Archaeology Heritage and climate change Maritime Archaeology

Discovered by Disaster: 6 Astounding Archaeological Finds from Environmental Change

Those of us working with the past can occasionally be viewed as stuck in it, not wanting things to change, but actually for archaeologists change is our bread and butter. We are obsessed with how, and why, people and their places have changed through time. Sometimes dramatic changes in the environment can lead to particularly exciting discoveries.

Here are 6 of the best archaeological discoveries as a result of environmental change:

1. The Oldest Archaeology in Britain, East Anglia

Happisburgh Beach
© Martin Bates. Ancient footprints exposed on Happisburgh beach.

For many years the East Anglian coastline has been subject to erosion. Since 2000, two locations have become famous for archaeological discoveries that pushed the known human occupation of Britain back by several hundred thousand years. These discoveries were made possible by the coastal erosion that is also destroying the sites almost as quickly as the archaeologists can investigate them. At Pakefield in Suffolk, simple flint stone tools were found in deposits eroding out of a cliff that date to around 700,000 years ago. At Happisburgh  (pronounce ‘Haysborough’) on the Norfolk coast, stone tools were found alongside animal bones that are at least 800,000 years old. The most exciting discovery at Happisburgh though was revealed by the sea in 2013: a series of human footprints preserved in the mud for over 800,000 years – the oldest human footprints outside Africa.

2.Seahenges, Holme-Next-The-Sea, Norfolk

holme next the sea timber circle view at sunset
The upturned tree stump at the centre of the monument is visible along with the arc of posts making up the timber circle.

 Amazingly, erosion at Holme Beach in Norfolk has revealed not one, but two timber circles and associated track ways, coppiced trees and deposited metal items. The first was discovered in 1998 and became known as ‘Seahenge’. These structures were dated to the early Bronze Age, and dendrochronology (a method for dating wood by comparing tree rings) has shown that the two circles were cut in the spring or summer of 2049 BC.

Because the wood has been so well preserved, archaeologists have been able to get lots of information about how the monuments were built and the tools that were used. The use of the structures is unknown but it has been suggested from comparison with other similar monuments that they were mortuary structures.

3. Hidden archaeological landscape and rock art, Fylingdales Moor, North Yorkshire

In September 2003, wildfire swept across Fylingsdales Moor in North Yorkshire. While the fires devastated vegetation and the fragile peat soils of several square kilometres of heathland, they also revealed a previously unknown archaeological landscape. The new discoveries included prehistoric field systems, rock art, 20th century military training features and industrial features.

Photos taken by English Heritage Aerial Reconnaissance Team as part of a collaborative project involving North York Moors National Park Authority, English Nature, DEFRA, English Heritage, The Strickland Estate and the Court Leet helped to identify many of these new features.

4. Historic settlement patterns in flooded landscapes, Isle of Athelney and East Lyng, Somerset

East Lyng and Isle of Athelney Somerset Levels winter floods 2014 Photo D Grady copyright Historic England

Flooding is devastating for the communities affected, but when whole landscapes become flooded they can reveal a lot about how well our predecessors understood their environment.

The Isle of Athelney (in the right of the photo) is a twin peaked hill containing a monastic site and a Saxon occupation site claimed to be a stronghold of Alfred the Great.  The village of East Lyng is the site of a Saxon burh, or defended town, the outline of which more or less follows the area left above the flood water in the left of the photo. The two are connected by a strip of dry land that follows the Balt Moor Wall, a medieval causeway that acts as a flood defence today. Looking at this picture it is easy to see why the Saxons might have selected these locations for their settlements.

5. Wreck of SV Carl, Booby’s Bay, Cornwall

re exposed wreck of the SV Carl, Booby's Bay, North Cornwall 03-02-2014. Photo Dave Hooley
©Dave Hooley

 The storms of early 2014 that ravaged much of Britain’s coastline revealed some previously forgotten sites. On the beach at Booby’s Bay, near Padstow in Cornwall the remains of a boat were exposed. The SV Carl was a German boat that sunk in 1917 as it was being towed from Cardiff to London. The boat had remained largely buried under beach sand and was unknown to many local people until the storms removed tons of sand from the beach revealing the wooden hull of the boat.

6. Formby Footprints

Formby footprints
© Gordon Roberts

For over 50 years people have noticed human and animal footprints on the beach at Formby Point, in patches of firm mud exposed at low tides. The footprints were made in soft ground on sand bars around what was a tidal lagoon between 7500 and 4500 years ago. Today these prints are exposed as the sea erodes overlying sediment. However, the footprints are extremely fragile and are destroyed by the sea almost as quickly as they are exposed. A dedicated group of local people has recorded the footprints over many years as they have become exposed. These records have enabled some fascinating insights into the people walking these shores millennia before.

Written by Hannah Fluck, Historic Environment Intelligence Officer, Historic England.

If you’ve been inspired and want to get involved with recording coastal heritage in your area, get in touch with the CITiZAN project.

And if you do happen to make an archaeological discovery then you can find the details of your local authority archaeologist and your Historic Environment Record here.

Further Reading

10 comments on “Discovered by Disaster: 6 Astounding Archaeological Finds from Environmental Change

  1. Steve lawrance

    I often walk the mud flats nr Harwich,Essex and often find flint tools,bones,& some late iron age pottery. With erosion happening so fast especially during the winter storms .what is the best to keep a record of the finds as I feel a lot of history and archeology will be lost

  2. Trevor Michael Archbold

    Can you help me please just a name or a phone number im trying to obtain information regarding the royal military road West Hythe dam ct21 kent and the army from the 1940 anything may help me iv been trying for more than 6 years my number is 07842511125 thank you for your time trevor archbold

  3. The Environment Agency flood warning website is a great way to visualise the ancient landscape of Somerset. The little ‘islands in the marsh’ really stand out.

  4. Trevor archbold

    Can anyone help me please my name is trevor archbold at 52 St Marys road dymchurch Romney Marsh Kent tn290pn phone 07842511125 i need information on the access from West Hythe bridg to the dam

  5. Reblogged this on The Jackson Diner.

  6. Reblogged this on The Owl Lady.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: