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John's art website


c450,000 to c10,000 years ago


For at least one and a half million years, Britain has repeatedly been covered with sheets of thick ice, the last about 20,000 years ago. During cold periods the ice took about 5% of the worldís water and sea levels were about 120 metres lower than today. Britain and Ireland were joined to mainland Europe and Hele was at least 150 kilometres from the sea. Between the Ice Ageís, the ice melted, sea levels rose and Britain became an island again (1).


The Giant Erratic (Keene 1996 p 38)The ice sheets only just reached as far south as north Devon, but they still had considerable power. At Baggy Point, a 500kg boulder, over 80m above sea level, was carried there from Scotland. Several other erratic boulders, nearer present sea level, are thought to have been deposited by ice floes. This picture (left) shows the Giant Erratic, about 7.5m above sea level and weighing about 50 tonnes, thought to have come from western Scotland (2).


Britain was uninhabitable during the Ice Ages, but was occupied during the warm periods in-between. Archaeological evidence is rare because of subsequent glaciations, but Kentís Cavern, in south Devon, contains evidence of repeated occupation; by Homo Erectus from about 450,000 years ago; Neanderthal Man from about 66,000 years ago and by Homo Sapiens from about 31,000 years ago (3).


The earliest human evidence in north Devon is a fragment of hand-axe from around 300,000 years ago found near Porlock in the 1960's. Palaeolithic visitors may even have been to Hele - In 1934 a Palaeolithic flint was found on Hillsborough by Archdeacon Owen and it is said that flints have been found beside the stream at the former gas works in Hele. None of these finds are in a primary context, so they are not certain evidence of occupation, but it is at least possible that people stood on Hillsborough long before the last Ice Age (4).


< Geology        Mesolithic >

(1) Ice Age sea levels

"During the last Ice Age, Britain was covered by a thick layer of ice...Vast quantities of water were tied up here in the form of ice, with the effect that the mean sea level was lowered. The massive weight of ice depressed the land mass, which...sank deeper into the underlying liquid mantle of the earth. When the climate altered again, melting the ice, sea level rose dramatically. So did the land, compensating for the sudden loss of its icy burden. The final consequence....has been the gradual sinking back again into the mantle, like a cork bobbing in the water....At the end of the last ice age, the sea level was approximately 400 feet below the present level" (Pennick 1987 p 15)

During the height of the glacial phases, the last about 20,000 years ago, about 5% of the worlds water was in the ice sheets and the sea level in the South-West was probably 120m lower than today (Caseldine, CJ, Environmental Setting, in Kain & Ravenhill 1999 p 28-9)


(2) giant erratic & raised beaches

"Among the interesting features of this "raised beach" is the huge erratic block of red granite. it rests in a cave upon the beach, underneath the sandstone stratum, and was probably deposited by an iceberg or ice-floe during the Ice Age." (Slee 1935 p 80)


There is an erratic 80m high on the north of Baggy Point at 4279/4000,just south-east of Freshwater Gut. It has been called the Giant Erratic and is about 50 tons in weight and comes from western Scotland. This shows the height and power of the ice. Also at Baggy Point is a raised beach called Pencil Rock at 4230/4023 (Abbott 1991)


"High on the crest of these same cliffs (+80m OD) sits a large isolated 500Kg block of epidiorite (SS 435407), a basic igneous rock, possibly of Scottish origin. If natural agents are responsible for emplacing this erratic block, it points directly to ice having overridden these cliffs, perhaps the same ice that deposited the Fremington till. This is by no means the only far-travelled boulder in the district; a whole series has been identified on the coast between Freshwater Gut on the north side of Baggy Point (SS427400) and Saunton Sands (SS445377). These boulders vary in composition, but most imply a northern origin. There is general agreement that they are glacial in origin, although their mode of transport is disputed. Unlike the Baggy Point epidiorite, these erratics are littoral in location, sitting on the shore platforms close to present sea level, prompting the suggestion that they arrived on, or within, grounding icebergs calved from ice-fronts lying to the north or west." (Keene 1996 p 36)

"The largest [erratic], approaching 50 tonnes, is a granulite gneiss somewhat similar in composition to rocks found in western Scotland. This coarse-grained altered granite boulder is located at freshwater Gut (SS 427400)....At Saunton (SS437379) a platform at 5m OD is well-developed. The giant erratic at Freshwater Gut rests on a platform at 7.5m OD. At Pencil Rock (SS423402) a higher platform, at 13.7m OD, notches the sloping cliff." (Keene 1996 p 37) The picture of the Giant Erratic, shown above, is from Photo 11 on p 38.


During the Ice Age the sea level dropped during the cold, glacial stages when ice caps formed and rose again when the ice melted in the warm, interglacial stages. During the last interglacial period, about 100,000 years ago, the sea level rose to about 25 feet/ 8 meters higher than present sea level. At Lee this resulted in a beach forming in the bay at the mouth of the Lee Stream. (at [2006] select drift)


(3) Early people in Devon

Homo Erectus

"Exactly when human groups first made their way into what is now Britain is not clear, but it was probably during, if not before, an interstadial within the Anglian glacial episode, some time before about 450,000 BC. By world standards this is late in the spread of the human species; early hominids had been living in the equatorial zone since about 4M BC, and by about 1M BC a fairly advanced hominid species known as Homo erectus had spread widely across Africa, Southern Europe and Asia. One of the great difficulties of working with evidence from Britain, however, is that each successive glacial episode disturbed whatever evidence had been left by man before....In effect glacial episodes wiped the landscape clean of earlier traces, and it is only by chance that evidence for these early periods of settlement survive in situ." (Darvill 1990 p 29)


The oldest artefacts from Kentís Cavern, Torquay, including at least 14 Achulean handaxes, (which were recovered by William Pengelly during his 1865-80 excavations) are Lower Palaeolithic (Anglian OI stage 12) because although in a secondary context they were contained in breccia which could be dated. The Axe Valley has yielded thousands of Achulean handflakes (probably Woolstonian OI stage 9) 150,000 years after those in Kentís Cavern. (Alan Straw Palaeolithic, the earliest Human Occupation in Kain & Ravenhill 1999 pp 43-46)

"Kents Cavern is the oldest recognisable human dwelling in Britain and has some of the oldest evidence of man's occupation. Five hand axes, made from flint, found in the caves are currently dated at 450,000 years old. Found in the breccia along the Long Arcade and Clinnicks Gallery, deep in the cave, the hand axes were made and used by European Homo Erectus, also known as Heidelberg Man nearly half a million years ago." (Kent's Cavern website 2006


Neanderthal Man

"Neanderthals lived during the middle and upper Palaeolithic period between 120,000 and 10,000 years ago. The tools they made are very distinctive and changed very little during this time. Recent Neanderthal artefacts from the end of the last ice age (10,000 years ago) demonstrate workmanship associated with modern man, Homo Sapiens, indicating that the two species lived side by side. The relationship between Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens, ourselves, what language and social capabilities they had and what caused them to become extinct is still a much debated issue. Kentís Cavern is rich in Neanderthal flint implements indicating that this species was well established this far north in Europe." (Kent's Cavern website 2002 see [2006]


Homo Sapiens

The [Kentís] Cavern was again occupied, by sapiens sapiens, and finds have been dated to 38000-27500 years ago. A piece of human jaw has been recently dated at almost 31,000 years ago - the oldest sapiens fossil in Europe. (Alan Straw ĎPalaeolithic, the earliest Human Occupationí in Kain & Ravenhill 1999 pp 43-46)


"The Upper Palaeolithic period is associated with the evolution of modern man, Homo Sapiens. The first discoveries in Europe are about 40,000 years ago and a jaw bone with teeth found in the Vestibule Chamber in Kentís Cavern, close to the entrances used today, is 31,000 years old." (Kent's Cavern website 2002


(4) North Devon Palaeolithic sites

A letter from M G Palmer to the editor of the Ilfracombe Chronicle October 22nd 1934 "Sir, STONE AGE MAN IN ILFRACOMBE. A notable visitor to the Museum this week was Archdeacon W E Owen, the collaborator of Prof. Leakey whose work upon primitive man in Central Africa are of world-wide renown. Archdeacon Owen during his vacation spent a few days rambling in our exquisite district and one day climbed Hillsborough. Here he found a Palaeolithic flint flake which he has generously given to the Museum. This unpretentious scrap of stone, which shows signs of secondary working on one edge, proves beyond doubt that men of the Stone Age were present in this area in the very remote past. Archdeacon Owen expressed himself as being astonished to find a museum of such absorbing interest in a town the size of Ilfracombe and hopes to pay us another visit before returning to his labours in Africa." (Ilfracombe Museum, Hillsborough folder, ILFCM 4179)


"Of the half-million years of human prehistory which preceded the Bronze Age on Exmoor there are few visible signs. A number of Palaeolithic artefacts have been picked up in the area, especially on the shore or out of the cliffs at Doniford, a mile East of Watchet. These were probably carried by streams and rivers from the Blackdown Hills, taking many millennia on their journey. No doubt Palaeolithic hunters did roam Exmoor in the warmer spells between the Ice Ages, but the Exmoor of those times can have had very little resemblance to the moorlands of the past few thousand years." (Wybrow 1970 p 7-8)


There are finds from the Lower Palaeolithic in Porlock (a single Achulean find), the Doniford gravels (many Achulean axes) and the river Tone near Taunton (many Achulean axes) (Grinsell 1970 p 13-14, Map p 215 shows no finds in North Devon, the nearest is Porlock)


"Signs have been found that people have lived in the Valley [Hele] since the Stone Age. Flint tools have been found in the stream running by the Gas Works" (ICTG 1985-6 p 1)


"No finds to date [from the Palaeolithic] have been made across North or Central Devon" - Most finds in the SW are in a secondary context, except in the Axe Valley and at Kentís Cavern. (Alan Straw ĎPalaeolithic, the earliest Human Occupationí in Kain & Ravenhill 1999 p 43-46)


"The very earliest evidence of the presence of man on Exmoor is a fragment of a stone handaxe, found near Porlock [has a photograph]. This was made and used during the Lower Palaeolithic period, perhaps as early as 300,000 years ago. The context of this find is unclear (Roe 1968) but it was probably from river gravels exposed at the coast, so the handaxe might have been transported some distance from its place of manufacture and use" (Riley & Wilson-North 2001 p 16)


< Geology        Mesolithic >