The Lower and Middle Palaeolithic in the West Midlands: previous research In comparison with the south and east of England there are relatively few Lower and Middle Palaeolithic finds recorded in the West Midlands. Before the 1960s, amateur collectors, archaeologists and geologists (with the notable exception of Professor F.W. Shotton; Lang and Keen 2005, 66-7) showed little interest in the Palaeolithic archaeology of the region. More recently, although some significant field collection has been carried out, especially around the Severn/Avon confluence in Worcestershire by P. Whitehead, and at Wolvey in north Warwickshire by R. Waite, considerably increasing the number of known finds (Lang and Keen 2005; Lang and Buteux 2007, 13), there have been no systematic research-led programmes of artefact recovery. The most significant site discovery, made by quarry workers at Waverley Wood near Warwick in the 1980s (handaxes in a pre-Anglian palaeochannel deposit), was reported by Shotton (Shotton and Wymer 1989, Shotton et al 1993) and has been studied in more detail recently (Lang and Keen 2005).
In wider terms, the recent survey of the Palaeolithic archaeology of English river valleys deals with the West Midlands in a relatively cursory manner (Wessex Archaeology 1996; Wymer 1999, 114-21, 176-78), although it does provide a helpful correlation of the Severn and Avon river terrace deposits, together with summaries of the archaeological evidence from the Avon Valley, Waverley Wood, and the Wolvey area (the only part of the region that warrants a finds distribution map; Wymer 1999, 178, map 54). The Lower and Middle Palaeolithic archaeology of the West Midlands was assessed by Simon Buteux in 2001 for the Regional Research Framework earlier prehistory seminar. This led to a one year research programme (The Shotton Project) commissioned by English Heritage (funded by the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund) to evaluate the nature and research potential of Palaeolithic evidence in the West Midlands. Our understanding of the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic of the region, and its research potential, has been significantly enhanced by this work, published in papers by Lang and Keen (2005) and Lang and Buteux (2007). The present discussion of the evidence is based mainly on these papers, and on the data presented previously by Wymer (1999).
Current research agenda in Lower and Middle Palaeolithic archaeology Lower and Middle Palaeolithic archaeology in Britain has risen in prominence in recent years in both academic circles and popular perception. The discoveries at Boxgrove, in particular, have captured the public imagination and emphasised the international research significance of the British evidence (Roberts and Parfitt 1999). It is important to recognise that research aims and methods in Palaeolithic archaeology are in many respects different to those prevailing in studies of later periods. Above all, Palaeolithic archaeology cannot be separated from Quaternary climatology, geology and human evolutionary studies (Lang and Buteux 2007, 8-10). The chronological framework for the period, for example, is based on the Marine Oxygen Isotope Stage (MIS) sequence derived from Pleistocene climatological and geological studies, in relation to which biostratigraphical and archaeological sequences and specific assemblages are ordered (Barton 2005, 16-29; Wymer 1999, 2-4, 29-31). The archaeological evidence for the period is also distinctive in that it consists almost entirely of lithic artefacts (see Barton 2005, 6-14, for a basic introduction), produced by pre-modern humans whose cognitive capabilities and social practices may have been profoundly different to those of modern humans (ibid; cf Gamble 1996; Mithen 1996).
Current research themes in British Lower and Middle Palaeolithic archaeology are set out in a Prehistoric Society research document (1999), and key issues and debates have been reviewed in several recent books and articles (eg Gamble and Lawson 1996; English Heritage 1998; Gamble 1999; Wymer 1999; Ashton et al 2002; Barton 2005; McNabb 2006). There are also major national research programmes currently in progress concerned with Palaeolithic archaeology (notably the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project funded by the Leverhulme Trust). These identify a number of general research themes, all to a greater or lesser extent relevant to the West Midlands:
Although there is broad agreement about British Pleistocene chronology and the course of environmental change based on the MIS geo-climatological sequence, and about the relationship of many regional chrono-stratigraphies to the MIS framework (eg Bridgland 2000), there is no consensus in Lower and Middle Palaeolithic archaeology with regard to the most appropriate periodisation of evidence for human activity. There is, in particular, a basic contrast between MIS-based frameworks that give primacy to environmental sequences, and material culture-determined archaeological chronologies which assume that assemblage types relate to distinctive kinds of human behaviour, resource exploitation and cognition. The recent review of the West Midlands evidence by Lang and Keen (2005), for example, organises the evidence in relation to MIS stages. In contrast, Wymer (1999, 4) subdivides the British Lower and Middle Palaeolithic into three archaeological periods. This approach was adopted and modified by McNabb for his four-period division of the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic of the east midlands (2006, 13-16: Wymer’s ‘Period 3’ being subdivided for archaeological and geo-climatological reasons into Periods 3 and 4). McNabb’s framework is summarised below (with reference to British Middle and Late Pleistocene eras and the MIS sequence), and is used in the discussion that follows to describe the West Midlands evidence. Dates are given in years Ka (thousand years ago).
Period 1: Cromerian and Anglian (MIS 19-12), c 800–423 Ka. The earliest human occupation (H. heidelburgensis) associated with early Lower Palaeolithic artefacts (Acheulian handaxe and flake tool industries). Humans were probably absent during most but not necessarily all of the Anglian glaciation (c 478-423 Ka).
Period 2: Hoxnian to middle Wolstonian (MIS 11-8), c 423-245 Ka. Occupation by humans from MIS 11 to 8 (H. heidelburgensis to early H. neanderthalensis; Barton 2005, 74-5); most of the Lower Palaeolithic finds in Britain date to this period (Acheulian handaxe and Clactonian flake tool industries), found primarily in river terrace deposits.
Period 3: Middle Wolstonian to Early Devensian (MIS 7-4); c 245-60 Ka. Limited early Middle Palaeolithic human presence during MIS 7, followed by the apparent absence of human populations from MIS 6 to late MIS 4.
Period 4: Early to Middle Devensian (first half of MIS 3); c 60-40 Ka. Reoccupation of Britain by H. neanderthalensis from the end of MIS 4 to mid-MIS 3, associated with late Middle Palaeolithic (Mousterian) industries.
Geological and palaeontological evidence
An important development in recent Lower and Middle Palaeolithic studies in the West Midlands is the identification of major pre-Anglian river systems (Period 1; before 480 Ka). The largest of these, the Bytham, traversed the region from south-west to north- east: from south Worcestershire, crossing Warwickshire, and then continuing across the east midlands and East Anglia to reach the North Sea basin near Lowestoft in Suffolk (Lang and Keen 2005, 64, fig 1; Lang and Buteux 2007, 20; cf Rose 1989, 1994). A second ancient river, the Mathon, represented by deposits in eastern Herefordshire and part of Shropshire, was either a tributary of the Bytham or flowed into an as yet unidentified pre-Severn river (Lang and Buteux 2007, 15-16; cf Maddy 1999).
Identification of these rivers is important for several reasons. In particular, mapping of the river systems is essential for understanding the geography of the early human occupation of Britain (during MIS 13-12). As Lang and Buteux (2007, 15-16) observe, human populations would have relied on constant access to the water and food sources that river valleys provided and are likely to have followed river valleys in moving through the landscape. They suggest that there were two major entry routes into central Britain prior to the Anglian: from the east along the Bytham and the pre-Anglian Thames (cf Wymer 1999, 130-31), and from the south along the coast (eg at Boxgrove) and into the ancient Solent and its tributary river valleys (although Wymer notes that there is little evidence for pre-Anglian activity in the Hampshire Basin; ibid, 109). The pre-Anglian finds in the West Midlands, including the Waverley Wood material, can in this context be seen as part of a more extensive distribution of pre-Anglian material along the Bytham, including the important site at High Lodge (Lang and Keen 2005, 73; Ashton et al 1992). The research potential of these deposits is extremely high, with major implications for Lower and Middle Palaeolithic studies in Britain.
Recent discoveries of artefacts in the Cromer Forest-bed Formation deposits at Pakefield (Suffolk) and Happisburgh (Norfolk) (Parfitt et al 2005) appear to pre-date the Bytham river in this area and may provide evidence for an even earlier human presence in Britain at various times during MIS 19-14, with major implications for our understanding of the earliest human colonisation of northern Europe. It is important to note that if precursors to the Bytham flowed in roughly the same direction during MIS 19-14, and humans moved along the river as they appear to have done later on, it is possible that similar early material may occur in central Britain.
The Anglian glaciation, which commenced around 480 Ka (MIS 12), obliterated the pre-Anglian river systems and destroyed most of the deposits associated with them (Lang and Keen 2005, 75). The major rivers of the West Midlands that exist today – the Trent, Severn and the Avon in Warwickshire and Worcestershire – have all developed since the end of the Anglian glaciation (Lang and Buteux 2007, 15). The terrace sequences of the Avon and the Severn, which contain evidence for human activity during Periods 2 and 3, can now be provisionally dated and related to the MIS sequence on the basis of palaeontological and archaeological evidence (ibid; for a detailed summary see Wymer 1999, 117-19, tbl 11, fig 45). These terrace deposits have in some places provided important information for reconstructing local environments and climatic conditions (eg at Cropthorne, Eckington and Strensham along the lower Avon; Lang and Buteux 2007, 16). It is important to note, however, that the Middle and Late Pleistocene geological sequence in the West Midlands, and the structure of regional drainage patterns, are still little understood. The possible occurrence of a major glaciation during the Wolstonian (MIS 10-6), for example, which would have destroyed Anglian (MIS 12) and post-Anglian (Hoxnian; MIS 11) river systems, has not yet been resolved and the implications of such processes for understanding human occupation in the region remain unexplored (Wymer 1999, 115-19).
Lower and Middle Palaeolithic sites and lithic artefacts
Several hundred Lower and Middle Palaeolithic artefacts have been found in the West Midlands, mostly from the terrace deposits of the River Avon in Warwickshire and Worcestershire, and from the terraces of the Severn (Lang and Buteux 2007, fig 2.1, tbl 2.2). There are, however, no known sites in the region with in situ archaeological deposits such as knapping debris (Lang and Keen 2005, 71). Notable concentrations of lithic artefacts have been found close to the Avon/Severn confluence at Beckford and Kemerton, around Warwick in the Avon valley and at Wolvey in north Warwickshire (Fig 2.1). In contrast, few artefacts have been found in the Severn valley above Worcester or in central, western and northern parts of the region. As Lang and Buteux (2007, 13) demonstrate, such distribution patterns are largely a product of uneven fieldwork: the groups of finds known from the Avon/Severn confluence and the Wolvey area, for example, were mostly collected by individual fieldworkers. The current distribution map of Lower and Middle Palaeolithic artefacts is clearly not, therefore, a reliable guide to early human activity in the region as a whole.
The raw materials used for lithic tool manufacture in the West Midlands are distinctive. There are no outcrops containing flint in the region and most stone tools were made of poor quality ‘drift’ flint and local materials, especially quartzite from the Kidderminster Conglomerate found to the north and west of Birmingham (Lang and Keen 2005, 70- 1; cf Hardaker and MacRae 2000 on the use of quartzite along the Bytham river). The other most common material used was andesitic tuff, derived from glacial erratics or transported into the region from outcrops in the Lake District (Wymer 1999, 115; Lang and Keen 2005, 70-1). This diversity of raw materials is unusual at a regional scale in the British Palaeolithic (Lang and Buteux 2007, 14).
The Lower and Middle Palaeolithic finds recorded in the West Midlands are summarised below following the Period division outlined above (cf McNabb 2006).
Period 1 (Pre-Anglian and Anglian; MIS 19-12; c 800-423 Ka)
There is a cluster of extremely important pre-Anglian finds in north-east Warwickshire which date to MIS 13 or before. The most significant site in the region is Waverley Wood, to the north of Warwick, where an assemblage of five handaxes in fresh condition (four made of andesite), several quartzite tools and the remains of straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus), have been found in organic palaeochannel deposits sealed beneath Baginton Sand and Gravels (Thrussington Till) of Anglian date (Shotton and Wymer 1989; Wymer 1999, 115, 118, 178; Lang and Buteux 2007, 13). The palaeochannel is believed to be associated with the River Bytham and date to MIS 13 (c 500 Ka; Lang and Keen 2005, 73), roughly contemporary with the key site of High Lodge further along the Bytham to the east. It is possible that several finds from Baginton in the Avon valley, not far from Waverley Wood, may also belong to the pre-Anglian period (Lang and Buteux 2007, 13). The fresh condition of the Waverley Wood artefacts and their association with animal remains suggest that this site, and perhaps others in the vicinity, has considerable research potential for investigating the chronology and character of very early human activity, both regionally and nationally.
The artefacts recovered from surface deposits in the Wolvey area in Warwickshire (by R. Waite; Saville 1988) are more difficult to evaluate. They derive from the Oadby Till laid down during the Anglian glaciation and from the overlying Wigston (Dunsmore) Gravel, which is regarded as an outwash deposit from the Oadby Till (Wymer 1999, 178). These artefacts may be pre-Anglian, broadly contemporary with activity at Waverley Wood but redeposited in the course of the Anglian glaciation, or they may relate to activity during an unknown warmer interstadial that occurred during the Anglian period (ibid).
Period 2 (Hoxnian to middle Wolstonian; MIS 11-8; c 423-245 Ka)
In contrast to the large number of sites in southern and eastern England dating to the Hoxnian interglacial (MIS 11) and the sequence of cold – warm – cold stages of the first half of the Wolstonian period (MIS 10-8), there are virtually no well-dated artefacts of these periods in the West Midlands (Lang and Keen 2005, 75). at present, only the very small number of handaxes from Avon terrace 5 and Severn terrace 5 (three in total; ibid, tbl 2), which are correlated with MIS 9 (Wymer 1999, 114-21, tbl 11, fig 45), suggests there was human activity in the West Midlands in Period 2.
Period 3 (Middle Wolstonian to Early Devensian; MIS 7-4; c 245-60 Ka) Evidence for Middle Palaeolithic activity in Britain is extremely limited. There appears to have been sparse inhabitation by humans during MIS 7 (a warm stage), c 245-186 Ka, and humans were totally absent in the period c 186-60 Ka during MIS 6 (a cold stage at the end of the Wolstonian), MIS 5e (the Ipswichian warm stage) and MIS 5a-d (the cold and temperate stages of the early Devensian). Only at the end of MIS 4 did humans, presumably Neanderthals, re-colonise Britain. In the West Midlands, the handaxes found in Avon terrace 4 and Severn terrace 4 (23 in total; Lang and Keen 2005, 76-7, tbl.2), belong to MIS 7 (though the lower terrace 4 deposits may correlate with MIS 8: Wymer 1999, 114-21, tbl 11, fig 45). The large handaxe assemblage from Avon terrace 4 at Twyning pit, located just outside the region, is probably the same age as the West Midlands material (Lang and Keen 2005, 77; Wymer 1999, 117-18, tbl 11).
Period 4 (Early to Middle Devensian; first half of MIS 3; c 60-40 Ka)
The reoccupation of Britain, and the presence of later Neanderthal populations from c 60 Ka, is evident in the West Midlands only in the lower Avon valley, where handaxes and other lithic artefacts such as prepared cores have been recovered from Avon terrace 2, especially from Beckford and Kemerton (Aston Mill Pit) (a total of 52 bifaces; Lang and Keen 2005, tbl 2; Wymer 1999, 117-18, tbl 11). These include a number of late Middle Palaeolithic small flat-based flint handaxes and Levallois-type cores (Lang and Keen 2005, 77-8). Most of these artefacts were found in re-worked late MIS 3 or MIS 2 terrace gravels (dating to c 30 Ka) derived from deposits laid down at the beginning of MIS 3, c 60-50 Ka (ibid).
As work at Boxgrove has demonstrated, the discovery of just one well–preserved Lower or Middle Palaeolithic site with in situ remains has the potential to transform our understanding of these periods nationally and to contribute to research at an international scale. There is no reason to regard the West Midlands river terrace deposits, where these survive, as having any less potential than similar deposits elsewhere in southern Britain.
The research aims for Lower and Middle Palaeolithic archaeology in the West Midlands identified by Lang and Buteux (2007, 18-20) form the basis for the research agenda presented here. They observe that the presence of human populations in the West Midlands was discontinuous in time and space and that a key general aim must therefore be to determine the chronology, geographical extent and relative intensity of human activity, and to identify possible colonisation routes. This may further help to define the preferred environmental zones inhabited or traversed by early human populations. As both routes and favoured habitats were probably mostly riverine, it is clearly of primary research importance to identify, map and investigate the pre- Anglian river systems of the Bytham, the Mathon and the ‘pre-Severn’ (as well as possible precursors), and the post-Anglian riverscapes of the Severn, Avon, Lugg, Tame and Trent valleys. Investigation of in situ lithic assemblages, and recovery of high quality palaeo-environmental evidence from river terraces and other deposits (even in the absence of archaeological remains), should be research priorities wherever such evidence is encountered.
Specific research aims and questions that should take priority in Lower and Middle Palaeolithic studies in the region are discussed below under period headings.
The presence of pre-Anglian (MIS 18-13; c 800-480 Ka) material in the West Midlands has considerable importance in research terms. The Waverley Wood finds (c 500 Ka), in particular, are significant in relation to national and international research questions concerning the chronology and extent of the earliest human occupation of northern Europe. Further work on this site, and identification and investigation of contemporary sites in the region, is clearly a research priority. The suggestion of human migration along the Bytham river system from the North Sea basin, and the apparent contemporaneity of the Bytham and Mathon rivers, point to the possibility that similar evidence will exist in pre-Anglian river terrace and palaeochannel deposits right across the region (cf McNabb 2006, 18-20, 41). The recent discovery of earlier human activity on the North Sea coast in Suffolk and Norfolk (c 800-500 Ka) ‘close to the Bytham channel deposits’ may also have implications for the Lower Palaeolithic of the West Midlands, especially if an early course of the Bytham or other pre-Bytham rivers were used as migration routes by early humans. Identification and investigation of deposits in the region datable to MIS 18-13 may prove to be especially significant for future research.
The concentration of pre-Anglian or Anglian material around Wolvey in Warwickshire also deserves serious investigation to establish the date and character of the artefacts, their geological and environmental contexts and the research potential of the area. The presence of this material outside the main river systems raises the possibility that Lower Palaeolithic material may be present far more widely in the region than hitherto supposed. The recovery of Palaeolithic artefacts in areas that are promising in geological terms should be an explicit aim of all surface collection programmes.
The absence of Hoxnian sites in the West Midlands, in contrast to the very rich evidence from deposits of this period elsewhere in southern and eastern England, is surprising and demands particular investigation. It is possible that the Wolstonian glaciation event posited by Shotton (at some point during MIS 10-6; Wymer 1999, 115-19) may have destroyed Hoxnian deposits, but there is presently no evidence to support this. These issues should be priorities for both archaeological and geological research in the region.
It is uncertain whether the few artefacts datable to MIS 10 to 8, recovered from the river terraces of the Avon and Severn, reflect small-scale and episodic occupation or limited field investigation. The significance of this material, its precise dating, processes of terrace formation and reconstruction of the changing environment, all require integrated archaeological and geological study (ibid).
The early Middle Palaeolithic handaxes found in Avon terrace 4 and Severn terrace 4 suggest human activity in the West Midlands during the early part of MIS 7 (Lang and Keen 2005, 79), but the rarity of artefacts with evidence for Levallois technology, the earliest occurrence of which is broadly associated with the Lower-Middle Palaeolithic transition (Barton 2005, 81), raises questions about the chronology extent and nature of occupation. The apparent abandonment of Britain by human populations during MIS 6-5 and most if not all of MIS 4 remains little understood: there is considerable potential for geological and bio-stratigraphic evidence from the West Midlands, especially from river terrace contexts, to shed light on environmental conditions in this period (Lang and Buteux 2007, 19).
The extent to which the West Midlands region was occupied by Neanderthals at the end of the Middle Palaeolithic, after the re-colonisation of Britain at the end of MIS 4 (from c 70 Ka at the earliest) and the early part of MIS 3 (c 59-40 Ka), is unknown. The only major group of finds of this period in the region was found by just one fieldworker in south Worcestershire and it is unlikely that this is representative of the wider picture. The rich palaeo-environmental evidence from sites of this period, especially along the Avon valley river terraces, certainly point to the potential for discovering contemporary archaeological sites in similar contexts throughout the West Midlands (Lang and Keen 2005, 79).
The research agenda and key research questions outlined above have major implications for methods of resource assessment, curatorial practices, fieldwork methods and networks of communication and data gathering in the region.
There is a need for more detailed evaluation of the research potential of the Palaeolithic archaeology and Pleistocene palaeo-environments of the region, especially in river gravel contexts (cf English Heritage 1998). This should certainly be undertaken at local and county levels, although larger regional and inter-regional scales of analysis are especially appropriate for investigating major river systems.
Continuing assessment of quarry sites and further evaluation of museum and private collections are also essential for defining in more detail the nature, scale and research potential of the archaeological resource in the region.
It is evident that Palaeolithic archaeology should be brought more effectively into the domain of developer-funded archaeology and the planning process guided by PPG16. In particular, finds of non- archaeological fossils and deposits do not fall within the current remit of curatorial archaeology, yet these are central to Quaternary studies and the investigation and interpretation of Palaeolithic remains (Lang and Buteux 2007, 19). In this context, perhaps the most important issue for curatorial archaeologists relates to how archaeological and palaeo-environmental data of this period can be effectively incorporated into the region’s Historic Environment Records (HERs).
An important methodological development that can be facilitated by HER databases is ‘predictive modelling’ of sites and finds (cf English Heritage 1998; Wymer 1999). This should be combined with systematic and regular monitoring of sand and gravel workings for Palaeolithic finds and Pleistocene deposits, combined with a programme of site prospection. Contacts among fieldworkers, quarry companies and workers, and professional archaeologists, geologists and other specialists should be an essential feature of such work.
Lang and Buteux (2007, 6) observe that most field and curatorial archaeologists in the region, as elsewhere in England, are unfamiliar with Lower and Middle Palaeolithic archaeology and that there is a need to establish protocols for dealing with this evidence and to provide training in appropriate sampling and analytical techniques. Recommended prospection, investigation and evaluation procedures in Palaeolithic archaeology outlined recently by Collcut (in McNabb 2006; app 2) provide some important guidelines in this area.
The Lower and Middle Palaeolithic periods in the West Midlands are perhaps especially important in regional and wider terms. The geographical position of the region at the furthest northern limits of Lower Palaeolithic settlement, at a global scale, is clearly important for exploring early human adaptations in what must often have been an extreme environment for human occupation. Indeed, evidence for activity dating to these periods immediately has potential international research significance: the discovery of a single well-preserved in situ deposit of pre-Anglian date, for example, is relevant to far reaching research questions concerning early human migration, social behaviour and cognition. There is scope within the region to address basic questions concerning the chronology, spatial distribution and ecological and landscape settings of early activity, and how these relate to Quaternary climate change, river terrace formation and bio- stratigraphic sequences. There is potential here for significant new discoveries that could radically transform our wider understanding of the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic in Britain. The recent publications by Lang and Keen (2005), and Lang and Buteux (2007), plainly set out the research opportunities and challenges ahead.
It is also important to note that there are two major national projects that will contribute significantly to all aspects of Lower and Middle Palaeolithic archaeology in the West Midlands in the next decade. The National Ice Age Network, which aims to foster contacts and collaborative research in Pleistocene studies, especially in relation to sand and gravel extraction sites, operates from several centres including the University of Birmingham and has a strong presence in the region. This is funded by the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund and administered jointly by English Heritage and English Nature. The Leverhulme Trust funded Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project, concerned specifically with key research questions in British Palaeolithic archaeology, will also clearly contribute in a fundamental way to the development of future national and regional research agenda.