a drowned Pleistocene woodland, complete with tree stumps and pine cones.
iMages the vole clock Palaeolithic sites such as Boxgrove, Pakefield, and Happisburgh are too early for the vole clock the vole clock Palaeolithic sites such as Boxgrove, Pakefield, and Happisburgh are too early for radiocarbon dating to be effective in establishing their age, since the technique is only really practical for samples 50,000 years old or younger, as before this date so little C14 survives that it is hard to detect. However, it is not the only weapon in the archaeological arsenal. Glacial deposits recording the advance and retreat of the Anglian ice-sheet about 450,000 years ago can still be clearly seen in the cliffs at Happisburgh, providing a useful marker within the sedimentary layers. The presence of now-extinct plant and animal species can also be helpful in determining the likely date, and particularly useful for this purpose is a resource known to archaeologists as the ‘vole clock’. It is remarkably accurate in its timekeeping.
Pleistocene voles evolved quickly, with new species appearing frequently. Consequently, by investigating fossil specimens from a great range of sites across Europe, scientists have been able to construct a detailed framework of where and when specific species became extinct over the last million years. The presence of one particular vole and not another at a site is a remarkably reliable gauge for that site’s age.
Key to this analysis are vole teeth – tiny clues that are more often recovered by archaeologists through fine sieving than spotted with the naked eye. Certain species of early voles had teeth with fixed roots, but in later species – as today – the teeth were continuously growing, a change that seems to have occurred just before the Anglian glaciation. At Boxgrove, the celebrated hominin fossils were found together with the remains of Arvicola terrestris cantiana, a type of water vole with unrooted teeth, placing the site in c.500,000 BC. By contrast, the deposits containing the Pakefield tools yielded evidence of Mimomys savini, a vole with rooted teeth whose presence indicates that this site is c.200,000 years older.
right Vole teeth are a remarkably accurate tool in dating sites too early for radiocarbon analysis. Left is a modern water vole (Arvicola), while right is its ancestor, Mimomys savini, which had rooted rather than constantly growing teeth.
current archaeology | www.archaeology.co.uk apply for a Leverhulme Trust research grant, and the team were awarded £1.2 million for five years, with two subsequent awards in 2006 and 2009. This money funded excavations at new sites, revealing that ancient humans were better able to adapt to climate change than anyone had previously suspected, while historic collections have been re-examined using sophisticated analytical techniques such as scanning microscopy and isotope analysis, to provide a wealth of previously unknown information.
One of the collections to be re-examined was material from Gough’s Cave in Somerset, first excavated over 100 years ago. The original investigations uncovered both animal and human fossils, including, in 1903, the remains of ‘Cheddar Man’, who lived around 10,000 years ago. Then, in 1987, the site was re-excavated and the partial remains of perhaps five more individuals were found, their bones bearing tell-tale cut-marks that suggested that, like the animal remains found onsite, their bodies had been butchered and their flesh and marrow removed for human consumption. There was more to this story, however.
Careful re-analysis of the fossils by Dr Silvia Bello (an expert on the modification of human bones and teeth), Chris Stringer, and Simon Parfitt, using powerful microscopes, revealed that the inhabitants of Gough’s Cave were not just butchers, they were also skilful craftsmen. Three of the skulls had apparently been fashioned into cups, perhaps ritual drink or food vessels, using controlled, precise techniques: they had been below Careful examination of the sediments preserved at Happisburgh has led to the discovery of environmental evidence and flint tools that have allowed archaeologists to create a vivid picture of what this site was like 900,000 years ago – and the animals and early humans who lived here.
March 2014 |