Archaeologists in Palaeolithic Kent face race against time to reveal Neanderthal climate

By Ben Miller | 20 November 2014

Rare Palaeolithic site could reveal how Neanderthals lived if archaeologists can act quickly

A photo of a large expanse of green grass on an archaeological site
Baker's Hole, in Kent, is an important and rare window on Paleolithic Britain© Courtesy University of Southampton
Archaeologists say they could use snail shells and vole bones to find out about the climate early Neanderthals lived in, facing a race against time to save telling Paleolithic remains from a Kent chalk quarry which is arguably Britain’s most important site of prehistoric evidence.

Stone tools, mammoth teeth, giant deer, bears and lions have been found at Baker’s Hole, in the shadow of Ebbsfleet International railway station. But Dr Francis Wenban-Smith, of the University of Southampton, says his team has “one to two years” before burrowing animals, erosion and plant roots irreparably damage the soil.

“These biological remains can tell us a lot of about the environment early Neanderthals lived in,” says Dr Wenban-Smith, who has removed sediment samples to examine paleo-environmental artefacts.

“We can tell if the climate was warm or cold, whether the area was wooded or marshland, and other factors that help us to see the context in which they lived. They can also help date the site accurately.”

Other sites in the area tend to shine a light on life 400,000 years, making the Hole rare. It is also one of very few non-cave Palaeolithic sites on the national list of protected monuments.

“The site is unusual in being statutorily protected both as a Scheduled Ancient Monument and a Site of Special Scientific Interest,” explains Dr Wenban-Smith.

“English Heritage and Natural England are therefore working together with the University Archaeology Department to secure the site’s future and understand it better.

“The survey will enable urgently needed investigations to review the condition of this rare example of a Palaeolithic Scheduled Monument, and recommend future management strategies to ensure its long term preservation in good condition.

“The project will also allow new research to be conducted at the same time, which it is hoped will add some detail to the complicated picture of early Neanderthal colonisation of the UK around 250,000 years ago, and the relationship of colonisation events with climate and sea level.”

The alliance began the project in March.

“One of the key points to bear in mind in the Ebbsfleet Valley is that it is not a single Palaeolithic site, but an area filled with a complex suite of Pleistocene deposits that have produced different Palaeolithic evidence at various different locations, investigated at different times from the 1880s to the present day.

“The early finds were poorly recorded, if at all, and it has only been possible to estimate their locations and stratigraphic context by assiduous archival investigations and reference to the sequence of OS surveys fortunately carried out at regular intervals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — 1865, 1895, 1907 and 1938.

“The earliest finds from the site were by FCJ Spurrell in a tramway cutting in the 1880s, and then a major recovery of Levalloisian material by RA Smith of the British Museum took place in around 1910, following identification of an artefact-rich location by a local collector J Cross.

“We have one to two years to examine this area and implement a new management plan to ensure its survival, otherwise the remains will be eroded away or otherwise damaged by plants and animals. It is crucial work like this takes place now.”

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A photo of two archaeologists in high-visibility clothing sitting in a brown pit
A report on the dig is expected to be published in January© Courtesy University of Southampton
A photo of an archaeologist in high-visibility clothing digging at a brown pit
The deposits date back to the time when Britain was being colonised by early Neanderthals© Courtesy University of Southampton
A photo of an archaeologist in high-visibility clothing digging at a brown pit
The dig is being supported by English Heritage, Natural England and Lafarge Tarmac, who own the land where Baker's Hole is located© Courtesy University of Southampton
A photo of a large expanse of green grass on an archaeological site
The site has a rare combination of fossils and sediments with evidence of ancient human activity© Courtesy University of Southampton
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