British Museum blog

Exploring an Ice Age Island

Beccy Scott, Calleva Project Post Doctoral Researcher, British Museum

As London swelters, I am spending the summer in the Ice Age: it is the final year of Ice Age Island, a three-year excavation project with Jersey Heritage, looking at how hunter-gatherers lived in the landscapes of the English Channel region over the past 240,000 years – from the early Neanderthals, to the last Mesolithic hunter-fishers. During this time, people adapted to massive changes in climate and environment, often within their lifetimes. The project brings together specialists from the British Museum and five UK universities to look at these changes, and how humans responded to them: Matt Pope, Martin Bates, Chantal Conneller, Andrew Shaw, and Ed Blinkhorn.

Over the past half million years, the geography of the English Channel has changed enormously, with massive swings in climate from warm interglacial (like today) to cold, glacial periods – ‘ice ages’. During these cold periods, much of the Earth’s oceans were locked up in expanded polar regions and glaciers. Land that is now the sea floor was exposed: the sea itself was channelled into huge, fast-flowing extensions of the major rivers of Europe, dissecting this now-drowned, offshore landscape. The North Sea landscapes of Doggerland have been known to archaeologists for more than 80 years; animal and human bones, and stone tools, have been dredged from the North Sea in fishermen’s nets. Even Neanderthal fossils and handaxes have been recovered from the seabed, which was once land.

The Channel River Valley 180,000 years ago during a period of cold and low sea level. (Image: Beccy Shaw)

The Channel River Valley 180,000 years ago during a period of cold and low sea level. (Image: Beccy Shaw)

The landscapes of the English Channel are more elusive. Chalk downland once connected Britain and Northern France, but 450,000 years ago, one of the coldest ever glacial periods caused ice to expand as far south as London. A huge lake formed to the east, which eventually overflowed and catastrophically eroded the chalk landbridge, forming a totally new landscape. A massive, new river then flowed through the Straits of Dover, into which drained many of the major rivers of northern Europe: the Thames, Rhine and Scheldt. This was the Channel River Valley: an Ice Age superhighway, linking western and eastern Europe, forming a corridor along which humans and migrating animals – mammoth, woolly rhino and reindeer – would have travelled.

An aerial view of Jersey, facing east, taken by Ice Age Island project imaging specialist Sarah Duffy on a low (spring) tide which exposed much of the rocky, offshore landscape. The early Neanderthal site of La Cotte de St Brelade is the cave cut into the cliffs on the left of the picture. (Photo: Sarah Duffy)

An aerial view of Jersey, facing east, taken by Ice Age Island project imaging specialist Sarah Duffy on a low (spring) tide which exposed much of the rocky, offshore landscape. The early Neanderthal site of La Cotte de St Brelade is the cave cut into the cliffs on the left of the picture. (Photo: Sarah Duffy)

The Channel Island of Jersey is a special place for understanding how humans used these now-submerged landscapes: in effect, this terrestrial island is one of the last remnants of this drowned landscape. Particular places around the island – coastal fissures, caves and inland valleys – preserve sediments that protect traces left behind by people, as well as evidence of how their environment kept changing. For the past three years, the Ice Age Island project has been reinterpreting these places, through new excavations and the analysis of old excavated collections, as well as offshore surveys.

The geology of Jersey is one of the things that makes it so special: the island is made up of volcanic and metamorphic rocks, but the people who came here preferred to use flint to make their tools. Because flint does not naturally occur in the bedrock of Jersey, almost all the tools that we find have been carried here by people. We can compare the techniques that different human groups used to make their tools, as well as where they discarded them, to look at how different human groups moved around these landscapes. For instance, around 14,500 years ago, modern human hunter-gatherers camped at the head of a dry valley looking out into the offshore landscape, just outside what is modern St Helier. Here, at Les Varines, a buried cliffline would have provided shelter, making this somewhere that people came to again and again, carrying a lightweight flint toolkit. Later on, as sea levels rose around 9,000 years ago, Mesolithic hunter-fishers camped up on the north coast of Jersey: we have been excavating campsites on promontories along the coast, at Canal du Squez, Les Marionneux and Le Col de La Rocque.

The jewel in Jersey’s Ice Age crown is the Neanderthal site of La Cotte de St Brelade, and it’s this site that first drew me to Jersey: I’ve worked at the British Museum as an early Neanderthal specialist for the last five years, on the AHOB and Pathways to Ancient Britain projects. La Cotte is the key north-west European site for archaeologists who study this period. I’d been fascinated by La Cotte since I was an undergraduate, but had never felt I’d got to grips with what Neanderthals were actually doing there. It was a chance conversation in a pub with one of the five co-directors, Matt Pope, that galvanised us to start work in Jersey: we both felt that this was a site with much, much more to tell us.

La Cotte de St Brelade is a spectacular T-shaped fissure cut into the cliffs on the south-west corner of Jersey which has been accumulating sediments for at least 240,000 years. Neanderthals began using this site at around this time until 40,000 years ago, and it produced Britain’s latest Neanderthal fossils. Around a quarter of a million stone tools have been excavated from the site since the turn of the 19th century. Not only can we look at these to see what people were doing within the site itself, but also how they travelled through the drowned landscapes of the Channel River Valley, by looking at the tools that they brought with them.

Bathymetric survey of the seabed surrounding La Cotte de St Brelade, up to 5 km offshore. The immediate landscape is broken up into valleys and cut-offs – La Cotte itself provides a commanding view over this landscape. (Image: Richard Bates)

Bathymetric survey of the seabed surrounding La Cotte de St Brelade, up to 5 km offshore. The immediate landscape is broken up into valleys and cut-offs – La Cotte itself provides a commanding view over this landscape. (Image: Richard Bates)

Large-scale excavations at La Cotte de St Brelade, led by Professor Charles McBurney in the 1960s–70s, exposed two spectacular heaps of mammoth bone within the fissure: the original excavators interpreted these as resulting from mammoth being driven off the headland and butchered in the fissure below. However, we have some doubts about how the topography of the headland could have functioned as game drive, and when marine geophysicist Richard Bates undertook an offshore survey of the site, we gained a very different perspective on how La Cotte functioned within its local landscape: it overlooks a complicated grid pattern of reefs and valleys, made up of widened joints in the granite – exactly the sort of broken landscape that Neanderthals liked to use for ambush hunting. You can read more about our work at the site here. We are now considering the long term, repeated re-use of this place – and what Neanderthals were doing here – as part of the ‘Crossing the Threshold’ project, led by Professor Clive Gamble, a trustee of the British Museum. What’s so exciting about this site and the landscapes of Jersey is the way that it captures the changing rhythms of Neanderthal movement through this entire region. La Cotte, and Jersey itself, has always been a waymarker and a destination: its spectacular archaeological resources continue to make it so today.

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