Monday, June 30, 2008

Beedings update.

The last Neanderthals of Britain revealed through new study.

New archaeological excavations in West Sussex, funded by English Heritage, have thrown new light on the last Neanderthals hunters of Northern Europe. The site, situated on a sandstone ridge near the town of Pulborough, is emerging as important in explaining the extinction of our closest ancestors.

The team, led by Dr Matthew Pope and Caroline Wells of Archaeology South East based at UCL, is undertaking the first modern, scientific investigation of the site since its original discovery. This occurred in 1900 when construction of a monumental house known as ‘Beedings’ revealed some 2,300 perfectly preserved stone tools from fissures encountered in the foundation trenches.

Only recently were the tools recognised for their importance. Research by Roger Jacobi of the Leverhulme funded AHOB Project showed conclusively that the Beedings material has strong affinities with other tools from northern Europe dating to between 35 - 42,000 years ago. The collection of tools from Beedings is more diverse and extensive than any other known from the region. It therefore offers the best insight into new light on the technologically advanced cultures which occupied Northern Europe before the accepted appearance of our own species in the region.

“Dr Jacobi’s work showed the clear importance of the site. The exceptional collection of tools appears to represent the hunting kit of Neanderthal populations only a few millennia from complete disappearance in the region.” says Dr Matthew Pope. “Unlike earlier, more typical Neanderthal tools these were made on long, straight blades. Blades which were then turned into a variety of bone and hide processing implements as well as lethal spear points.”

“The real possibility that they were left by some of the last Neanderthal hunting groups to occupy northern Europe is an exciting one, and the impression they create is of a population in complete command of both landscape and natural raw materials with a flourishing technology - not a people on the edge of extinction.”

“At Beedings we’re building on the earlier work carried out by Dr Roger Jacobi to reveal as much as we can about the original site,” said Dr Pope. “Our excavations, allowed only through the generosity of the current landowner, have proved beyond doubt that the material discovered here was genuine and originated from fissures within the local sandstone. A further surprise has been the discovery of older, more typical Neanderthal tools, found deeper in the fissure. Clearly, Neanderthal hunters were drawn to the hill over a long period time, presumably for excellent view of game-herds grazing on the plains below the ridge”

The excavations suggest the site may not be unique. Similar sites with comparable fissure systems are thought to exist across south east England. The project now aims to prospect more widely across the region for similar sites.

Barney Sloane, Head of Historic Environment Commissions at English Heritage, said: “Sites such as this are extremely rare and a relatively little considered archaeological resource. Their remains sit at a key watershed in the evolutionary history of northern Europe. The tools at Beedings could equally be the signature of pioneer populations of modern humans, or traces of the last Neanderthal hunting groups to occupy the region. This study offers a rare chance to answer some crucial questions about just how technologically advanced Neanderthals were, and how they compare with our own species.”

The project, which has been running since February 2008, has been directed by Dr Matthew Pope of UCL and Caroline Wells of Sussex Archaeological Society, working closely with specialists and the Worthing Archaeological Society.