The “Ice Age” refers to the climate of the last 2.6 million years, known geologically as the Quaternary Period, when large parts of north-west Europe were repeatedly covered by glaciers. During these “glacial” periods, south of the ice, there were swift-flowing, cold rivers and bare tundra. The sparse vegetation fed mammals such as mammoths and woolly rhinos. The Ice Age, however, was not always cold. Glacials were interrupted by briefer warm episodes (“interglacials”) when conditions were favourable for a wide variety of animals and plants, as they are today.
The glacial periods of the Quaternary became more severe in the last million years, and glaciers started to form in upland Britain. Ice sheets gradually built up over much of northern and western Britain before retreating more quickly at the end of each glacial period. The trapping of water in the ice sheets caused sea level to fall: at the height of the last glacial epoch around 20,000 years ago, sea levels were around 130m lower than today.
Conversely, in interglacial times, ice was restricted to mountains and the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland. During the last interglacial, around 125,000 years ago, the sea level was several metres higher than today. Despite these fluctuations, Britain has been an island for very little of the last 500,000 years. For the majority of this time, animals and humans would have been able to walk from Europe into southern England as the ice receded, then retreat again as the climate cooled.
Huge climatic shifts during this period meant that the area now called Worcestershire was at times entirely covered by an ice sheet several hundred metres thick, with only the tops of the Malvern Hills visible. At other times, the climate was similar to or warmer than today, even allowing hippopotamus to bathe in the River Severn around 125,000 years ago.
In Worcestershire, our knowledge of the Ice Age comes from both geological and archaeological studies of preserved Ice Age deposits and the plant remains, animal fossils and human artefacts they contain. The county benefits not only from the existence of two extant river systems, whose terrace sequences are well-preserved and have demonstrated the presence of both artefacts and environmental remains, but also the remnants of pre-Anglian river systems. These deposits have the potential to contain environmental evidence, and possibly artefacts, from key periods in Palaeolithic Britain. Even where they do not contain artefacts, Pleistocene palaeoenvironmental deposits can help to build local and regional deposit models.
Our area is internationally famous for staircase-like flights of river terraces. Studies on these phenomena were led, in the first half of the 20th century, by Mabel Tomlinson on the Avon and Leonard Wills FRS on the Severn. Over the last half million years the land surface has progressively uplifted. As a consequence, the Severn, the Avon and their tributaries have incised (eroded into) underlying bedrock at a rate of around 15 cm per 1000 years. The river floodplains were often several kilometres wide in the past, much broader than today. At each Stage, a flat-topped pile of river sediment accumulated on the valley floor. With each incision, previous river sediment is eroded, with remnants (terraces) left locally on the valley side. The highest terraces are the oldest, whilst the youngest are close to the level of the modern floodplain.
The terrace deposits are characteristically poor in fine sediment, unlike the muddy deposits that dominate modern floodplains. Hence, they have been extensively extracted for sand and gravel. These braided rivers typify the outwash downstream of glaciers. A link to cold climate is specifically demonstrable where suitable fossils occur in local lenses of fine sediment or in the rare case of a mammoth tusk. Locally however, and particularly near the base of terrace deposits, more varied sediments including fine-grained deposits of abandoned channels or swamps are found containing a more diverse range of animal remains and fossil pollen indicating temperate, often fully interglacial conditions.
Perhaps the most widespread indicator of former periglacial conditions in the county is the presence of solifluction deposits, created by the downward movement of soil and surface layers on slopes. Strictly speaking, most of this process is actually gelifluction, which reflects the fact that permafrost or ground ice was present. This means that in summer, any surface water was not able percolate downwards, but was confined to the near-surface zone. This favoured the slow movement of a well-lubricated layer of ‘sludge’, even on slight slopes, less than 1° in some cases. There would have been little binding vegetation to impede the flow, and the general effect of the whole process is to smooth out the landscape.
On the Worcestershire side of the Malvern Hills, there are extensive sheets of these soliflucted materials, which are usually called head on geological maps. These deposits reach as far as the River Severn, grading into some of the terrace deposits. They have a wide mixture of sediment sizes (diamict) and so in small exposures can be confused with glacial till. At Castlemorton Common, where they are known as “Malvern Gravels’, exposures of these deposits in the banks of local streams reveal a high component of broken Precambrian rocks from the nearby Malvern Hills. These exposures also reveal involutions (layers of gravel distorted into curved shapes), created by freeze-thaw action after the gravels were deposited. At Beckford Quarry in the Carrant Valley south of Bredon Hill, successive layers of slope deposits (locally referred to as ‘fan gravels’) can be clearly seen. In this case, the layers are made up of limestone and sandstone fragments derived from local Cotswold rocks, and a combination of solifluction, input of wind-blown sand, and local stream action was involved.
Although the Worcestershire landscape is largely dominated by the post- Anglian river systems of the Severn and the Avon, there is evidence surviving of the pre-Anglian rivers and lakes, including the Mathon in the area around Tenbury, which was substantial river that flowed west of the Malverns until the Anglian glaciation carved up and altered the landscape. In the late 19th century, scholars mapped the distribution of distinctive rock types called erratics: boulders transported by ice away from their place of origin. Some people held to rival theories that erratics were dropped from floating ice or moved by rivers. However, the discovery of erratic blocks of igneous basalt at Romsley Hill at 275 m altitude, much higher than its source in Rowley Regis in the Black Country, confirmed that they were deposited by glaciers. Maps published by Daniel Mackintosh in 1879 and Fred Martin in 1890 showed that erratics from the Lake District and Scotland were common to the north of Birmingham. In contrast, in the city itself and in the northern fringes of Worcestershire, the erratics were from North Wales. The locations of the two sets of erratics defined pathways that crossed. This led to an early realization that more than one phase of glaciation had occurred, since converging glaciers move side-by-side rather than crossing.
The last million years in Worcestershire has been marked by an amazing diversity of animals, large and small, as the climate fluctuated. As temperatures rose species were able to expand into new areas, before being pushed back further south as the climate turned colder.
During warm interglacials, herds of horses, bison and aurochs would have roamed the open grasslands of Britain. Beavers and dolphins swam in our rivers; at the height of the Hoxnian Interglacial (around 400,000 years ago) oak forests were home to deer and macaque monkeys.
Lions, bears, wolves and early humans would have hunted large animals like rhinoceros and the straight tusked elephant. Straight tusked elephants are now extinct but they were once the largest Ice Age animal of all, twice as large as elephants today and even bigger than a mammoth. They could grow to four metres in height, ten tonnes in weight and their straight tusks could grow to over three metres in length.
Around 130,000 – 115,000 years ago, a particularly warm interglacial allowed tropical species to live in Britain. Hippopotamus bones have been found in Worcestershire at Eckington, Bengeworth and Stourbridge. Spotted hyenas, lions and narrow-nosed rhinoceros are also known to have lived in Britain during this time.
In comparison, glacial Worcestershire was populated by animals suited to cold, arctic conditions. With the exception of the brutally cold Anglian glaciation around 480,000 years ago – when two-thirds of Britain was under several hundred meters of ice – plants and animals were able to live and thrive here during glacial periods. Animals like the woolly rhinoceros, bison, musk ox, reindeer and the Irish elk, which had the largest antlers of any animal that ever lived (three and a half metres from tip to tip), were all residents of snowy Ice Age landscapes.
But the story of Worcestershire’s Ice Age animals is not quite as clear cut as it first appears. ‘Millicent’ mammoth, discovered in 1990 at Strensham Service along the M5, was found in with deposits containing cold-adverse mollusc species; showing Millicent lived in open grassland with a climate similar to Britain’s today. Whilst we tend to picture mammoths walking across deep snow, they could survive in more temperate climes – to a point. As the world began to warm up after the last glacial, which reached its peak around 21,000 years ago, the habitat and numbers of mammoths and other Ice Age animals dwindled. Human hunters further reduced these populations. The very last mammoths known in Northern Europe were found in 1986 at Condover, Shropshire. They died 14,000 years ago.
Another interesting anomaly is the finding of faunal remains during the excavation of the railway tunnel through the Malvern Hills in 1850s. Solifluction deposits excavated near to the eastern entrance of the tunnel — which lies at a height of 130m above sea level — were found to contain ‘perfect rhinoceros molars’, indicating that Woolly Rhinoceros must once have browsed the higher slopes of the Malverns. The fossils are lost, but were described by local vicar and antiquarian Rev. W.S. Symonds in 1883.
Studying the lives of humans in the last Ice Age is often difficult: the organic materials that they used for tools, shelter, and clothing rarely survive across such a long span of time. Humans in the Ice Age were hunter-gatherers – they moved across the landscape lightly. But the evidence is there, hidden deep within river gravels, estuary silts, and caves.
800,000 years ago a group of early humans walked over estuarine mud flats. Remarkably, their footprints survived and were recorded on the Happisburgh coast, Norfolk in 2013. This is the earliest evidence of humans so far found in Britain – researchers suggest the footprints were made by Homo antecessor, a species found elsewhere in western Europe.
By 500,000 years ago it’s likely that another human species was living or passing through the West Midlands: Homo heidelbergensis. A group of handaxes were found at Waverly Wood, Warwickshire alongside animal remains, including straight-tusked elephants. The stone is not local and comes from an outcrop in the Lake District; it is unlikely to have been moved by glaciation, reminding us how mobile these communities were. There is no known evidence from Worcestershire at this time, but the Waverley Wood finds demonstrate that subsequent glacial scouring may not have removed all traces, meaning that other sites or artefacts might be waiting to be discovered.
At Boxgrove in Suffolk, Homo heidelbergensis lived alongside elephant, lions and hyenas. The stone tools they made and bones of animals that they hunted were found where they’d fallen, half a million years before. Human bones and teeth were also found; the earliest human fossils from Britain. Homo heidelbergensis have been called the handaxe makers because of the beautifully crafted handaxes they made, used and left behind.
About 480,000 years ago and the British Isles were hit by the most extreme glaciation of the last million years: the Anglian Glaciation. Parts of Britain were entirely covered in thick ice and humans were absent from Britain for at least 50,000 years. Worcestershire lay under several hundred meters of ice.
About 400,000 years ago a young woman died at Swanscombe in Kent. Her skull still survives, which shows characteristics of a new species – Homo neanderthalensis. Over the next 350,000 years the climate regularly switched between warm and cold and the Neanderthals came and went from Britain. Despite learning to adapt to the colder northern environment, they were beaten back from Britain several times when the climate was particularly harsh.
Worcestershire’s first visitors? The oldest evidence of people found so far in the county is the Allesborough handaxe at c.500-300,000 years old. The edges are worn smooth from millennia spent in river gravels. It was probably made during one of the warmer interglacial spells, between 300,000 and 424,000 years ago, by Homo heidelbergensis, although it is difficult to be certain about which species of human were in Britain at different times.
Most local handaxes are made from flint or quartzite, but this one uses a rare and unusual black volcanic rock. The Allesborough handaxe’s nearest matching sources are Cornwall or Yorkshire, so the rock was either brought to Worcestershire along seasonal migration routes or carried here by glacial activity. Either way, our ancestors were drawn to its striking, unusual appearance when they selected it to make this tool.
The severe cold that began 180,000 years ago forced people out of Britain once more and this time Britain was deserted for 120,000 long years. The climate changed during this time but despite one of the warmest periods of the last half million years, people did not return. Hippos basked in the rivers and elephant walked across the countryside without the company of humans.
Around 60,000 years ago Neanderthals returned to Britain. The climate was tolerable but still cold and sea levels so low that much of the North Sea and English Channel were dry land, allowing migrating animals and their Neanderthal hunters to travel north into Britain once more. These were to be the last of their species. They shared the landscape with bison, aurochs, bear, wolf, mammoth, woolly rhino and reindeer.
Around 45,000 years ago a new type of tool appears in Britain and its maker is still uncertain. Long blades shaped to leaf points were produced. The largest leaf point site is at Beedings in West Sussex, where leaf point makers sat at the top of a hill watching prey below and repaired their tools, replacing broken tips with new ones. Tantalisingly, these blades may have been made by the very last Neanderthals or they might the first signs of a new species, modern humans like us: Homo sapiens.
The earliest human bone belonging to our own species is a jaw fragment found in Kent’s Cavern in Devon. Scientific analysis estimates it to be at least 40,000 years old. Modern humans were highly adaptable and innovative hunter-gatherers who lived in larger groups with wider social networks. They appear to have moved over large distances sharing new ideas and knowledge.
Around 40,000 years ago the last separate Neanderthal populations died out across Northern Europe and modern humans, like us, became the only people left on the planet.
A severe glaciation pushed humans out of Britain again from c.25,000 years ago. Modern humans returned c.14,000 years ago as the ice again receded, bringing a very different toolkit to the region, characterised by small, delicate implements and projectile points, made by carefully modifying long slender flint blades. They are rare: the small bands of people venturing into Britain for brief spells during the later stages of the Ice Age left little trace.
Past human presence in Worcestershire is poorly understood. Traditionally Palaeolithic and Pleistocene research in Britain has focussed in the south and east of England where evidence of our ancestors is far more abundant and apparent. There is, however, plenty of evidence to show that Worcestershire has much to add to our understanding of the human story.
The following research priorities have evolved from a number of local, regional and national projects. They are a culmination of research in Worcestershire that followed on from the Shotton project and was developed over the course of around 15 years through funding predominantly from Historic England (previously English Heritage) and Heritage Lottery Fund. It is intended that future research will build on this work and improve our knowledge of this fascinating period of our early prehistory. Further information on the projects and the more detailed research can be found at www.iceageworcestershire.com
Marine Isotope Stages (MIS) are used for dating rather than the traditional Upper, Middle and Lower Palaeolithic. It was felt essential to incorporate Marine Isotope Stages as this chronological framework is widely used in Quaternary Science publications and the majority of the geological, climatic and environmental data, in which the archaeological record sits, is presented in this format. This is particularly apparent in the recent works of Penkman et al. (2011) and McMillan et al. (2011) whose aminostratigraphic and lithostratigraphic frameworks for the British Quaternary are presented in Marine Isotope Stages. The dates for the MIS boundaries in the Worcestershire framework are those that are shown in Lisiecki and Raymo (2005). By using MIS, a better context for activity can be achieved. For example, the Middle Palaeolithic, a range of c.150,000 years, is grouped together and seemingly gives the impression of constancy when in reality the period is characterised by vast climatic and environmental variations including the Wolstonian stage glaciations and the Ipswichian interglacial. The climatic and environmental context would appear to be a better chronological framework for Worcestershire.
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