Exploring Kent's Past

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Monument details

HER Number:TQ 57 SE 219
Type of record:Monument
Name:The Swanscombe Skull and associated Palaeolithic artefacts and fossils from Barnfield Pit, Swanscombe

Summary

At Barnfield Pit, a quarry in Swanscombe, three parts of the same skull (The Swanscombe Skull) were found separately in 1935, 1936 and 1955. This is the oldest skull found in Britain. The remains are an ancient form of human called Homo heidelbergensis, dating to around 380,000 years old. In addition to the skull >6000 handaxes, >250 cores, >500 flake-tools and nearly 15,000 pieces of debitage have been found together with a wide range of vertebrate fossils and mollusc remains.

Images

The Swanscombe Skull   © Natural History Museum
Grid Reference:TQ 59760 74300
Map Sheet:TQ57SE
Parish:SWANSCOMBE AND GREENHITHE, DARTFORD, KENT

Monument Types

  • OCCUPATION SITE (Lower Palaeolithic - 500000 BC to 150001 BC)

Associated Finds

  • ANIMAL REMAINS (Lower Palaeolithic - 500000 BC to 150001 BC)
  • CORE (Lower Palaeolithic - 500000 BC to 150001 BC)
  • DEBITAGE (Lower Palaeolithic - 500000 BC to 150001 BC)
  • HANDAXE (Lower Palaeolithic - 500000 BC to 150001 BC)
  • HUMAN REMAINS (Lower Palaeolithic - 500000 BC to 150001 BC)
  • MOLLUSCA REMAINS (Lower Palaeolithic - 500000 BC to 150001 BC)

Full description

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Barnfield Pit, Swanscombe is one of Europe's most important Palaeolithic sites. It is located on a fluvial terrace deposit above the south side of the Thames, originally known as the Swanscombe 100-ft terrace but now formally named the Boyn Hill/Orsett Heath Formation (1).The terrace deposits comprise silts, sands and gravels of fluvial origin relating to the former Middle Pleistocene course of the Thames, laid down in the Hoxnian interglacial between 450,000 and 350,000 BP, late Marine Isotope Stage 12 to early MI Stage 10. These deposits are of international archaeological significance. First recognised as containing artefacts and faunal remains in the late 19th century (2), they have been demonstrated through a long history of subsequent investigations (3-8), to be exceptionally rich in flint tools from Palaeolithic occupation (9, 10). They also contain rich fossil faunal remains of contemporary animals (such as lion, rhino, extinct straight-tusked elephant, bear and many others), including those of archaic Homo Sapiens (Swanscombe Man), as well as other palaeoenvironmental evidence. Although Pleistocene deposits and their contained Palaeolithic remains are now lost in most of the main footprint of the quarry, important deposits are preserved in the southern part of the quarry and in the natural deposits further south. The Swanscombe Skull-site NNR (TQ 598 743) is located within Barnfield Pit, Swanscombe. Here, a fossil human skull was recovered from one horizon [The Upper Middle Gravel], with three separate refitting parts of the same skull being found on three separate occasions, in 1935, 1936 and 1955 (5, 6).There are three main phases of deposits at Barnfield Pit. The lowest phase (I) consists of gravels and silts/sands [the "Lower Loam"] with a Clactonian lithic industry (cores, flakes and flake-tools) dating to early in the Hoxnian interglacial. This phase includes undisturbed Clactonian occupation surfaces within, and at the top of, the Lower Loam, as well as animal bones and other paleo-environmental remains such as molluscs and ostracods. The middle phase (II) consists of gravels and sandy gravels. These contain a rich Acheulian lithic industry and numerous fossil animal remains, with numerous fresh condition handaxes and debitage from their manufacture attesting to occupation on the spot. The skull pieces were found within the phase II deposits, at the base of the Upper Middle Gravel. The highest group of deposits is attributed to phase III, and mostly comprises clayey silt/sand - the "Upper Loam" - capped by a thin solifluction gravel. Contrary to general presumption (7), artefacts are scarce or absent in the Upper Loam, although numerous reworked artefacts have been found on its surface and within the Upper Gravel.The site is included in the Southern Rivers survey (11) and was visited for the KTG MES (12). A more detailed survey of surviving deposits then took place in 2003 (13)


<1> Bridgland DR, 1994, Quaternary of the Thames., p193-218 (Monograph). SKE32233.


<2> Stopes H,, 1895, A prehistoric metropolis in Kent. (Article in serial). SKE32279.


<3> Smith RA, Dewey H,, 1913, Stratification at Swanscombe: report on excavations made on behalf of the British Museum and H.M. Geological Survey., p 177-204 (Article in serial). SKE32207.


<4> Smith R.A and Dewey H, 1914, The High Terrace of the Thames: report on excavations made on behalf of the British Museum and H.M. Geological Survey., p 187-212 (Article in serial). SKE32181.


<5> Swanscombe Committee, 1938, Report on the Swanscombe skull: prepared by the Swanscombe Committee of the Royal Anthropological Institute. (Article in serial). SKE32212.


<6> Ovey, C. D., 1964, The Swanscombe Skull: a Survey of Research on a Pleistocene Site (Monograph). SWX9319.


<7> Wymer, JJ, 1968, Lower Palaeolithic Archaeology in Britain as represented by the Thames Valley. (Monograph). SKE29697.


<8> Conway BW, McNabb J, & Ashton N, (ed's), 1996, Excavations at Barnfield Pit, Swanscombe, 1968–72. (Monograph). SKE32240.


<9> Wenban-Smith F. F., March 2004, The Stopes Palaeolithic Project: Final Report, site #2 (Unpublished document). SWX12877.


<10> Wenban-Smith FF,, 2009, Henry Stopes (1852-1902): engineer, brewer and anthropologist. (Article in serial). SKE32263.


<11> Wessex Archaeology, 1993, The Southern Rivers Palaeolithic Project, Report No.2: The South West and South of the Thames [Vol. I - text], NWK 4.19 (Monograph). SWX6569.


<12> Essex County Council & Kent County Council, 2003, Archaeological Survey of Mineral Extraction Sites around the Thames Estuary, #911 (Unpublished document). SKE12012.


<13> Wessex Archaeology, March 2004, Swanscombe Heritage Park and Craylands Gorge, Swanscombe, Kent. Archaeological and Geological Desk Based Assessment (Unpublished document). SWX12883.

Sources and further reading

Cross-ref. Source description
<1>Monograph: Bridgland DR. 1994. Quaternary of the Thames.. p193-218.
<2>Article in serial: Stopes H,. 1895. A prehistoric metropolis in Kent.. Athenaeum 3541 (Sept. 7th): 325..
<3>Article in serial: Smith RA, Dewey H,. 1913. Stratification at Swanscombe: report on excavations made on behalf of the British Museum and H.M. Geological Survey.. Archaeologia 64: 177-204.. p 177-204.
<4>Article in serial: Smith R.A and Dewey H. 1914. The High Terrace of the Thames: report on excavations made on behalf of the British Museum and H.M. Geological Survey.. Archaeologia 65: 185-212. p 187-212.
<5>Article in serial: Swanscombe Committee. 1938. Report on the Swanscombe skull: prepared by the Swanscombe Committee of the Royal Anthropological Institute.. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 68, 17-98..
<6>Monograph: Ovey, C. D.. 1964. The Swanscombe Skull: a Survey of Research on a Pleistocene Site.
<7>Monograph: Wymer, JJ. 1968. Lower Palaeolithic Archaeology in Britain as represented by the Thames Valley..
<8>Monograph: Conway BW, McNabb J, & Ashton N, (ed's). 1996. Excavations at Barnfield Pit, Swanscombe, 1968–72..
<9>Unpublished document: Wenban-Smith F. F.. March 2004. The Stopes Palaeolithic Project: Final Report. site #2.
<10>Article in serial: Wenban-Smith FF,. 2009. Henry Stopes (1852-1902): engineer, brewer and anthropologist.. Lithics 30: 65-85. [Great Prehistorians: 150 Years of Palaeolithic Research 1859-2009, RT Hosfield, FF Wenban-Smith, MI Pope (eds)].
<11>Monograph: Wessex Archaeology. 1993. The Southern Rivers Palaeolithic Project, Report No.2: The South West and South of the Thames [Vol. I - text]. NWK 4.19.
<12>Unpublished document: Essex County Council & Kent County Council. 2003. Archaeological Survey of Mineral Extraction Sites around the Thames Estuary. #911.
<13>Unpublished document: Wessex Archaeology. March 2004. Swanscombe Heritage Park and Craylands Gorge, Swanscombe, Kent. Archaeological and Geological Desk Based Assessment.

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