500,000 – 10,000 BCE

Late Upper Palaeolithic point from Lindholme Island – scale bar in cms (from Friend 2011)

Regional and national overview

From the point of view of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers, Britain lies at the northwesternmost periphery of the Pleistocene world; for much of the period it was linked to the continent across the exposed plains of Doggerland (now the North Sea) during periods of lowered sea levels of glacial cycles, and topographically it forms the westernmost extension of the Northern European Plain and the southern extent of the Northwest European Uplands. Biogeographically, it formed a ‘sink’ region into which humans dispersed briefly from core areas to the south and east, which occurred as part of the range extensions of Pleistocene faunal communities when climatic conditions allowed, typically at the early and late phases of interglacials (Pettitt and White 2012). A major goal of Palaeolithic archaeology is to identify the specific climatic and environmental parameters that facilitated such dispersals, to document the specific periods of the Pleistocene these occurred within, and hence understand the biological and behavioural potential of distinct human species (Pettitt, Gamble and Last 2008). In terms of Quaternary chronoclimate these are Marine Isotope Stages (henceforth MIS), which are numbered backwards from MIS1 (The Holocene). Odd numbered MISs reflect relatively warm interglacials, and even numbered reflect cold glacials. The recognition of considerable climatic instability within these large blocks of time has resulted in the recognition of numerous cold stadials and warm interstadials of 0.5-3ka duration, defined as substages of the MISs (Shackleton 1987. Tzedakis et al. 2001).

As with the rest of Europe north of the Pyrenees and Alps, the Lower, Middle and Upper Palaeolithic record of the United Kingdom reflects the repeated pulses of occupation by at least three human species; Homo heidelbergensis (Lower Palaeolithic: human fossil findspots including Boxgrove and Swanscombe, England), Homo neanderthalensis (Middle Palaeolithic: human fossil findspots restricted to several teeth from Pontnewydd Cave, Wales), and Homo sapiens (Upper Palaeolithic: fossil findspots Goat’s Hole, Paviland [the ‘Red Lady’] and Eel Point, Caldey Island, Wales; Gough’s Cave, Cheddar Gorge, England). The Palaeolithic record reflects a number of brief occupations of the country, probably by very small groups, and in terms of the late Lower, Middle and Upper Pleistocene, humans were absent as much as they were present. Currently, the earliest evidence for human dispersals into Britain takes the form of a small number of lithic artefacts from Happisburgh 3, Norfolk dating to the Lower and early Middle Pleistocene, that is >780,000 BP (Parfitt et al. 2010), and similar from Pakefield, Norfolk >750,000 BP (Parfitt et al. 2005). Subsequent to these contentiously dated sites, intermittent human presence is documented in England during the relatively warm interglacials of MIS13, 11, and 9, represented by a relatively rich Lower Palaeolithic record ~400,000-300,000 BP, characterised either by assemblages dominated by handaxes (Acheulian) or devoid of them (Clactonian). Subsequent to this, diminutive subtriangular handaxes, Levallois technology, and discoidal working of cobbles is characteristic of the Middle Palaeolithic in parts of MIS7 and MIS3 (~300,000-180,000 BP; 50,000-40,000 BP). It is only with the Upper Palaeolithic that respectable amounts of lithic artefacts are found north of the midlands, particularly in regions adjacent to South Yorkshire.

The nearest cultural stratigraphy to South Yorkshire are the materials from neighbouring parts of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, i.e. the caves of the Creswell Heritage Area. These document human presence in the broad region in MIS3 and MIS2, notably Middle Palaeolithic (Mousterian ~50-40,000 BP), final Middle/early Upper Palaeolithic (Lincombian/Ranisian/Jerzmanowician or LRJ ‘leafpoint’ assemblages ~37-40,000 BP) assumed to have been produced by the last Neanderthals on the Northern European Plain, Mid Upper Palaeolithic (Gravettian/Fontrobertian ~29,000 BP), and Late Upper Palaeolithic (Creswellian/Magdalenian ~14-15,000 BP; Federmessergruppen ~14-13,000 BP, both made by Homo sapiens. North of the county, Final Upper Palaeolithic material is known from the Yorkshire Wolds (e.g. Kinsey and Victoria Caves near Settle) and to the southwest in the Staffordshire Peak District (e.g. Fox Hole Cave, Thor’s Cave). Taken at face value, the existing archaeology is consistent with brief-lived Creswellian activity centred upon the Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire border, with few outliers, and a subsequent modest expansion to the north and west in the Allerød as far as Lancashire, where the Pouton elk was killed by Federmessergruppen hunters ~13,800-14,000 BP (Pettitt et al. in press) and diagnostic lithics have been recovered from Kirkhead Cave in Morecambe Bay.

South Yorkshire: the Palaeolithic resource

The Palaeolithic archaeology of South Yorkshire is poor relative to the neighbouring karsts of the Staffordshire Peak District and limestone of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire (Pettitt et al. 2012), and in this sense is similar to that of West Yorkshire (Spikins 2010). Pre- Late Upper Palaeolithic archaeology in the county will have been severely eroded and displaced by the destructive effects of the MIS8 and MIS2 (Last Glacial Maximum) glaciers. Ice sheets of the former extended into Lincolnshire and the southern bight of the North Sea (Beets et al. 2005), and the latter to Herefordshire and the Vale of York, as far south as Lindholme to the east of Doncaster (Straw 2016. Friend et al. 2016). Periglacial erosional conditions would additionally have prevailed for several hundred kilometres south of the maximum glacial extent. Despite this, its various landscapes offer the potential for archaeology, particularly for the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic (Grassam and Weston 2014). The absolute scarcity of Lower Palaeolithic finds in the county is not surprising, therefore, with the exception of individual handaxe finds at Back Field at Cantley, Rossington, and two flint artefacts found associated with gravel quarrying at Lindholme, all isolated finds probably redeposited by the LGM glacier (Oliver and Davies 2008). Lithic artefacts from Rossington lack specific findspots; one is an Acheulian ovate; others have been described as Aurignacian (Early Upper Palaeolithic) and Mousterian but this attribution remains to be verified; given the paucity and southern distribution of the former in England, an EUP attribution is unlikely. From the description, one handaxe may be Middle Palaeolithic in age, but again this requires verification.

Caves and rock shelters occur in the Magnesian and carboniferous limestone karsts at the southwestern and eastern edges of South Yorkshire (Oliver and Davies 2008). Most Palaeolithic archaeology recovered from karst contexts derives from neighbouring counties, however, notably Staffordshire’s Manifold Valley (e.g. Thor’s Fissure, Ossom’s Cave), Creswell Crags (Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire; which includes engraved art in Church Hole and Robin Hood Cave) and collections of Pleistocene fauna from Pleasley Vale Quarry. Within South Yorkshire, Anston Stones Gorge and Roche Gorge have important potential for Late Upper Palaeolithic archaeology, yet remain poorly investigated. In the former, a small trench in Dead Man’s Cave yielded a small amount of Creswellian material (Mellars 1969) and Pleistocene fauna including reindeer, 14C measurements on which (~9800-9900 BP) were measured in the technique’s infancy and should be regarded as minimum ages. Otherwise the gorge remains unexcavated, with the exception of two small, archaeologically sterile, trial trenches (excavations directed by Glyn Davies and Paul Pettitt 2015, and Mark White, 2016).

Rhinoceros, mammoth and aurochs remains were found in the Don Gorge during construction of water pipes in 1878 and a railway line in 1906; the exact location is unknown but is likely in the vicinity of Nearcliffe Wood near Conisbrough (Howes and Marshall 2013). Fauna recovered from Pleasley (notably in Yew Tree Cave) includes hyaena and woolly rhinoceros, which must indicate an MIS3 age for some of its deposits (as both were extinct in Britain by ~30,000 BP) and mammoth, horse, reindeer and the rare lynx, presumably of MIS2 age (Oliver and Davies 2008) belonging to the Pin Hole Mammalian Assemblage Zone/MAZ (REF). Possible Late Upper Palaeolithic lithics also derive from the vale. At Roche Gorge, potentially Late Upper Palaeolithic lithics were recovered from the Stone rockshelter; as with Anston, this gorge remains unexcavated despite its potential. A small trench in the large rock shelter in Lob Wells Wood, Rotherham, yielded a penknife point, a diagnostic type fossil of the eponymous Federmessergruppen, which in Britain falls in the early and late Allerød ~13,000-14,000 BP. A rock shelter at Stone Green near Maltby yielded lithics of potentially Late Upper Palaeolithic age, and lithics of possible Final Pleistocene age were recovered from secondary contexts in Edlington Wood, Doncaster (Dolby 1973), which may derive from a buried rockshelter (Oliver and Davies 2008). All of these sites are characterised by very small excavations undertaken long ago, and poorly recorded. In all cases finds were made casually in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and lack contextual information. An evaluation of the Palaeolithic attribution of the non- type fossil artefacts (most of them) would be instructive.

A major topographical feature of the Lateglacial was proglacial Lake Humber, the high level of which occurred within the Last Glacial Maximum, extending across Lincolnshire to the vicinity of Tadcaster and the York and Escrick moraines of the British-Irish Ice Sheet (BIIS) in the north, to Ferrybridge in the west, and to the Torne and Idle valleys south of Doncaster (Straw 2016. Friend et al. 2016). Although the pattern of drainage of the lake was complex and at times highly erosional (Fairburn and Bateman 2016), characteristic sands and gravels deriving from its high stand up to ~30m OD have been identified at several locations, e.g. Ferrybridge (Bateman et al. 2007), reflecting both littoral and near shore environments. The lake persisted until ~14,500 BP, at least at its maximum extent (Fairburn and Bateman 2016). Given that the human re-dispersal into Britain following deglaciation occurred ~15,000 BP (Jacobi and Higham 2011), the lake’s littoral deposits may contain Late Upper Palaeolithic (Creswellian) material. One example of this is the flint artefact from Lindholme Island – identified as a burin (Friend 2011) but is actually a Cheddar Point of Creswellian attribution (identification: author). Areas such as the Don palaeochannel, therefore, have considerable potential for Lateglacial archaeology.

Plant macrofossil evidence from Palaeolithic deposits is most likely to be preserved as waterlogged rather than charred material (Carruthers and Hunter-Dowse 2019, 22).  Direct evidence for plant processing from waterlogged plant macrofossils is rare but waterlogged plant macrofossils and other paleoenvironmental remains provide evidence for the environment and, therefore, wild plant foods potentially available for exploitation (ibid., 22).  Sampling for waterlogged plant macrofossils alongside sampling for insects and pollen should be a priority wherever suitable deposits are encountered, such as the Don paleochannel and deposits associated with the proglacial Lake Humber.  Paleoenvironmental sampling should also be a priority wherever organic deposits are found associated with cultural remains (Hall and Huntley 2007, 23).  Where bulk sampling for charred plant macrofossils is carried out on sites of later periods, this also has the potential to increase the chances for recovery of Palaeolithic artefacts, through routine sorting of flotation sample heavy residues.

Areas in need of enhancement

The below are a list of opportunities for research or areas in which additional knowledge would be particularly useful. In contrast to the specific research questions in the next section they can be seen as more general comments on the state of research.

  • The paucity of Lower and Middle Palaeolithic artefacts (handaxes or otherwise) and identification of primary context sites, which given the effects of glacial activity would probably be restricted to caves, and is unlikely to yield large numbers of artefacts, although the typology of handaxes may indicate which MIS interglacials human activity was present in the region (e.g. MIS11, 9).
  • Evaluation of Pleistocene faunal accumulations in the karst, e.g. Pleasley Vale; 14C dating and attribution to Mammalian Assemblage Zones. At present these can be parsimoniously attributed to the Upper Pleistocene (MIS3 and possibly MIS2) although there is no reason why a late Middle Pleistocene (MIS7) element might not be present. Major biostratigraphic reconstructions of such fauna from other old excavations has proved very valuable, notably at Pontnewydd Cave and the Goat’s Hole cave at Paviland, Wales (Pettitt 2000. Pettitt et al. 2012), and with the exception of Windy Knoll in the Peak District, major faunal assemblages are entirely lacking in the Midlands and north.
  • The paucity of Late Upper Palaeolithic artefacts characteristic of the Creswellian and subsequent Federmessergruppen of the Lateglacial Interstadial is notable, both in terms of absolute numbers of findspots and the quantity of artefacts. These have been recovered only in very small numbers, both from open air and rockshelter/cave sites. This pattern reflects that of caves and shelters in the Creswell Heritage Region in neighbouring Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire probably forming part of the brief regional operational areas of these groups.
  • There is a need for further identification of the palaeoshores of Lake Humber, e.g. in the Don Valley, and investigation of their Lateglacial archaeological potential. This could identify and considerably improve our understanding of Late Upper Palaeolithic activity in the county.
  • Lack of raw material analysis of Late Upper Palaeolithic flint artefacts and identification of their geological source, e.g. through LA-ICP-MS. Previous work has shown the long-distance movement of Creswellian groups (Pettitt, Rockman and Chenery 2012), and individual artefacts from the county could contribute to the further nuancing of such work.
  • The apparent absence of terminal Pleistocene Long Blade assemblages. Re-evaluation of existing lithic artefacts in the light of their HER identifications may achieve this, e.g. material previously described as Upper Palaeolithic, for example, is probably later.

Research questions

Historic England recognise the need to recognise and understand ‘sites without structures’ (Historic England 2010). The objectives and questions outlined below address its critical priorities and research themes, which can be cross-referenced in the Historic England document.

  • Landscape perspectives (Theme PR1), Innovative Studies of Sites and Monuments (Theme PR2), and Critical Priority 1 (Integrated approaches to prehistoric landscapes); Critical Priority 2 (setting prehistoric sites in context); Critical Priority 3 (understanding sites without strucures): through consideration of South Yorkshire’s diverse contexts for Palaeolithic archaeology, e.g. lake shore and karst and their integration in human foraging systems in the region, and hence, the consideration of findspots and sites in wider landscape context.
  • Understanding prehistoric society (Theme PR3); realising the potential of scientific techniques (Theme PR5); by refining our identification and understanding of existing archaeological and faunal collections in museums and use of appropriate analytical techniques on these (e.g. isotopes, dating).
  • Critical approaches to key transitions (Theme PR4); human interaction with the environment (Theme PR6); responding to changing environments (Theme PR7); Critical Priority 4 (managing the impact of climate change): through establishing the timing and climatic/environmental context of human dispersals in the area and their subsistence strategies by investigation of sites of archaeological potential in karst and open regions, and sites of faunal accumulations in the karst regions.
  • Raising profiles (Theme PR9) and teaching prehistory (Critical Priority 6) through re-evaluation of existing collections and public participation in new fieldwork in the karst and around Palaeolake Humber. This can be done in the context of the establishment of new research projects in line with Historic England research topics (Historic England 2010 appendix 4).

General objectives

  • Expand and refine the evidence base for Palaeolithic sites and finds and Pleistocene fauna.
  • Improve our knowledge of Pleistocene climate and environment through investigation of geological sediments and isotopic analysis of faunal remains.
  • Investigate the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic archaeology of cave and rockshelter sites in the karst, and thus human use of these environments.
  • Promote public awareness of the period, notably through its major sites and through its museum collections.
  • Contribute to national and international research questions on the timing and limitations of human dispersals into northwest Europe.

Research questions

How can Pleistocene sediments and faunal remains refine our understanding of the Palaeolithic environment and its fluctuation in space and time?

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How can we identify deposits belonging to Pleistocene interglacials that were suitable for human occupation, i.e. MIS11, 9, 7, 3 and 2?

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How can we take maximum advantage of the research potential of quarry sites, particularly with regard to Lower Palaeolithic archaeology?

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How might we identify middle Palaeolithic sites, for example within the Magnesian limestone formation that includes the Creswell Heritage Area?

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Does the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic archaeology of the county’s caves and open air sites correlate, or do they sample distinct periods? How are the two related?

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Given the proximity of Creswell Crags, how might we identify and curate examples of Palaeolithic artwork, both parietal (caves) and portable?

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Palaeolithic, Cave

Can we refine by radiocarbon dating the chronology of Upper Pleistocene faunal communities and middle and upper Palaeolithic sites?

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Can the isotopic investigation of existing faunal remains contribute to the development of the palaeoecology of Britain, e.g. dispersal and movement patterns (oxygen, strontium) and diet (carbon, nitrogen)?

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How may lithic technologies have changed from the Late and Final Palaeolithic to Mesolithic periods, and what might this signify in terms of raw material sources and human behaviour?

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How can we utilise fieldwalking and test-pitting programmes to prospect for Lateglacial open-air sites, and how can these be used to promote public engagement with Palaeolithic archaeology?

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Original text by Paul Pettitt (2018), with a contribution by Ellen Simmons (Archaeobotany)


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