History - Swanscombe 400,000 BC
Sand and gravel deposits underneath Swanscombe were laid down between 425,000 and 350,000 BC by an ancient course of the Thames, flowing more than 30 m higher than in the present day.
These deposits contain flint tools made by the humans who inhabited the landscape.
They also contain bones of the animals of the time, such as lions, elephants (an extinct species the "straight-tusked elephant", more than twice as tall as a modern man and four times the weight of a family car), rhinoceroses, giant deer and many more.
Sequence of Swanscombe river deposits; gravels and current-bedded sands [Photos Francis Wenban-Smith]
Sometimes the river flowed faster, catching up flint tools from the banks, and mixing them up with a jumble of sand, gravel and different animal bones.
This kind of evidence is more common at Swanscombe, as well as in the Palaeolithic generally. It provides a general record of the types of tools made within a general area, and the animals available for food.
However at other times the river gently overflowed its banks, burying evidence of human activity undisturbed under fine silts.
This type of evidence is much rarer, but Swanscombe is one of the main sites in Britain where wide areas of undisturbed activity are preserved, and have been archaeologically investigated.
The lowest, and hence the earliest, deposits at Swanscombe contain evidence of a range of flint tools dominated by large flint flakes, some of them transformed by simple working to make them more easily held or to form a notched cutting edge.
Freshly made, these flakes would have been fearsome tools for butchering dead animals.
Similar remains are known from deposits of the same age at Clacton-on-Sea, so the makers, and their distinctive range of tools, have been named "Clactonian".
Higher up the deposit sequence, there is the sudden appearance of layers rich in handaxes.
This may represent the influx of a new population with different range of tools (the "Acheulians" after the French suburb of St. Acheul in Abbeville where handaxes were first recognised as human handiwork), but it more likely represents changing habits of the Clactonians, perhaps changing their hunting methods or responding to a lack of availability of flint nodules for fresh flake manufacture.
The types of animals also reflect the climate and environment. The presence of rhinoceroses, elephants and deer indicate a warm climate, predominantly wooded, but with open tracts of grassland.
Other fauna such as molluscs, mice, bats, fish and reptiles are also preserved, and these combine to provide a detailed picture of a climate slightly warmer than the present day, and a lush, fertile landscape teeming with animal life.
Freshly excavated Acheulian handaxe [Photo Francis Wenban-Smith]
Freshly excavated Clactonian core [Photo Francis Wenban-Smith]
Water-vole teeth from Swanscombe [Photo Francis Wenban-Smith]