The man who died half a million years ago.

In a gravel pit at Boxgrove, just outside Chichester, the remains of a person have been discovered, half a million years old. Only a shin bone and two teeth were discovered, but the position, under thick layers of gravel, show that the remains are the oldest person so far discovered in Britain.

Excavation at the Boxgrove quarry

Site Type = palaeo landscape

Key Finds = flint artefacts / animal artefacts / homo heidelbergensis tibia

Significance = the oldest person in Britain

Location = Boxgrove, West Sussex

Date of Key Excavations = 1982, 1993

Approximate Date Range = 500000 BC

Discovery

In 1982, flint tools and a hominin tibia were discovered in a gravel quarry at Boxgrove, West Sussex. At the time, it was quickly recognized to represented the earliest evidence of human occupation in Britain.

A section through the quarry

The Site

Today the site is on the flat coastal plain, several miles from the sea to the south, and a mile from the low foothills of the South Downs to the north. Half a million years ago however, the site lay at the foot of chalk cliffs 200 metres high, which have since been totally eroded. In this picture (above) showing the quarry section, we see the foot of the former cliffs (top left), with some of the storm beaches thrown up by the sea (right). When the sea level fell, a broad grassy plain soon evolved, a rich habitat for animals and early man.

The Archaeology

The most famous discovery was a tibia (shin bone) from an early person. Both ends have been gnawed off, but it was from a robust individual, very active, and is assigned to the group known as ‘Heidelberg man’. Two teeth were also discovered at the bottom of the channel, at least a metre lower than the tibia. The teeth probably come from the same individual, and are similar to the teeth from Mauer man. Additionally, worked flint tools were discovered. This picture (below) is of a flint handaxe shows very clearly the ‘tranchet’ tip: a blow had been struck at the top left corner removing a flake from the top quarter of the axe, thus leaving a razor-sharp edge. Over 250 of such hand axes were found in a single season. Additionally, a variety of animal fossils were discovered including lions, bears, rhinos, deer, frogs, birds and voles.

One of the flint handaxes found at Boxgrove

Dating the Site

The presence of the voles on site meant that the so called ‘vole clock’ could be applied to date the site. This is a method by which sites can be tracked and dated against the rapidly evolving vole. Finding a vole gives archaeologists the ability to date sites that are unable to utilise radiocarbon dating due to their significant age. The vole teeth at Boxgrove revealed that the site dates to a period before the ‘Anglian’ or ‘Great’ ice age, around 500,000 years ago.

Significance

Although the site is no longer representative of the earliest hominin occupation of Britain – due to the discovery of the Pakefield finds in 2005, which itself was later outdone by the Happisburgh finds in 2013 – the remains of the Homo heidelbergensis do still represent the earliest human remains in Britain. The tibia is also the only postcranial element Homo Heidelbergensis in Northern Europe. Additionally, a number of the fossilised animal bones are some of the most ancient of their species in Europe.

Where Can I Find This Now?

The Homo heidelbergensis tibia and incisors are housed at the Natural History Museum in London and the flint artefacts are housed at the British Museum, also in London.

Further Reading

Find this article interesting? Want to learn more? Discover everything you need to know about archaeology in Britain with Current Archaeology, the UK’s favourite archaeology magazine. A digital subscription to Current Archaeology magazine gives you access to 50 years of the latest ground-breaking archaeological research, at home or on the move, at any time of day or night.

Current Archaeology magazine – Issue 288 – ‘Colonising Britain’ – by Karolyn Shindler

Current Archaeology magazine – Issue 190 – ‘The Ancient Human Occupation of Britain’ – by Current Archaeology

Current Archaeology magazine – Issue 153 – ‘Boxgrove’ – by Current Archaeology