Norfolk’s impressive roll-call of globally-important archaeological finds
16:03 03 July 2014
Revelations that a second timber circle was made by the builders of Seahenge more than 4,000 years ago is yet another of Norfolk’s globally-important archaeological finds. From footprints on the beach made 800,000 years ago to priceless golden relics found in a farmer’s field, the county has an impressive roll-call of artefacts. Here are some of the most stunning.
• West Runton Elephant
A stroll along the weather-battered beach by West Runton couple Harold and Margret Hems, in December 1990, led to a find which took the fossil world by storm. Experts were called in to check out a large bone partly-exposed at the bottom of the cliffs and found it was the pelvic bone of a large elephant.
A year later another storm revealed more bones and in January 1992 an exploratory dig was carried out, followed by a three-month excavation in 1995. It unearthed the most complete skeleton of a 700,000-year-old elephant - from the species Mammuthus trogontherii. Eighty five per cent of it was there – with the only missing bits having been nibbled off by scavenging hyenas.
At 4m tall at the shoulder, and weighing 10 tonnes, it is the biggest elephant skeleton ever found.
• Snettisham torcs
Now in the British Museum, the Great Torc is one of the most famous objects discovered from the Iron Age.
One of the most ornate golden objects known from the ancient world, the priceless relic was found when a field at Ken Hill, Snettisham, was ploughed in 1950.
Other finds were made in the same field in 1964, 1968 and 1978.
In 1990, archaeologists using metal detectors uncovered an incredible hoard of gold relics.
In all 175 torcs were found, along with ingots of gold and silver melted down to make the necklaces.
• Sedgeford horn
In 2003, archaeologists working on the annual Sedgeford Historial and Archaeological Project (SHARP) dig found a cow horn.
When they shook it, it rattled. When it was opened up, the horn contained 32 gold coins dating back 2,000 years to when they were offered as pay to Britons who joined a French tribe fighting the Romans in Gaul.
After the Romans won, surviving mercenaries fled to East Anglia, where one probably decided it would be safer to hide the coins somewhere than carry them around with him. Either he was killed, or he forgot where he had stashed his treasure, which can be seen in Lynn Museum.
• Flint hand axe
A flint hand axe discovered by a dog walker at Happisburgh saw experts rewriting the history books.
It put the area on the map as the earliest-known location for humans in the whole of north-west Europe.
The Palaeolithic axe, with a groove for the user’s thumb was protected by a thick peaty deposit in a former forest bed dating back to 700,000BC. That was 200,000 years earlier than previous known human habitation in Britain.
It sparked a series of other significant tool and bone finds at a spot which is a major site for fossil-hunters because of its unprotected, eroding coastline. The Stone Age axe was later voted as the nation’s top archaeological treasure in ITV’s six part television series Britain’s Secret Treasures.
Heralded as one of the greatest discoveries of the late 20th century, Seahenge was found on the beach at Holme, near Hunstanton, in 1998.
Archaeologists clashed with protestors when they began removing the Bronze Age timbers from the beach. They found the oak trees were felled in 2049BC and by analysing axe marks found society was more advanced than had been believed, because metal tools were commonplace.
Now tests have revealed a second circle found nearby was built at the same time – probably by the same people.
While Seahenge has been preserved, and can now be viewed in Lynn Museum, there are no plans to excavate the second circle.
• Roman Settlement
The full extent of the Roman settlement at Caistor St Edmund only began to emerge in the late 1920s, when aerial photographs of the site were taken.
The area was suffering from drought conditions, meaning the outlines of the town were clearly visible across the parched, agricultural land.
Since then, experts have been working to find out more about the site, which had been the town of Venta Icenorum – one of the most important locations in Roman Britain. It is thought to have been established in the aftermath of Boudicca’s rebellion of AD61 in which the Iceni tribe sacked Colchester, London and St Albans before being defeated by the Romans. The new town was founded in the heart of Iceni territory, functioning as its regional capital.
• Grime’s Graves
The only Neolithic mine shaft open to visitors in the UK, Grime’s Graves’ grassy lunar landscape contains 400 pits that were first dug by the Anglo-Saxons.
The 96 acre site, near Thetford, was identified in 1870 as being flint mines dug more than 5,000 years ago.
It is believed to have been worked between 3,000BC and 1,900BC, at a time when flint was in demand for use in polished stone axes.
It has been calculated that more than 2,000 tonnes of chalk had to be removed from the larger shafts, taking 20 men around five months, before stone of sufficient quality was reached.
• Happisburgh footprints
A group of mini puddles on the shoreline at Happisburgh turned out to be a ground-breaking discovery – the oldest human footprints found outside of Africa.
The find came by chance when, in May 2013, a team of scientists from the British Museum, Natural History Museum and Queen Mary University of London were conducting a geophysics survey on the foreshore, which had recently been scoured away by high seas to reveal 800,000-year-old estuary mud.
The jumble of small but long hollows were delved into more closely – using 3D photography – and revealed the marks of heels arches and toes.
Experts say there were five people, adults and children, the tallest of whom was 5ft 9in.
They were from a form of human ancestor known as Pioneer Man, who walked upright but had smaller brains than today’s humans. The find made a direct connection to the earliest humans in northern Europe. Erosion at Happisburgh has now wiped away the prints.
• Thetford Hoard
Often overshadowed by the better-known Mildenhall Treasure, the Thetford Hoard is a collection of Roman-British metalwork found at Gallows Hill in 1979.
The collection includes 33 silver spoons and three silver strainers, 22 gold finger rings, four gold bracelets, four necklace pendants, five gold chain necklaces and two pairs of necklace-clasps.
The find was made by an artefact seeker who was on the site illegally. Having hastily collected the treasure, he then attempted to sell it over the coming months. By the time archaeologists found out about the find, the site had been built over and a full investigation was not able to take place.
The collection is now in the British Museum and it is believed it may have links to pagan cult
practices, going against the predominant Christian faith of the time.