The Early and early Middle Pleistocene archaeological record in Britain from c. 900 to 500 ka marks a critical shift in human occupation of northwest Europe, from occasional pioneer populations with simple core and flake technology to more widespread occupation associated with the appearance of Acheulean technology. Key to understanding this record are the fluvial deposits of the extinct Bytham River in central East Anglia, where a series of Lower Palaeolithic sites lie on a 15 km stretch of the former river. In this paper we present the results of new fieldwork and a reanalysis of historical artefact collections of handaxes and scrapers to: 1) establish the chronostratigraphic context of the Bytham archaeological record; 2) examine variability in lithic artefact typology and technology through time; and 3) explore the implications for understanding variation in lithic technology in the European record. Six phases of occupation of Britain are identified from at least marine isotope stage (MIS) 21 to MIS 13, with the last three phases characterised by distinctive lithic technology. We argue that this relates to the discontinuous occupation of Britain, where each phase represents the arrival of new groups derived from different European populations with distinctive material culture.
Identification of cultural groups is rare in the early Palaeolithic due to site formation processes including taphonomy and the effect of raw material and site function. This paper reviews a critical period in Europe at about 400 ka (MIS 11) when we may be able to identify such groups. This period, sees more sustained occupation and evidence of new technologies, including bone and wooden tools, hunting and fire-use. Importantly, brain size had begun to approach modern capacity. The fine-tuned record from Britain enables correlation of sites and new models of human behaviour to be developed. Millennial-scale changes in material culture can now be recognised, which can be interpreted as brief incursions by different cultural groups into Britain from mainland Europe. We suggest that population movement was primarily driven by changes in climate and environment. We further propose that variation in material culture is a reflection of local resources and landscape and that during stable environment localised expressions of culture emerge. This can be applied to Europe, where it is suggested that a complex mosaic of small-scale cultural groupings can be identified, some with and some without handaxes, but underpinned by a common set of technologies and behaviours.
The Breckland is one of the most important areas in Britain for understanding the changing nature of human occupation of north-west Europe through deep time. An unparalleled geological sequence spanning a million years provides the stratigraphic framework in which the region’s Lower and Middle Palaeolithic record can be examined and understood. The archaeological record itself is exceptional, including some of the earliest Acheulean handaxe sites in northern Europe, the earliest evidence for controlled fire-use in Europe and several primary context sites that provide important evidence of the behavioural and environmental context of ancient human occupation of the region. The study of the Breckland Palaeolithic record is as old as the discipline itself, beginning during the formative years of Palaeolithic research and continuing to play a role in many of the debates that have occupied British Palaeolithic archaeologists over the last 150 years. The Breckland Palaeolithic Project, a three-year research programme that began in May 2016 and is funded by the Leverhulme Trust, continues this tradition. The project aims to employ the area’s geological and archaeological records to examine how human populations and their culture and technology adapted to a developing landscape within a single region through deep time. This paper will review current understanding of the Palaeolithic record of the Breckland and establish key questions for future research. A short summary of the history of research in the area highlights its prominent position in British Palaeolithic studies. The archaeology is considered in three chronological groups: sites associated with the former Bytham River, representing human occupation between 600,000 and 500,000 years ago; Hoxnian interglacial sites (c.400,000 years ago); and Lower and Middle Palaeolithic sites associated with modern rivers (400,000 to 200,000 years ago). The paper concludes by proposing a number of key directions for future research.
Britain has an important geological, environmental and archaeological record for Marine Isotope Stage 11 (MIS 11), which makes a major contribution to understanding of the human occupation of northern Europe. New fieldwork at Barnham, Suffolk, UK, has identified through improved geological resolution the change in assemblages from simple core and flake working to those with handaxe technology. The two assemblages are argued to reflect distinct human populations from different source areas in Europe. The paper examines the European record and puts forward a new model of how the complex mosaic of lithic assemblages reflects local, habitual practices during stable environments, but changes in climate and environment led to larger scale shifts in population, resulting in new human groups arriving in Britain.