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This work was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund through the Ice Age Journeys project.
Prehistory and the Palaeolithic
What is Prehistory?
Prehistory is the study of time before the invention of written language. This applies to both archaeology and palaeontology. Prehistory in palaeontology goes back much earlier, covering the evolution of life from its very beginnings to the present. In archaeology, prehistory goes back to 3.3 million years ago during the Pliocene epoch, when the oldest stone tools were being made by ancestors of humankind.
The Stone Age
The term Stone Age is used to describe times before the invention of metallurgy, when stone tools were a major part of the toolkit of humans and our ancestors. In Europe and Asia, archaeologists call the earliest division of the Stone Age the Palaeolithic, the following part of the Stone Age the Mesolithic, and the last part of the Stone Age the Neolithic.
The oldest division of the Stone Age is also its longest – the Palaeolithic covers a longer time period than any of the other “ages” in archaeology. Because it spans such a long time and much of the evolutionary change in the human lineage, the Palaeolithic gets divided up into Lower (oldest), Middle and Upper (youngest). The archaeology at Creswell Crags dates to the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic and was made by Neanderthals and our own species.
Stone tools were not the only things made and used during Palaeolithic times, but they do survive more frequently than objects made from other materials, which is why the Stone Age ended up with its name.
How Stone Tools Are Made
We call the process of making a stone tool “flintknapping”, but flint is not the only material that can be knapped. Any stone which breaks in a predictable way where pieces called “flakes” can be removed can be used to make stone tools. In our collection at Creswell Crags, we have tools made out of flint, quartzite and clay-ironstone. Elsewhere in the world, prehistoric flintknappers used a large variety of materials including obsidian, jasper and agate. Modern flintknappers even use man-made materials like glass and porcelain.
Flintknapping is a highly skilled process which requires excellent hand-eye coordination and the ability to predict the outcome and sequence of strikes being made. Flintknappers shape their stone tools using a variety of methods, depending on what they are trying to make. The most basic of stone tools are just pebbles with a few flakes removed to form a sharp edge. One way of shaping stones is by hitting them directly with another stone, or piece of antler, or by striking an antler with another object (using it like a punch). More delicate work, for thinner stone tools, can be done by pushing small flakes of flint off with a small piece of antler or bone.
When flintknappers work, they leave behind pieces of discarded stone which archaeologists call “waste flakes” or “debitage”. Although this waste might not be as impressive as as the finished stone tool, it can actually tell us more about the techniques that were being used. Sometimes, on very well preserved archaeological sites, the waste from flintknapping even shows where the flintknappers were sitting!
Before the Ice Age
The Lower Palaeolithic – First Hominins in Britain
Compared with other regions of the Old World, Britain’s habitation by our ancestors happens relatively late on. The oldest evidence comes from Norfolk, where a 900,000 year old fossilised trail of footprints was found on Happisburgh beach. The footprints likely belonged to an extinct species called Homo heidelbergensis. There is other evidence of this species from sites like Boxgrove in West Sussex, Swanscombe in Kent and Kents Cavern in Devon. The deposits at Creswell Crags are not this old and we do not have any evidence of Homo heidelbergensis at our site.
The Anglian Cold Stage
Earth has experienced a number of Ice Ages in its history. From around 478,000 years ago to 424,000 years ago, Britain experienced an Ice Age we call the Anglian Glaciation. This Ice Age was even more severe than the most recent Ice Age and much of the region was covered in ice. Human ancestors did not live in Britain during this time.
The Ipswichian Warm Period
Around 120,000 years ago, Britain was experiencing a warmer period than the present day, known as the Ipswichian Interglacial. The earliest fossils at Creswell Crags date from this period, including those of hippopotamus, narrow-nosed rhinoceros and cave hyena.
Elsewhere in Britain, fossils of animals like Merck’s rhinoceros and straight-tusked elephant have been found, as well as species that still live in Britain, like red deer. Although there were Neanderthals living in Europe during this time, Britain does not seem to have been visited often (if at all) by any human species.
The Ice Age Environment
The last Ice Age lasted from around 115 thousand years ago until 11.7 thousand years ago. On average, world temperatures were about 9°C lower than the present, although the climate did fluctuate throughout the Ice Age. Like today, the Ice Age world contained many different biomes with warmer regions nearing the equator. Overall, the world was a drier place, with smaller proportions of biomes like rainforest and more grassland areas.
For much of the Ice Age, northerly regions like Britain and Europe were dominated by open environments like tundra (close to the ice sheets) and steppe grassland (further from the ice sheets).
The far north of Europe (e.g. Scandinavia) was covered in glacial ice and Britain was an area of tremendous change during the Ice Age. The ice sheets advanced and retreated with the fluctuations in temperature throughout the period, with effects upon the environment of the more southerly areas that were not covered with ice. Ice Age archaeology in Britain is very rare for this reason – both Neanderthals and humans were only here sporadically when the environment was more suited to life.
Around 50,000 years ago, when Neanderthals used the caves at Creswell Crags, the environment was a cool, damp grassland without many taller trees. Pollen evidence from hyena coprolites suggests there were smaller shrubs like dwarf birch and juniper, and herbaceous plants like sorrel and mugwort.
After the Neanderthals left Creswell Crags, there was a long gap before the first member of our own species began to use the caves. Around 29,000 years ago, the area was still a very open grassland. There is only a tiny amount of evidence in Britain of these early Homo sapiens visitors, as the climate began to go into a deeper cooling cycle from around 24,000 years ago.
The coldest point of the last Ice Age is known as the “Last Glacial Maximum”, when average temperatures were around 17°C lower than today. During this time, the glaciers were at their largest and furthest south, and were up to 3 miles thick. Creswell Crags was just far south enough not to be buried within the glaciers, but the surrounding area became an arctic desert, with little vegetation other than moss and hardy grasses. Relatively few animals could live in this environment and without herds of animals like bison, deer or mammoth, human hunters would have found it impossible to live here.
Eventually, Britain warmed enough for Ice Age people to return to use the caves as seasonal hunting camps. Our first evidence of these people dates to around 13,000 years ago – the Late Glacial. Winters were still extremely cold, but the summer temperatures could get up to around 17°C. This environment was not dissimilar to areas in northern Scandinavia today, mainly open but with some stands of cold-resistant trees like birch and pine.
Animals of the Ice Age
All of the animals that live in our world today had evolved by the end of the Ice Age, with some species becoming extinct before the present day. Many of the creatures living during the colder periods of the Ice Age had a large body mass. Larger creatures are known as the “megafauna” and some of the megafauna from the Ice Age have survived into the present day, like white rhinoceros, cassowaries and giraffes. Many others went extinct around the end of the Ice Age.
Many of the most famous Ice Age megafauna were never found in Britain or Europe, but would have been encountered by groups of Ice Age people when populations spread out across the globe. For example, American species include the famous sabre-toothed cats, giant ground sloths, dire wolves, short-faced bears, mastodon and the armadillo-like glyptodon.
Ice Age Animals Found at Creswell Crags
Neanderthals: the Middle Palaeolithic
In 1856, a fossil skull from the Neander Valley in Germany became the first human relative to be described by science. It was given the name Homo neanderthalensis – the Neanderthals. Sadly, perceptions of Neanderthals were negatively influenced by social trends and colonial tendencies that prevailed during the time of their initial discovery and description. We now know the real Neanderthals were much more human than their early caricatures suggested.
The Neanderthal Body
The Neanderthal form is distinctive from our own in a number of ways, both in their skull (cranial) and rest of body (postcranial skeleton). Overall, they were stockier in build than most people living today (males 5ft 5in, females 5ft 1in), with a barrel-shaped chest, dense bones and strong muscle attachments.
Neanderthal Lifestyle and Technology
Different groups of Neanderthals are believed to have lived within a large area in the northern latitudes of the Old World, across Europe into Asia as far as Uzbekistan. Each group of Neanderthals seems to have had their own, relatively small area of operation within their range, using a particular area as a “home base” and moving around within perhaps no more than around 50km of that point.
The Neanderthal lifestyle was extremely physical and high-risk at times. Study of Neanderthal fossils has shown that they frequently broken their bones in the same kinds of ways that modern day rodeo riders do. Although some groups of Neanderthals are known to have used plants and eaten things like fish on occasion, their diet was almost entirely red meat from animals like bison, woolly rhinoceros and reindeer. The kinds of spearheads they used were quite large and heavy and were most likely used in thrusting spears, or spears thrown over a relatively short distance. This of course requires you to get close to the large animals you are hunting – which probably explains all the broken bones.
Neanderthals at Creswell Crags
Compared with other regions like the south of France and Spain, Britain does not have very much Neanderthal archaeology, and we have more evidence at Creswell Crags than at any other site in the country. There are only a handful of Neanderthal fossils that have ever been found in Britain. We don’t have any Neanderthal fossils at Creswell Crags – all of our evidence of Neanderthals from the stone tools they left behind, and cut marks on bones of animals they had butchered.
Our own species Homo sapiens appears to have arrived in Europe somewhere between 45 to 43 thousand years ago. Because of the overlap between the times when humans arrive and Neanderthals died out, many archaeologists have supposed thought that human beings had a lot to do with the extinction of Neanderthals. It was long thought that our own species had superior hunting technology, more sophisticated communication and used a wider range of resources which gave us the “edge”. It is no longer clear that this is the case.
Modern evidence indicates that Neanderthals were capable of many of the things we used to think were unique to ourselves, like speech, producing art, wearing jewellery, making sophisticated stone tools, controlled use of fire and deliberate burial of the dead. There are also questions about whether humans and Neanderthals ever actually met in Europe, as the dating of many of the key sites is challenging. We do know that humans and Neanderthals must have met at some point, as most populations of humans today have a small amount of Neanderthal DNA. It is still uncertain exactly how commonplace this mixing was, or when and where it happened.
Modern Humans or "Cro Magnons": the Upper Palaeolithic
The Upper Palaeolithic
It is generally thought that our own species originated in Africa, over 300,000 years ago. By around 40,000 years ago, people had begun to move into Europe during a time that archaeologists call the Upper Palaeolithic. Upper Palaeolithic people, commonly known as “Cro Magnons“, were highly migratory hunter-gatherers who used the mouths of caves, overhangs of rock shelters and built open-air campsites for shelter.
There are important open-air Ice Age campsites at Farndon Fields near Newark and Bradgate Park in Leicestershire which were likely made by the same group of people that visited Creswell Crags. Compared with the rest of Europe, there is very little evidence of Ice Age people in Britain. It is likely that Britain was only very occasionally visited at the time.
Diet and Technology
Ice Age humans had a diet mainly consisting of red meat, complimented with foodstuffs like eggs, seafood and plants. The kinds of animal being hunted varied by location, and the people must have known the migration routes of these animals in order to intercept the herds. At Creswell Crags, cut marks on bones and shaped bone tools found inside the caves indicate that people were hunting deer and mountain hares. We can assume people made traps and snares constructed from organic materials to help them catch small game.
Stone, bone, antler and ivory tools survive better in the archaeological record and give most of the evidence for hunting techniques. By the later parts of the Ice Age, people had invented projectile technology – a spear throwing device that archaeologists call an atl-atl. Many small stone tools like Creswell Points would have been used as the tips to these delicate throwing spears.
Traces of charcoal found in our caves shows us that people were making fires to cook, warm themselves and possibly to heat-treat materials like wood or flint. We have no direct evidence at Creswell Crags for how these Ice Age people started their fires, but they might have used something like a bow-drill (fire by friction).
Social Life, Art and Beliefs
Animal imagery features heavily in Ice Age art, with the most common animals being horses, stags, bison and mammoths. Other herbivores are less common, like ibex, aurochs and wild boar. Carnivores like cave lions,wolves, hyenas and wild cats are rarer still, as are small animals like birds, mustelids, fish, snakes and insects.
A range of different techniques were used by Ice Age artists, including spit painting, fingerpainting, engraving, sculpture and there are even a handful of examples of fired ceramic figurines. Paintings discovered in Europe use natural mineral-based pigments, like red ochre, limonite and manganese dioxide as well as charcoal. Ice Age art is often highly complex, encorportating natural features like the curvature of cave walls and stalactites into the artworks, or creating superimposition of multiple images in the same area.
Alongside art, music was an important social expression during the last Ice Age. Evidence for Upper Palaeolithic music comes from discoveries of instruments like bone flutes, whistles, raspers and bullroarers.
The End of the Ice Age
The End of the Ice Age
The last Ice Age ended 11,700 years ago, when the climate had warmed toward levels approaching the present day. This brought the Pleistocene epoch to an end and was the beginning of the Holocene. The most likely reason for the Ice Age coming to an end was an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, that scientists have identified by looking at ice cores from Antarctica. This caused a “greenhouse effect” and warmed the planet.
Doggerland and Becoming an Island
Glaciers melting at the end of the Ice Age caused a sudden rise in sea level worldwide, rising up to 10 metres in some regions over a few hundred years. Much of the land which used to connect the region of Britain to Europe became flooded during this time, but a peninsula, and then an island was formed for a while in the middle of what is now the North Sea. This island has been called Doggerland.
The final separation of Britain from mainland Europe is most likely to have been caused by a tsunami event brought on by the “Storegga Slide” – a monumental landslide off the coast of Norway that happened 8,200 years ago. The huge wave inundated what remained of Doggerland and must have been devastating for many of the Mesolithic people living in the area.
Frequently Asked Questions
Did dinosaurs and humans coexist?
No, dinosaurs died out at the end of the Cretaceous period, around 65 million years ago. Anthropologists believe Homo sapiens have only existed for around 400 thousand years. Our oldest discovered fossil ancestor is only around 8 million years old, so compared with dinosaurs, our lineage has only existed for a tiny fragment of time.
When did humans evolve from chimpanzees?
It is a common misconception that humans evolved from chimpanzees. We did have a common ancestor, and then the lineages split with what would become chimpanzees taking one evolutionary pathway, and ourselves taking another. Genetic studies currently suggest the split in our lineages happened somewhere around 12 million years ago.
Why haven’t we found the “missing link”?
It’s unlikely that we will ever find a “missing link” fossil, because the species that both ourselves and chimpanzees evolved from likely lived in a jungle environment, where fossils rarely preserve.
Did early humans look like apes?
Our species is a kind of ape, so technically the answer is yes! By the period we talk about at Creswell Crags (the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic), people looked very similar to the way we look today. Our much earlier ancestors, like Australopithecus may have looked more like other primates – when you are talking the in range of millions of years ago range rather than tens of thousands.
Were Neanderthals a different species (Homo neanderthalensis) or a subspecies of us (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis)?
This is still debated, even though we know that we did interbreed at some point. Whether or not you call us different species depends on which “species concept” you are using. A term like species relates more to the way that humans classify and understand life than to the way life actually is!
How many people would be in an Ice Age group?
Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing for sure. Modern nomadic hunter-gatherer groups usually have groups of no more than around 30 people when they are on the move.
Could Ice Age people speak? What about Neanderthals?
We can be pretty sure that our own species had language (but not a written one) during the Ice Age, because of the complex ideas they communicated in their art and sophisticated technology, which we might assume needed a spoken language to be passed over generations. Neanderthal speech has been debated for a long time, but we know they had the same genes that allow us to create speech and an identical hyoid bone in their throat (which the tongue is attached to).
Did Ice Age people domesticate any animals?
Current evidence suggests that Ice Age people did begin to tame grey wolves around 33 thousand years ago, which would eventually have resulted in the domestication of dogs. There is a burial of a man and woman from the late Upper Palaeolithic (around 14 thousand years ago) which contains the remains the remains of two dogs.
Did everyone die by their 30s in the Ice Age?
It is a myth that Ice Age people never reached later adulthood. There are a few fossils of humans that lived at least into their 50s and Neanderthals into their 40s. The average age of death is driven down because of younger people being more vulnerable to disease and dying in their infancy, which happens in any society without access to antibiotics (not just in the Ice Age), and also by selective burial practices (where some prime adults seem to have chosen to be buried but certainly not everyone was).
But their diet had to be unhealthy with all that red meat?
Actually, studies suggest that in many populations, indicators of ill health increase after agriculture is adopted (although understanding general health from bones is complex). For example, in the Americas, the domestication of maize (corn) resulted in people developing dental cavities that were incredibly rare beforehand. Markers of stress and/or starvation might increase when people rely on crops (which can fail) instead of hunted and gathered resources, which might be more predicable and plentiful in a time before land is given over to arable use.
Was there violence between groups?
Compared with the later Mesolithic and Neolithic, there is very little evidence for interpersonal violence during the Palaeolithic. There are one or two individuals that have stone tools embedded in their bone indicating trauma, which doesn’t rule out hunting accidents. Much like disease, however, we’d only be able to identify violence if the trauma left a mark on the skeleton.
Were people cannibals?
Yes. It’s not clear exactly how commonplace it was, but evidence of cannibalism has been found in both Neanderthals and our own species. For Neanderthals, evidence suggests that the cannibalism was more survival-based (nutritive cannibalism), as the butchered bones show that they were trying to extract as many calories as possible (much like they did with animals that had hunted). For our own species, some instances of cannibalism look more ritualistic (funerary cannibalism). For example, Gough’s Cave in Somerset had a number of Creswellian (Late Ice Age) people who had been butchered, including some whose skullcaps had been knapped into bowls. This might have more to do with complex cultural practices than just survival.
This glossary was drawn from the “Virtually The Ice Age” project on the previous Creswell Crags website.
accelerator mass spectrometry system; a method of achieving accurate radiocarbon dates for very small samples
anatomically modern humans
people with the same physical appearance and intelligence as ourselves who appeared in western Europe between 40,000 and 35,000 years ago, eventually replacing Neanderthal people there. During the Palaeolithic period these people lived by hunting wild animals and gathering natural plant foods. They made their homes in caves and rockshelters where these were available, as well as building tents and houses on open sites.
small points of antler which stick out from the main shaft just above the animal’s head
a group of artefacts found in place together. An assemblage might contain a distinct type or types of artefact such as the Creswellian or, it may be characteristic of a particular type of activity for example, a butchery or funerary assemblage. Assemblages consisting of similar artefacts of particular types may be described by the name of a period such as the Bronze Age or, as a culture such as the Aurigacian.
the study of human life in the past by the excavation of sites and the analysis of the structures, objects, human, animal and plant remains they contain.
an object used, modified or made by humans for example, a flint tool.
early Upper Palaeolithic cultural phase named after the cave of Aurignac, France, beginning in Europe about 40,000 years ago and lasting until about 22,000 years ago. The assemblages recognised as Aurignacian were made by anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, as they gradually replaced Neanderthal populations, Homo neanderthalensis whose assemblages are referred to as Middle Palaeolithic.
a small point tool used for making holes especially in leather. Upper Palaeolithic awls may be made of bone or stone.
stone blade blunted by retouch along one side. Such a high angled edge would not cut back into a wood, bone or antler haft or handle during use. Such thicker edges could also have glue applied to them to help hold the tool in place in its haft.
removal of tiny retouch flakes to form a blunt edge or edges on a stone tool.
a type of pottery sometimes found with copper tools in the earliest part of the Bronze Age.
shaped to form an angle. During the Upper Palaeolithic the bottoms of bone, antler and ivory points were trimmed on one or both sides to form an angle, thinning the base so that it could then be fixed into a haft.
a shape formed when two cones are placed together point to point. A biconical hole is often formed when an object is drilled from both sides.
relates to flaking a stone tool on both faces for example, handaxes and leaf points are described as bifacially flaked.
piece of stone, often flint, at least twice as long as it is wide. Blades are struck from cores which have been deliberately prepared to make them. They are often retouched to form different types of tools.
a flake or blade before it has been retouched to make a particular type of tool.
a geological deposit consisting of fragments of rock and finer sediment particles. In a cave formed in limestone, the rock fragments are mostly pieces of limestone from the walls and roof. The finer sediments are also derived from the limestone or, they may have come in from outside. The amount of rock and fine sediment varies according to how the breccia formed. Bones and artefacts may become part of a breccia. A breccia may be a mass of loose debris but is often hardened because water draining through the cave walls dissolves the limestone producing a solution of calcium carbonate which, in the breccia, hardens like cement.
A period of time when the use of the first metal artefacts, made of bronze, gradually became widespread. In Britain this period is dated to approximately 4,000 – 3,000 years ago.
the surface of a struck flake or blade which was detached from the core showing the characteristics ofconchoidal fracture. Also known as the ventral surface.
Used in Britain to refer to particular geological unit dominated by quartzite pebbles. Pebbles derived from the Bunter Sandstone are also known as Bunter Pebbles.
an engraving tool. During the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic burins were made by knocking a small flake called a burin spall from the side of a blade to leave a small straight edge at the top. This edge was like the tip of a pencil. By drawing it along a stone, bone, antler or ivory surface under a little pressure, the user could make lines of varying lengths and depths. This technique could be used to produce drawings of animals or, to cut the outlines of bone or antler rods to used for making tools and weapons such as needles and points.
the remnant of the striking platform on the proximal end of a flake or blade.
a rock or sediment which contains a significant amounts of calcium carbonate
the most common crystalline form of calcium carbonate (see also speleothem, stalagmite, stalactite,travertine)
a mineral involving bound carbon and oxygen; limestone is commonly composed of calcium carbonate but the Creswell limestone also includes magnesium carbonate (cf. Magnesian)
a group of animals (Carnivora) with powerful jaws and teeth able to kill and eat other animals or, any animal which eats the meat from another animal.
a general term referring to deposits of small stones and finer sediments which have been deposited in a cave by relatively gentle and local processes
term used to describe the flaking of a roughly circular core when flakes have been removed from its surface from a striking platform which goes right around its edge.
stone tool made on a pebble or cobble, often quartzite, from which flakes have been struck from one face to make a sharp edge, leaving the rest of the natural surface unmodified. Known but not restricted to the Lower andMiddle Palaeolithic.
stone tool made on a pebble or cobble, often quartzite, from which flakes have been struck from both faces to make a sharp edge, leaving the rest of the natural surface unmodified. Known but not restricted to the Lower andMiddle Palaeolithic
a fine grained sedimentary rock composed of clay and siderite (iron carbonate) which sometimes occurs overlying coal measures.
the way in which materials such as glass and flint break. When a flint knapper strikes a piece of flint with a hammer, the force of the blow spreads through the flint as waves originating from the point of impact or percussion. The direction of force can be detected in the concentric rings known as ripple marks which spread out from the point of percussion on the bulbar surface of the flake.
the position of an artefact or other remains within a landscape, geological deposit or archaeological structure and its relationship to other material evidence.
having an edge or outline which curves outwards like the outside edge of a circle.
the fossilised droppings of mammals or reptiles (technically, ichnofossils). In caves, coprolites usually derive from bone-eating carnivores such as hyenas. They contain many small fragments of crunched and digested bone and, occasionally, pollen.
term used to describe the roughly heart-shaped form of some handaxes which are rounded at the bottom and have sided which curve slightly inwards to join in a point.
waste product or debitage left over when a tool maker has finished striking flakes or blades from a cobble or nodule of stone. The shape of the core and the pattern of scars left by the flakes or blades removed from it show how it was worked and what was struck off. These clues suggest how old it might be.
the unmodified natural outer surface of a stone.
a term used by archaeologists to connect assemblages which contain the same distinctive types of artefacts and may be interpreted as representing a particular people or society.
Late Upper Palaeolithic assemblages characterised by a particular type of backed point. These assemblages date to around 12,000 years ago. The type site for the Creswellian is Mother Grundy’s Parlour.
cores, unmodified flakes and blades, as well as chips and chunks of stone left over when a stone tool maker has finished working. The term is also now used to refer to the process of reducing a nodule into various pieces in contrast to the process of faconnage which describes the shaping of a tool from a large piece of stone by the removal of flakes.
the last glacial period (or Ice Age) of the Pleistocene in Britain, between about 80,000 years ago and 10,000 years ago. At the height of the glaciation about18,000 years ago, the Creswell area lay quite near but not under the glacial ice.
to separate the bones of an animal skeleton at the joints. Disarticulation of a skeleton may take place during butchery or, as a result of natural processes following death.
used to refer to the tip of a flake or blade opposite the butt or proximal end and furthest away from the tool maker or, the bottom end of a bone, furthest from the centre of the body.
Early Upper Palaeolithic
In Britain, the period of the Upper Palaeolithic dating from about 40,000 to 30,000 years ago. Separated from the Late Upper Palaeolithic by the last glacial maximum about 18,000 years ago.
Electron spin resonance. A radiometric dating technique which seeks to measure the energetic radioactive decay products which have built up at a steady rate within a crystalline material since it was formed. Measurements of the these decay products in teeth, bones and some speloeothem can provide an estimate of their age back to about 350,000 years ago. Although capable of producing some reliable age estimates, this technique sometimes provides some unlikely results and needs to be evaluated with evidence obtained by other methhods such as TL and OSR.
a high, narrow cavity in limestone. Fissures often develop from a pre-existing crack in the rock.
piece of stone struck from another using a hammer. A flake may be a waste product or debitage as in the case of flakes struck off in the making of a handaxe or, they may be deliberately produced for use as tools.
flake on which one or more edges have been modified by retouch for use as a tool.
a deposit of calcium carbonate on the walls or floor of a cave deposited from a constant flow of water over its surface.
Font Robert point
a tanged stone projectile point of the earlier Upper Palaeolithic. The tang is formed by abrupt retouch on both sides. Above the tang, the point has a lozenge shape and is retouched to form the pointed tip. Two examples are known at Creswell Crags.
characterised or produced by the presence or action of ice. The phrase ‘glacial period’ does not necessarily imply the presence of actual glaciers. Glacial periods (colder than today) alternated with interglacial periods (as in the present) throughout the Pleistocene.
geological deposit consisting of mixture of clay, sands and rocks of varying size and type picked up and dragged along by a glacier then dumped as the ice melted. As known as a diamicton.
a phase of the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe dating from about 28,000 to 22,000 years ago distinguished by particular tool types especially backed blades and points.
an environment providing the food and shelter required for an animal to make its home.
the process of fixing a stone or metal tool or weapon into or onto a handle.
a pebble used as a hammer to strike flakes from another piece of stone.
a stone tool found on both Lower and Middle Palaeolithic sites. Handaxes, also known as bifaces, vary a lot in size and shape. They are made by knocking flakes off across both faces of a piece of stone using another stone as a hammer. To make a handaxe the tool maker would begin by roughing out the required shaped removing as much of the natural outer surface or cortex of the nodule as possible. Continuing with the stone hammer or changing to an antler hammer, the rough out would then be shaped down and thinned across both faces producing a more or less continuous edge around all or most of the piece. If necessary the edges and tip might be finished by the removal of tiny retouch flakes. Handaxes were used with handles. Their edges made them useful for many jobs such as butchering animals, cutting soft materials, scraping fat from animals skins and woodworking.
the distal end of a flake which is relatively thick and rounded in cross-section. When the toolmaker strikes off a flake at the cottect angle, the force of the blow travels through and out of the struck block detaching a flake with a thin, sharp end. If the striking angle is not accurate, the force of the blow may stop short resulting in a thick, rounded end which is unsuitable for use.
the present warm period, starting at the end of the last Ice Age (the Devensian) about 10,000 years ago.
a cold period during which ice sheets and glaciers at times extended beyond their present limits.
a warm stage between Ice Ages. The present warm period can be considered as an interglacial.
a short warmer phase which alternates with colder stadial phases during a glacial period.
the interglacial period immediately before the last Ice Age, during which animals such as elephant, rhinoceros and hippopotamus reached Britain. The main warm phase was centred about 125,000 years ago.
the period of time between the Bronze Age and the Roman period when use of metal artefacts made of iron first became widespread. In Britain this period is dated approximately 3,000 – 2,000 years ago.
stone deliberately modified using a hammer.
Last Cold Stage
the last cold period 75,000-10,000 years ago
Late Upper Palaeolithic
In Britain, the period of the Upper Palaeolithic dating from about 15,000 to 10,000 years ago. Separated from the Early Upper Palaeolithic by the last glacial maximum about 18,000 years ago.
a stone projectile tip pointed at both ends, produced by bifacial flaking and characteristic of the period covering the end of the Middle Palaeolithic and the beginning of the early Upper Palaeolithic.
direction following the greatest length of an area or object.
the oldest part of the Old Stone Age or Palaeolithic often characterised by assemblages in which handaxes are the main type of tool. The oldest known evidence for the Lower Palaeolithic in Britain is currently dated to about 500,000 years ago and is thought to continue until about 130,000 years ago.
bones of the lower part of the back.
the last phase of the European Upper Palaeolithic dating from about 18,000 to 10,000 years ago and named after the site of La Madeleine, France.
a limestone rock containing a mix of calcium and magnesian carbonate
a soft fatty substance found inside some bones.
archaeological period immediately following the end of the last Ice Age in the earlier part of the Holocene dated to between about 10,000 and 7,000 years ago. The way of life was still based on hunting animals and gathering plant foods. Mesolithic stone tool assemblages often contain small flint tools called microliths. These were probably put together in groups forming composite tools. For example, a series of backed bladelets could be lined up in a wooden handle to form a knife or, other types of microliths could be used to form the tips and barbs or spear or arrow tips.
period of time in the later Pleistocene, in Britain between 100,000 and 40,000 years ago, when flakes produced from prepared cores and flake tools were made and sometimes used alongside cordiform, discoidal and triangular handaxes. Middle Palaeolithic assemblages are the toolkits of Neanderthal people.
a term used for the Middle Palaeolithic of southwest France, named after the site of Le Moustier.
type of human known as Homo neanderthalensis which began to evolve in Europe about 250,000 years ago and later spread to the Middle East. By the time of the last Ice Age, fossil remains of these people show that their faces had distinct eyebrow ridges, flattened noses and heavy jaws. Their bodies were short and well built. These features may be adaptations to the cold conditions of the last Ice Age. Neanderthals survived in parts of Europe until some time after 30,000 years ago.
period when the first farmers and animal herders appear, with assemblages that usually include pottery and polished stone axes. In Britain the Neolithic starts about 7,000 years ago, lasting until the start of the Bronze Age about 4,000 years ago.
optically stimulated luminescence, a radiometric dating technique which measures the energetic radioactive decay products which have built up at a steady rate within sand/silt grains since their last exposure to bright sunlight and provides an estimate of the time that has elapsed since burial. Measurement is achieved as in TLdating. In theory, age estimates of up to 350,000 years could be achieved by this method but the small sample size, an individual grain, may make dating beyond 150,000 years difficult.
Oxygen isotope curve
The most reliable curve indicating changes in world climate over approximately the last 1 million years. The proportion of oxygen isotope 18 and 16 taken from deep sea cores is used to show how much ice is present at the poles which reflects world temperatures. Increases in oxygen isotope 18 indicate cold glacial periods.
word used for the period of the Old Stone Age made up from the Latin word palaeo (old) and the Greek word lithos (stone). The Palaeolithic is divided into Lower, Middle and Upper periods.
the study of extinct and fossil animals and plants.
the study of pollen grains and other spores found in geological and archaeological deposits.
characteristic of a region close to an ice sheet but not covered in ice. In such a region, the ground may be frozen all year, thawing and waterlogging the surface in summer because it cannot drain away through the sub-surface ice. Such regions support only tundra vegetation.
the geological period some 280-235 million years ago when warm, shallow seas occupied much of the eastern part of Britain at this time giving rise to the Magnesian Limestone of the Creswell area.
the term used to describe the period of climatic changes, including ice ages, from about 1.8 million years ago to 10,000 years ago. The long term average temperature was significantly lower than current levels. During the Pleistocene, glacial (colder periods) alternated with interglacial (warmer) periods. The glacial periods lasted much longer than the interglacials.
the time after a glacial period usually referring to the present period of relative warmth known as the Holocene.
a weapon such as a spear, dart or arrow designed to be thrown.
used to refer to the struck or butt end of a flake or blade which would be nearest to the tool maker during manufacture or, the top end of a bone nearest the centre of the body.
a metamorphic rock consisting mainly of quartz.
a radioactive isotope of carbon (carbon-14), produced in the upper atmosphere and absorbed in a known proportion by all plants and animals. Once the organism dies, the radiocarbon begins to decay at a steady, known rate. Measuring the amount of radiocarbon remaining in an arganic sample provides an estimate of its age.
an estimate of the age of a piece of organic matter obtained by using the known decay rate of the radioactive isotope of carbon (carbon-14). Radiocarbon dating is accurate up to about 40,000 years ago after which there is too little radiocarbon remaining to measure the decay without error.
refering to a method of dating which seeks to measure an approximation of real time, or age estimate, in years before present, using the steady decay of radioactive elements and/or the steady accumulation of radioactive decay products. See OSL, ESR, radiocarbon and uranium series.
modification of a handaxe, flake or blade to improve the quality of its working edges. Using a small, stone, antler or wooden hammer, tiny flakes are chipped from the edge to change its shape, angle and sharpness to suit a particular type of job. A cutting edge might have a low angle and straight shape whereas an edge needed for scraping fat from the inside of skins requires a medium angle and a curved shape to prevent cutting and snagging. Abrupt, high angled retouch or backing may be used to blunt an edge for hafting.
pattern formed on a bone or stone surface caused by root growth.
a common type of stone tool used throughout the Palaeolithic. Produced by retouching the edges or ends of flakes and blades, they were probably used for a variety of tasks such as scraping fat from the inside of animal skins and wood working.
a mass of loose boulders, smaller pieces of rock and sediment at the bottom of a cliff or steep slope.
a body of material laid down either in air of water at or near the earth’s surface. Sediments are usually dominated by minerals but they may also contain biological remains (fossils). Sediments may later become compacted, cemented and variously altered to form sedimentary rocks, for example sand becoming sandstone.
point usually made on a blade.The point is formed by an oblique truncation of the upper part of the edge produced by abrupt retouch. Backing retouch is occurs along the edge of the blade forming an angle or shoulder where it meets the truncation.This type of point is found in the Creswellian in Britain.
any reasonably pure chemical precipitate found in caves. The majority of speleothems are of calcite, the carbonate being derived from solution of the surrounding limestone, and have been classified by their form intoflowstone, stalactite, stalagmite and travertine.
a colder stage within a glacial period often corresponding with growth of glacial ice and alternating with warmer interstadials.
a speleothem with a characteristic form like an icicle which hangs from a cave roof.
a speleothem with a characteristic form like a tapering tower growing upwards from a cave floor. The term stalagmitic is used generally to apply to any forms on a cave floor.
grassy, unforested region suitable for large herds of grazing animals.
stratigraphy / stratigraphic
the spatial ordering of geological layers or strata. It is usually assumed, and is commonly true, that one layer is laid down upon the previous layer in an orderly progression through time creating a stratigraphy.
the surface of a stone that is struck by a stone tool maker in order to detach a flake.
a projection at the bottom of a tool or weapon by which it is attached to a haft or handle.
an object deliberately modified for a particular use such as a retouched flake or blade.
a speleothem forming a more or less continuous stalagmitic floor.
treeless vegetation of a periglacial region consisting of mosses, lichens and low growing shrubs suitable only for animals such as reindeer.
(in archaeology) a named location internationally accepted as the reference point for a distinct type of tool, assemblage or culture.
period in the late Pleistocene, in Britain between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, when stone tool assemblages made by anatomically modern humans appeared. In Britain, this period is divided into the Early and Late Upper Palaeolithic which are separated by the Last Glacial Maximum about 18,000 years ago.
Uranium series dating
a dating technique (also known as Uranium/Thorium, U/Th) which aims to measure the gradual decay rate of naturally formed radioactive uranium found in materials such as teeth and flowstone. This technique can provide dates up to 350,000 years ago.
damage to the edge of a tool caused during use. Such damage may consist of irregular chipping visible to the naked eye or, scratches and polishes which can only be seen using a microscope. It will show how a tool has been used and can sometimes indicate what it was used on.