Ground-breaking study shows life near Chichester 480,000 years ago

A ground-breaking and internationally-significant study looking at the lives of early humans in Boxgrove has been published.

Thursday, 13th August 2020, 2:51 pm
6. The Football, a group of over 100 refitted flint shards left over from making a single tool. The biface tool itself was not recovered, it was removed from the site by the Boxgrove people. The shape of the tool was determined by casting the void left within the reconstructed waste material. (Copyright UCL Institute of Archaeology)

The internationally-significant site has been subject to archaological digs and meticulous study for nearly 50 years and a new study, funded by Historic England and undertaken by archaologists at UCL.

Speaking to this newspaper, the project lead Dr Matthew Pope, said the latest findings show the humans as ‘highly sociable’ and takes a look at the butchering of a horse by the group of 30 to 40 humans.

Dr Mattew Pope said: “In this landscape we have one of the best preserved ice-age landscapes in the entire world with, not only artefacts and bone but it allows us to look at it in miute-by-minute detail.

4. A small knapping scatter relating to the reshaping of a biface, preserving the imprint of an early human knee in the shards of waste flint, under excavation in 1989 (Copyright UCL Institute of Archaeology)

“Boxgrove has always been celebrated and there have been a number of major works on its archaeology for 20 years.

“It’s an incredibly important site right on our doorstep.”

The findings of the study led by UCL Institute of Archaeology are detailed in a new book ‘The Horse Butchery Site’, published by UCL Archaeology South- East’s ‘Spoilheap Publications’.

The study pieces together the activities and movements of a group of early humans as they made tools, including the oldest bone tools documented in Europe, and extensively butchered a large horse 480,000 years ago.

3. A large knapping scatter of Refit Group 49 The Football under excavation in 1989 (Copyright UCL Institute of Archaeology)

Dr Pope added: “This was an exceptionally rare opportunity to examine a site pretty much as it had been left behind by an extinct population, after they had gathered to totally process the carcass of a dead horse on the edge of a coastal marshland.

“Incredibly, we’ve been able to get as close as we can to witnessing the minute-by-minute movement and behaviours of a single apparently tight-knit group of early humans: a community of people, young and old, working together in a co-operative and highly social way.”

The Horse Butchery Site is one of many excavated in quarries near Boxgrove an internationally significant area – in the guardianship of English Heritage – that is home to Britain’s oldest human remains.

The site was one of many excavated at Boxgrove in the 1980s and 90s by the UCL Institute of Archaeology under the direction of Mark Roberts.

11. Lauren Gibsons artistic rendering of our interpretation of the Horse Butchery Site and the Boxgrove people. It shows how the site was situated in front of towering chalk cliffs on the edge of an intertidal lagoon. The cliffs to the north provided all the flint used in tool making at the site and, within a few hours, the tide would have begun to cover the site in fine silt, preserving evidence of the days activity. (Copyright UCL Institute of Archaeology)

In the course of excavating the site, more than 2000 razor sharp flint fragments were recovered from eight separate groupings, known as knapping scatters.

These are places where individual early humans knelt to make their tools and left behind a dense concentration of material between their knees.

Embarking on an ambitious jigsaw puzzle to piece together the individual flints, the archaeologists discovered that in every case these early humans were making large flint knives called bifaces, often described as the perfect butcher’s tool.

Questions still remain over where the Boxgrove people lived and slept and even what these people, ascribed to the poorly understood early human species Homo heidelbergensis, looked like.

12. A close up of Lauren Gibsons reconstruction art showing our interpretation of how the horse butchery took place, based on the mapped distribution of artefacts and bones. The scene involves the whole early human group of Boxgrove people, from infants to the elderly, as they worked and fed together. This group, an extended family with perhaps some connections to other similar groups in the region, is using the space around the horse carcass as an intense, albeit temporary, social space. (Copyright UCL Institute of Archaeology)

Answers to those questions may well rest in the wider 26km ancient landscape, which lies preserved under modern Sussex.

The project was funded by Historic England, the Arts and Humanities Research Council with support from the UCL Institute of Archaeology, the Natural History Museum and the British Museum.