Evidence of earliest humans in northern Europe place Happisburgh centre stage in major national exhibition

A model of a Neanderthal specially created for the Natural History Museum's exhibition Britain: One

A model of a Neanderthal specially created for the Natural History Museum's exhibition Britain: One Million Years Of The Human Story. Copyright: Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London - Credit: The Natural History Museum, Lond

History-changing discoveries will place the north Norfolk coast centre stage next month when a major new national exhibition opens in London.

A model of a Homo Sapien, specially created for the Natural History Museum's forthcoming exhibition

A model of a Homo Sapien, specially created for the Natural History Museum's forthcoming exhibition Britain: One Million Years Of The Human Story. Copyright: The Natural History Museum, London - Credit: The Natural History Museum, Lond

The epic 'Britain: One Million Years Of The Human Story,' at the Natural History Museum, will tell a tale which began in Happisburgh.

The Happisburgh coastline - an archaeological treasure trove. Picture: SIMON FINLAY

The Happisburgh coastline - an archaeological treasure trove. Picture: SIMON FINLAY - Credit: Archant Norfolk

It is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors during its February 13-September 28 run.

The Happisburgh hand axe.

The Happisburgh hand axe.

Flint tools and flakes discovered on Happisburgh's foreshore prove that man was in Britain nearly one million years ago – much earlier than archaeologists had previously believed.

Dr John Davies, chief curator and keeper of archaeology at Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service.

Dr John Davies, chief curator and keeper of archaeology at Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service. Photo by Simon Finlay. - Credit: Archant Norfolk

The Happisburgh finds have been dated to between 800,000 years and 970,000 years ago. Beforehand, the earliest discoveries in Britain only went back 700,000 years.


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John Davies, chief curator with the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, said the icing on the cake now would be to find pre-historic human bones on the north Norfolk coast.

He believed they would eventually be discovered as the coastline eroded.

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'Stuff is washing out all the time. Happisburgh has the fastest-receding stretch of coastline in the whole of Europe and it's changing all the time. I'm sure we will find skeletal remains one day,' he said.

'The discoveries at Happisburgh tell us about the first human inhabitants in the whole of northern Europe. They are of enormous importance,' he added.

'Happisburgh has become the focus of national and international attention. It's posing questions as profound as looking at the motivation for the colonisation of western Europe by humans – where and why did they expand out of Africa?'

Flint material discovered at Happisburgh between 2005-2010 by archaeologists from the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (Ahob) project, is expected to be on show at the exhibition.

But the crown jewel of the area's treasures, the Happisburgh handaxe, which is about 700,000 years old, will not be heading for the Natural History Museum.

It will stay in Norwich where it is currently part of the exhibition Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia, at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts.

Its discovery, by ex-policeman Mike Chambers in 2000, had opened the archaeological floodgates, said Mr Davies.

'We had always know that strata related to the Cromer Forest Bed was very ancient but, until then, there had been no evidence of human occupation. Suddenly it was there, and it was there big-time.'

The Norfolk museums' service will be lending the exhibition bones believed to be three quarters of a million years old, found on the county's east coast in the 19th century.

Modern research has identified them as a new species, Robert's fallow deer.

As well as pre-historic finds, the London exhibition will feature the changing faces of ancient Britons through imagery and specially-commissioned life-size models of a Neanderthal and Homo sapiens.

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