Step in Norfolk’s ancient footsteps

PUBLISHED: 10:05 21 March 2016

Happisburgh beach

Happisburgh beach

Archant Norfolk 2015

The extraordinary story of Norfolk’s very earliest visitors could become the future of tourism in the county, as editor Angi Kennedy reports

The coastline at Happisburgh has given up some fascinating findsThe coastline at Happisburgh has given up some fascinating finds

Every now and then the Earth gives up a secret, a missing piece of our history that changes our understanding of the past.

Norfolk has done this time after time.

The past 25 years, for instance, have seen the discovery of the West Runton Mammoth, the oldest mammoth skeleton ever found in the UK; the Happisburgh handaxe, thought to date to around 500,000 years ago, and the Happisburgh footprints, the oldest human footprints found outside Africa.

It has become ever more apparent that our wonderful corner of the country has an extraordinary, long and important story to tell.

The Happisburgh Handaxe. Pic: Norwich Castle Museum (Norfolk Museums Service)The Happisburgh Handaxe. Pic: Norwich Castle Museum (Norfolk Museums Service)

It is a story of the early humans - the first visitors to Britain - who made their way across Doggerland, the landmass that now lies beneath the North Sea but which once joined East Anglia to mainland Europe. The Norfolk that these earliest pioneers would have known was a land rich in vegetation and animals - a land of forests and heathland, with a verdant estuary where the river Thames once flowed through Happisburgh.

The fascinating archaeological finds that have been discovered along the north-east Norfolk coastline have transformed previous understanding of when and how humans first lived in Britain. Until then, it was thought to be about half a million years ago, yet the Happisburgh footprints were 850,000 years old and believed to have been left by a small group or possibly family of Homo antecessor - the oldest evidence of humans in the UK and northern Europe.

Now a new initiative called the Deep History Coast project is hoping to share and develop the story of these finds to entice visitors to Norfolk from across Britain and beyond to follow in the ancient footsteps of our first pre-prehistoric “tourists” .

Helen Mitchell is the Norwich-based arts and heritage consultant working on the project. She is presently consulting with parish and town councils along the Weyborne to Happisburgh coast and gathering ideas and opinions on the scheme, which could see this area branded as the Deep History Coast in a similar way to the Jurassic Coast of Dorset and East Devon.

West Runton Mammoth jaw. Norwich Castle Museum (Norfolk Museums Service)West Runton Mammoth jaw. Norwich Castle Museum (Norfolk Museums Service)

“This is a dynamic landscape, and one of the really strong messages is that our early or deep history is being re-written under our noses right now,” says Helen. “There is this changing story of the very early humans and the emergence of Doggerland, this ‘lost Garden of Eden’. It is a great story that captures people’s imaginations and I think that the public will be fascinated to know more.”

The concept of the Deep History Coast has been spearheaded by Dr John Davies, chief curator and keeper of archaeology at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, and Dr David Waterhouse, curator of natural history and acting curator of geology with the Norfolk Museums Service, who are also working on a book together.

John says: “When I joined the museum service in the early 1990s it was just at the time of the exciting discoveries at West Runton. Over the past 20 years our understanding has changed remarkably because of the finds along our stretch of coastline. The picture is getting more complex and it poses questions of why these early humans came, their routes out of Africa and what sort of habitats they found here. What we don’t yet have is a human bone from those earliest visitors. But it is out there somewhere...”

David Waterhouse adds: “One million years ago is not long in natural history terms and this was the time when the spotted hyena was native to East Anglia and hippos were native to Norfolk. Go back far enough in time here and you would find several types of mammoth, including the steppe, the woolly and the mastadon, plus giant deer, moose and the extinct rhino. This really wasn’t a bad place for the antecessors to find themselves.”

Studying the Happisburgh footprints. Pic: Martin BatesStudying the Happisburgh footprints. Pic: Martin Bates

Of course a big bonus of our area was the flint, that made for effective hunting tools. Fossil artefacts and bones have been found in the Cromer Forest-bed, which is world renowned for the thousands of examples from species such as mammoth, rhino and hippo that have been discovered in the past 250 years in the sediments exposed in the eroding cliffs and on the shore. David is now co-ordinating the large database which will record the fossils and artefacts found here, and he is keen for the public to get involved by bringing fossils that they find on the beach into Norwich Castle Study Centre for identification and recording on to the Cromer Forest-bed Fossil Project database.

The museum is working closely with the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, universities and other national organisations involved in researching the story of the ancient humans in Britain. And the Deep History Coast project is also bringing together Visit Norfolk, North Norfolk District Council, Norfolk County Council and more partners to develop ways of using the county’s outstanding archaeological and natural attractions to create a major draw for tourists.

John and David believe this could further attract visitors to other sites of major interest in the county, such the Seahenge timber circle found at Holme, near Old Hunstanton, and the mammoth butchery site at Lynford in Thetford Forest.

The impact that the coastal initiative could have on the county’s tourism is not to be underestimated, says Jose Socao, economic development officer at North Norfolk District Council: “Tourism is a key industry for north Norfolk and in the past five years we have been seeing more day visitors to the area but unfortunately a reduction of the number of staying visitors. So we are hoping that with the Deep History Coast we will be able to look at encouraging more people to stay longer here, with a range of activities that are linked with the coast and with the other visitor attractions that are already in the area. In the long term, the vision is to aim for a World Heritage Site status for the area. It is very exciting for us and it has a lot of potential for the future.”

The Happisburgh handaxe

Found on the shore by ex-policeman and keen beachcomber Mike Chambers in 2000, this flint was initially thought to be around 700,000 years old, making it the oldest tool ever found in Britain. Recent further analysis reveals that it could date from 500,000 years ago - which would still make it among the oldest handaxes ever discovered in Britain.

The West Runton Mammoth

Discovered in the early 1990s, the West Runton Mammoth is the most complete specimen of a steppe mammoth (an ancestor of the woolly mammoth), which is the largest elephant species that ever lived, weighing twice as much as a modern African bull elephant. The mammoth dates from 700,000 years ago, the oldest mammoth skeleton to have been found in the UK.

Fossilised human footprints

These extraordinary series of footprints were revealed when heavy seas washed away the beach sand at Happisburgh, giving archaeologists the brief chance to create 3D records of the evidence, which shows that this little group - possibly a family and probably Homo antecessor or “Pioneer Man” - was walking along the muddy estuary almost a million years ago.


The initiative has already won the support of TV presenter and ambassador for the Norfolk Wildife Trust, Ben Garrod who comments: “The Deep History Coast project is fantastic as it will bring the wonders of our coastline to life, not just for everyone who lives here, but for visitors to the county as well, making it part of our tourism offering.

“So many people are not aware of this incredible rich archaeological history which is all around us. It is not only a place where you can see a huge array of living wildlife at every turn - there are also fascinating fossil beds to investigate on our beaches, which hold so many secrets of our natural history. Just walking along and looking in the sand you can find all sorts of things. I hope that the project will engage with local schoolchildren and get them down on the beaches, taking a look for themselves. Learning about the past can teach us so much for the future.”

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