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ArchaeologyPart of Humanities

Research project: The Ebbsfleet Elephant

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Archaeological excavations in advance of High Speed 1 have revealed an undisturbed Lower Palaeolithic Clactonian palaeo-landsurface 400,000 years old in the Ebbsfleet Valley, near Swanscombe, Kent. The skeleton of a single elephant has been preserved in the muddy sediment near what was then the edge of a small lake, and is surrounded by flint tools, lying undisturbed where they were originally discarded. The remains of other animals are also present, including aurochs, two species of rhinoceros, and several species of deer. The sedimentary sequence also includes pollen, molluscs and abundant small vertebrate remains.

The elephant skeleton and the other faunal remains were found within the clayey sediments at what would have been the edge of a small lake or pond. It is uncertain whether the elephant was found dead or dying, or was hunted and killed. The manufacture of stone tools at the same spot almost certainly reflects butchery of the carcass for its meat. The skeleton is surrounded by four scatters of refitting flint debitage, four flake-tools and a broken flint percussor. This may be indicative of the band-size of the hominin group that exploited the carcass.

The flint artefacts are typical of the Clactonian lithic industry, comprising cores, large utilised flakes and notched flakes. Large numbers of artefacts have been found in the wider area around the elephant skeleton, many made on good quality flint, with not a hint of handaxe manufacture. This confirms that the Clactonian is a genuine phenomenon in the Lower Palaeolithic record of the UK, which some have doubted.

The site is also notable for the abundance and good quality of the associated environmental remains. Sieving of the sediments at the site has produced a wide range of evidence that reveal the climate and local environment, as well as helping date the site. The presence of sticklebacks, frogs, newts and aquatic molluscs confirm the presence of a small stream channel near the elephant carcass. The presence of pollen grains from a number of tree species - including birch, pine, oak, elm, alder and hazel - and teeth from a woodmouse indicate an interglacial climate, similar to or warmer than the present day, with the lake surrounded by woodland, probably with some open areas due to heavy grazing.

Most importantly, the presence of two species of vole - water vole (Arvicola terrestris cantiana) and pine vole (Microtus (Terricola) cf. subterraneus) - allow the site to be accurately dated by means of the so-called "vole clock". Investigations at sites across Europe have allowed construction of a detailed framework of how different vole species evolved over the last million years, and where and when specific species became extinct. Of the two vole species found at the Ebbsfleet site, the pine vole has been extinct in England for the last 400,000 years and the type of water vole found has only been present for the last 500,000 years. Taken together, the two species help to date the site to the Hoxnian interglacial, a warm phase for which deposits are also preserved at nearby Swanscombe.

The full results of the work will shortly be published in the monograph The Ebbsfleet Elephant, due for publication in May 2013.

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