Evidence for some of Britain’s earliest humans found in suburban Canterbury

The team identified 251 new flint artefacts, including flakes, cores, scrapers, and a small piercing or boring tool.

Excavations at Fordwich Pit, a former gravel quarry situated in an ancient riverbed on the outskirts of Canterbury, have yielded evidence for the presence of humans dating back more than half a million years.

A century before this investigation, local labourers working on the site had recovered some 330 handaxes and other flint materials, but historically the area has not been subject to extensive archaeological analysis, leaving the precise age and origin of these items undetermined – until recently. As a new study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science (https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.211904) reports, in 2020 an international team of researchers, led by archaeologists at the University of Cambridge, carried out new excavations at Fordwich Pit to look for further stone implements and to obtain sediment samples for radiometric dating.

IMAGE: Alastair Key.

In total, the modern team identified 251 new flint artefacts (one shown above), including flakes, cores, scrapers, and a small piercing or boring tool. They also collected 16 sediment samples, which were analysed using infrared-radiofluorescence (IR-RF) dating, revealing that 112 of the items (including the scrapers and piercing tool) were produced between 560,000 and 620,000 years ago, during an interglacial period known as Marine Isotope Stage 15 or MIS 15. The researchers have proposed a similar date for the handaxes found in the 1920s, too, based on contextual evidence obtained during the latest excavations.

The results confirm that Fordwich Pit is one of the earliest known Palaeolithic sites in northern Europe. Dr Tobias Lauer from the University of Tübingen in Germany, who led the dating work, said: ‘The artefacts are precisely where the ancient river placed them, meaning we can say with confidence that they were made before the river moved to a different area of the valley.’

Dr Alastair Key from the University of Cambridge, who directed the excavations, added: ‘The diversity of tools is fantastic. In the 1920s, the site produced some of the earliest handaxes ever discovered in Britain. Now, for the first time, we have found rare evidence of scraping and piercing implements at this very early age.’

The dates obtained for the artefacts correspond to a period when hunter-gatherers known as Homo heidelbergensis occupied southern Britain, and the area represented the north-western peninsula of the European continent. No further handaxes were found during the 2020 excavations, but the discovery of scrapers and piercing tools indicates that these early humans may have been processing the carcasses of animals such as deer, horse, rhino, and bison. As Dr Tomos Proffitt from the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, who analysed the artefacts, said: ‘Scrapers, during the Palaeolithic, are often associated with animal hide preparation. Finding these artefacts may therefore suggest that people during this time were preparing animal hides, possibly for clothing or shelters.’

As the researchers indicate in their study, early humans are known to have been present in Britain 840,000 – possibly as early as 950,000 – years ago (see CA 288), but cold glacial periods drove people out of northern Europe and until now there has only been limited evidence for Britain’s recolonisation during the warmer climate of MIS 15. Ramparts Field, Brandon Fields, and Maidscross Hill in Suffolk, for example, have yielded handaxes thought to date from this period, but these artefacts have been discovered in contexts where secure dating has not been possible. This means Fordwich Pit is now the earliest securely dated Acheulean site in Britain. As the researchers comment in their paper: ‘After decades of only being mentioned in passing, Fordwich can now be considered a crucial piece of the pre-Anglian Palaeolithic puzzle in north-western Europe.’