Site yields up clues to the ancient past

A prehistoric treasure trove spanning more than 100,000 years of Norfolk's past has been unearthed near Watton.

A prehistoric treasure trove spanning more than 100,000 years of Norfolk's past has been unearthed.

Travel just millimetres down through the layers of chocolate brown and olive green earth at the site outside Saham Toney, near Watton, and you are crossing millennia.

Digger driver Ralph Fickling made the first discovery last October - a leg bone the size of a small tree trunk protruding from a shelf of black gravel.

In the following months, with the help of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service (NMAS), three mammoths' teeth and a collection of bones were uncovered at the bottom of the half-dug lake.

NMAS's curator of geology, Nigel Larkin, realised the significance of the find and gathered a collection of experts from the British Museum, Natural History Museum, Queen Mary University of London and Norwich's Castle Museum, who have spent this week delving into its muddy secrets.

The rich history spills out as Mr Larkin breaks a clod of earth from the trench to reveal earth peppered with prehistoric remnants of tiny molluscs, seeds and even beetles.

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It is with these microfossils and other clues from within the sediment that experts in a range of fields will piece together a detailed picture of the shifting Norfolk landscape from 120,000 years ago to about 10,000 years ago.

During that time the UK passed through a major ice age and the landscape would have undergone dramatic changes as the climate cooled and warmed, moving through a lush environment, scrubby arctic tundra, dead ice-locked land and back to the warmer climate of today.

The remains of the three mammoths date from about 60,000 years ago, during the stone age, at a time when Neanderthal man would have roamed a sparse frozen landscape populated with animals such as woolly rhinos, spotted hyenas, reindeer and the Arctic fox.

Simon Lewis, climate expert and lecturer at Queen Mary University, said it was extraordinary to be able to map such a vast period of history using just one site.

Months of laboratory work will follow, painting a picture of the ancient climate and landscape that will inform studies of modern-day global warming and early human history in the UK.

Mr Larkin said: “We have sediments ranging from about 10,000 years ago to 120,000 years ago. Immediately I could see this site was incredibly rich in microfossils from tiny molluscs, beetles to individual blades of grass.

“These elements are vital to the understanding of the climates and landscapes of the time; for example beetles are very specific in what habitat they like, so their presence can tell us what the climate, flora and fauna was like.

“These sediments are very important, allowing us to paint a very detailed picture of the past and you can only predict future climate change by looking at trends in the past.

“Here we will be able to find out the effect of global climate change at a local level and understand how people were able to be here and why they were here.”

The heavily-grooved, block-like teeth and the collection of rib, thigh and radius bones are also unusual because they originate not only from an adult but also two young mammoths, a teenager and one about a year old.

The mammoth's teeth are made up of layers of plates to maximise cutting edges to grind down food and get the most out of a diet of nutrient-poor grass.

In 2002, just seven miles away at Lynford, a dozen woolly mammoth skeletons were found with the remains of reindeer, woolly rhino, bison and over 50 Neanderthal flint handaxes in what is the UK's richest Neanderthal site.

The dig team are all members of the Leverhulme-funded Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project and after the dig finishes today they will spend months analysing the samples and finds.

The mammoth teeth and bones may be put on display at the Castle Museum later in the year.