Between 1982 and 1999, rescue excavations were carried out on the site of a quarry (Eartham Pit) located in Boxgrove in advance of proposed sand and gravel extractions. Archaeologist Mark Roberts led a team from the Institute of Archaeology at University College London.
The archaeology was found to date to a warm period about 480,000 years ago and provides wonderful insights into the life of some of the early settlers of northern Europe. At this time a temperate climate allowed animals such as elephant, lion and rhinoceros to live in Britain.
Over the course of the investigations, 95 individual locations were examined. These investigations brought to light some very interesting activity on the site.
Although stone tools from this period are found elsewhere, what makes this site so significant is the excellent array of artefacts, animals and human remains found within a well preserved landscape.
This gives us a unique insight into the life of a now extinct human species (Homo heidelbergensis). What is most astonishing is that many of the artefacts recovered were found exactly where they were discarded around half a million years ago, including tens of thousands of waste flakes from knapping (process of shaping flint tools) of tools such as hand axes, which provides evidence for how flint tools were made.
Area GTP17 (Geological Test Pit 17), dubbed ‘The Horse Butchery Site’ contained evidence (artefacts and animal bone) relating to a single occurrence of horse butchery, which may have spanned just a few hours. At the site a group of hominins manufactured and modified hand axes, using them to process the carcass of a large horse.
Q1/B known as ‘The Waterhole Site, The Hominin Locality’ was a large area of the former quarry excavated from 1993 to 1996. The area revealed a series of deposits which relate to a spring fed pool.
These pools were situated within relatively open grassland and dated to the end of the warm interglacial period. These pools were attractive to a wide variety of game, and these drew the attention of hominins.
The concentration of activity, over perhaps a number of years, was evident from the large concentration of thousands of flint artefacts, including several hundred hand axes. Alongside these hand axes were the remains of mammal bones and teeth, many of which showed butchery marks.
The excavations showed that the landscape supported a wide array of wildlife including wild cat, wolf, lion, hyenas, bear, deer, horse, bison, elephant, rabbit, badgers, beavers, birds, rodents and much more.
Towards the end of the initial investigations in 1993, a remarkable discovery was made. A fossilised tibia (shinbone) belonging to Homo heidelbergensis, an extinct relative of modern-day humans was discovered.
This prompted the continuation of the ‘Boxgrove Project’ with funding from English Heritage. The tibia, which was the only post-cranial (i.e. not part of the skull) bone of Homo heidelbergensis to have been discovered in northern Europe, led specialists to believe the individual was of a very strong build, standing over 1.8m (5ft 10) in height and weighing over 80kg. In 1995 two hominin incisors from a second individual were also discovered.
The tibia shows signs of having been gnawed by a carnivore of some kind. While it is not known whether the individual was specifically preyed upon or simply caught the attention of a scavenger after their death, what this does show is that the remains could be scattered over a large area and further human fossils may still be present in the ground.
The two incisors, found within just a few meters of each other, belonged to a single individual. They come from a different hominid to that of the tibia who had lived at a slightly later time.
They showed signs of severe gum disease, as well as traces of small cut marks on the surface, the same as those found on other butchered bones across the site. Rather than cannibalism, however, this has been interpreted as a repeated activity by the individual involving the use of flint tools close to the mouth and may have related to food processing.
Another striking discovery made during excavations in 1995 was that of an antler from a now extinct giant deer which had been utilised as a soft hammer or making the finely crafted hand axes. Small pieces of flint had become embedded into the surface of the antler.
This soft hammer might be one of the earliest antler tools of its kind and reflects the sophisticated use of an elastic material, perfect for making thin cutting tools.
In 1997, part of the site was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. In 2003, the site was purchased by English Heritage.
Due to their national importance, the material excavated including the tibia and teeth from Boxgrove are now at the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, London.
For more information on the excavations please visit: boxgroveproject.wordpress.com/resources or access the site report Boxgrove A Middle Pleistocene hominid site at Eartham Quarry, Boxgrove, West Sussex.
By Dr Matt Pope, Principal research fellow in palaeolithic archaeology, University College London and Amy Roberts, collections officer, The Novium Museum
Excavation of ‘The Horse Butchery Site’ | Pics: UCL Institute of Archaeology