Hunting for Neanderthal spearheads under the sea

(left to right) Archaeologists Letty Ingrey, Dr Matt Pope, Dr Chantal Conneller and volunteer Pippa Kergozou walk across the Violet Bank. Credit: Photography by Melissa Rodrigues

Submerged beneath the waves of the English Channel lies an important scientific record of undiscovered Neanderthal artifacts dating back to the last ice age. Gathering them from beneath the cold waters of the canal is no easy feat, but UCL researchers have found a way to get a brief glimpse of the otherwise hidden landscape.

In May, when tides dropped to their lowest levels for the year, a team of archaeologists led by Dr Matthew Pope (UCL Archaeology) searched the briefly exposed seabed for stone artifacts left behind by Neanderthals tens of thousands of Years ago. To take full advantage of the short tidal window, they camped in a secluded 18th-century stone tower perched more than a mile off the Isle of Jersey.

When the tides went out, the team emerged from their shelter to scour the exposed rocky cliff for spearheads and other stone tools dating back to a time when Neanderthals and woolly mammoths could walk from Kent to Calais.

A changing landscape

While the English Channel has divided Britain from mainland Europe throughout recorded history, it wasn’t always the barrier it is today.

“At different times that landscape will be different,” said Dr. the Pope said. “In some places it will be inundated by the sea, in others it will be found on the edge of a vast landscape of river valleys and rocky outcrops, ideal places for hunting.”

When Neanderthals lived in northern Europe between about 400,000 and 40,000 years ago, the Earth was in the midst of a series of climate change cycles that led to several ice ages. During the coldest times, the Arctic ice sheet extended far beyond the Arctic Circle, sometimes reaching almost as far south as London. At these maximum extents, so much of the Earth’s water was locked up in this pack ice that ocean levels were many feet below what they are today. The English Channel was dry and herds of mammoths and bison roamed freely where the fish swim today.

Scientists can get an idea of ​​what the prehistoric landscape of the English Channel might have been like by analyzing the seabed today. The Isle of Jersey would have been a plateau rising above a rocky, textured landscape. The rolling gullies and fissures that are filled with sediment today were once covered with shrubs and grass, providing food and navigable pathways for roaming animals.

Dr. Pope and his team theorized that Neanderthals likely took advantage of the landscape’s complicated geography to hunt, ambush, and outflank game animals that navigated through the terrain’s natural paths. He and his team found butchered remains of mammoths, reindeer and bison in nearby caves, but it wasn’t clear whether the region around Jersey was actually being used as hunting ground. Today, many of the stone artifacts that could shed light on the behavior of these ancient people are swallowed up by the sea.

‘Most of these rocky landscapes are too deeply submerged for us to do normal archeology,’ said Dr. the Pope said. “We would have to dive or use robotic submarines. It is very difficult to find this kind of fragile evidence using these kinds of techniques.”

However, a section of the English Channel off the Jersey coast gave the team the opportunity to observe the seabed up close, if only for short intervals. The area known as Violet Bank is a shallow granite cliff that peeks out of the water at particularly low tides. During these short intertidal windows, the temporary landscape extends more than four kilometers from the coast. Although only on display for a few hours a day at most, it’s the best opportunity to explore the region and search for prehistoric artifacts.

Due to the narrow windows, the team needed to be as efficient as possible with their short time at Violet Bank, but getting out from shore each day risked wasting much of their short intertidal interval. Luckily, project partner Jersey Heritage had a dry place to stay more than a mile off the coast of the island: Seymour Tower.

Fortress on the water

Built in the late 18th century, Seymour Tower was one of a series of coastal fortifications built around Jersey to protect it from French attack. Perched on a rocky outcrop more than a mile off the Jersey shore, the massive granite building stands isolated from the shallow waters of the channel at high tide.

But during particularly low tides, the sea recedes far enough for anyone standing there to walk far across the coastal plain. It was the perfect place for Dr. Pope and the team he camped to reach the fleeting seabed.

“It meant we were in that landscape,” said Dr. the Pope said. “As soon as the tide started going out, we could emerge from the tower right in the middle of that landscape and then take different transects and different directions looking for artifacts and record sediments.”

Joining Dr Pope in this water fortress were six other members of his team: University of Wales geoarchaeologist Professor Martin Bates, Newcastle University prehistorian Professor Chantal Conneller, local expert Dr Paul Chambers and Dr Sarah Duffy, an imaging expert from the University of Liverpool. Rounding out the team were Letty Ingrey and Dr Ed Blinkhorn, geoarchaeologists from UCL’s Institute of Archaeology.

“It’s not like anything I’ve ever done. This was so much more extreme because we were staying outside in a tower that at high tide was just surrounded by the sea,” said Letty Ingrey, “There’s only you in this little world with the rest of your team.”

On the most dramatic nights of the project, a powerful electrical storm hit Violet Bank.

“It was an incredible storm,” Ingrey said. “It was just amazing to be out there with these lightning flashes across the sky.”

The thick fortification walls and lightning tower kept the team safe and dry.

“The tower itself is quite welcoming,” said Dr. the Pope said. “It has a fire, it has a kitchen, we ate well, it had electricity from solar panels, so it seemed quite self-sufficient. It was a wonderful environment to work in.”

Running against the tide

Rustic amenities aside, the real draw was Seymour Tower’s remote location in the middle of the tidal flat. Dr. Pope and his team timed their expedition to align seasonally with the lowest and longest low tides. Each day they had between four and five safe hours in which they could walk across the temporarily dry landscape to survey the area and look for artifacts.

“We had to plan every single day in terms of how much we would commute, what time we would start retreating, and come up with achievable goals for each day,” said Dr. the Pope said. “The tide is just something you can’t negotiate with.”

The team depended on local knowledge. For safety, they brought guide Nicky Mansell along to keep them one step ahead of the encroaching tide. They also relied on information gleaned from local expertise to steer their hunt for artifacts in the right direction.

“We knew there were artifacts in that landscape because people in Jersey, who knew that landscape intimately, had shown us some, but this was the first time we had systematically searched for them and recorded their location,” said Dr. the Pope said.

For four days the team ventured out of the tower as the surrounding waters descended, heading in different directions each day in search of evidence of ancient people. For a few short, intense hours, they scanned the ground for evidence of stone tools, engulfed in underlying clays to date the sediments, and flew drones above them to map the region.

“We found that there were artifacts out there. Some of these artifacts were clearly neo-Paleolithic, this is the technology used by Neanderthals,” said Dr. the Pope said. “A couple of them were tools that showed us the kind of activity that was going on out there.”

Of the roughly two dozen artifacts the team recovered, one of the most significant was a Levallois point, a kind of spearhead typically used for hunting by Neanderthals.

“It’s amazing when you find stuff like this,” Ingrey said. “Someone dropped it tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago. It’s very possible that he was lost on a hunt.”

The find is a clear sign that Neanderthals used the region for hunting and that there are likely more artifacts still out there. Furthermore, the design served as general evidence that safe and significant archaeological work was possible on these coastal plains during their short intertidal windows.

The team is already looking forward to future efforts to search for further evidence of Neanderthal habitation.

“This was a pilot project,” said Dr. the Pope said. “We’re back to developing a long-term project that can take advantage of low tides for three to four years to not only log the entire reef, but also make some early forays into other reefs in the region.” of the English Channel”.

Provided by University College London

Citation: Hunting Neanderthal Spearheads Under the Sea (2022 Nov 23) Retrieved Nov 24, 2022 from

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