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Visiting Things No Longer There

Archeological explorations

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

Celia is tolerant. My partner has grown used to visiting things no longer there. On a warm late-September day, let me be more honest, it was her birthday, we had spent two hours looking for a fire. It was not easy; the smoke was long gone; not even the ashes remained. But I was enjoying myself. I had just glimpsed a spring-footed muntjac deer dancing into cover the instant my gaze fell on it.

The day before, with Richard Preece of the Zoology Department of the University of Cambridge, I had pored over satellite images of Beeches Pit, near Bury St Edmunds, where he had worked intermittently since 1992, but even he said he was no longer sure where under the tree canopy the site lay. When Celia and I arrived, I switched on my GPS to find the batteries had expired and I had no spares. I blushed as she stared at me curiously, perhaps wondering who ties my shoelaces when she isn’t there. When asked for directions, local dog walkers added to my confusion, their fingers pointing with certainty at one point of the compass before wavering and flicking round like weather vanes.

Then I met Leigh Jarrett hacking the trails. ‘Beeches Pit? Yes, when I’ve taken the horses back to the stables I’ll drive you up, it’s just beyond the top meadow. The horses belong to Prince Khalid Abdullah; I train them.’ Celia and I bounced uphill on the tailgate of his Land Rover with a large woolly dog called Winnie. ‘After Churchill?’ I asked. Leigh gave me an old-fashioned look. ‘After Winnie the Pooh: his breath stinks.’ I bent and slid a leg through the three-strand electrified fence giving Winnie the chance to lick my face vigorously. ‘I’m pretty sure the power is off,’ Leigh said with less certainty than I would have liked, given where the middle strand now lay.

We stood in a woody hollow where ash and pedunculate oaks had outcompeted the silver birch and hawthorn below. Bones ranging from dormice to a rhinoceros have been found here, but they were not the most exciting find. I sat on a log above a small steep-sided pit. In the earth around me, some characteristically oval and pear-shaped Acheulian culture axes were recovered from the depths of the Old Stone Age, but these are not especially rare. The discovery that set pulses racing in experts across half a dozen disciplines was a dark ring of earth. The sediments around it were reddened, and studded with flints whose surfaces were burnt and crazed by heat. A forest fire in such an environment seldom exceeds 300° centigrade, but animal bones found here had been fired to 800°. To make a fire that hot you need humans. It was the date of the fire that swiftened the blood: those bones were burnt 400,000 years ago. No older hearth is known in Northern Europe. Archaeologists even know which way the wind was blowing because there were two hollows compressed into the earth where, before Homo sapiens even existed, an early upright human had knelt, upwind, to tend the fire. Alongside were tiny flakes of flint where someone had crouched to knap a flint tool, some fine flakes skittering into the fire. It has even been possible to reunite larger flakes with the core of a nodule which was soon after rejected as flawed.

Today, all there was to see were the archaeological scars, narrow trenches which would soon receive another leaf-fall, and half-rotted plastic sheets separating backfill from unexcavated ground. All there was to hear was the soughing of the canopy sapping the vigour from a breeze which rippled the ash keys. But in my mind’s eye, I saw a camp above a vanished pond where, twenty thousand generations before, people rather like us fished and hunted, while agriculture waited 390,000 years in the future.

Human brains had just made an evolutionary leap in quality and size. More sophisticated language became possible, and mankind learned to manage fire. Northern Europe became a place where man could survive long term. Things no longer here were showing me a place more important than the pyramids. Humans had come out of Africa, and with fire they could stay out of it, here in the north. We walked downhill towards our car, now distant: a fact Celia was kind enough not to remark on. Our path was the line of the fossil River Bytham, then one of Britain’s great rivers, draining Derbyshire and the south Midlands, but swept away by subsequent glacial periods. If we followed its fossil banks, we would come to the modern coast at the village of Happisburgh, on the shoulder of Norfolk.

The fun place to stay in Happisburgh is the converted signal box in the garden of the Hill House Inn, home of The Dancing Men Brewery, makers of Soggy Seagull bitter and Wonky Donkey ale. This small hotel has a literary claim to fame, as fans of Sherlock Homes will have twigged. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his short story ‘The Adventure of the Dancing Men’ here after discovering that one of the landlord’s relatives, when young, had devised a way of signing his name in characters formed of stick figures. In the story, messages composed of dancing stick men are sent as a code only the intended victim understands. Two plaques commemorate the fiction, reminding visitors of imaginary events in real places.

After lunch we walked two hundred yards to a coast which is eroding so swiftly that whole villages have been lost to the sea. A wooden fence running down a meadow ends at the cliff edge, the last post dangling in mid-air. On the beach below is a layer of laminated sands and silts compressed into a grey band a foot thick, at the base of the low cliffs. Geologically they are part of the Hill House Formation, and you cannot help liking rocks that are named after a pub. These sediments formed the riverbank of the Bytham estuary, and pollens from them show that the interglacial climate in which they were laid down was cool with pine and spruce growing alongside birch; alder preferring the wetter hollows. In early May 2013 a storm stripped away overlying sand from these young sediments and revealed human footprints, the oldest ever found outside Africa. Wooden revetments were hastily constructed and every aspect of these impressions was photographed, scanned and surveyed. The rocks can be accurately dated so it is certain that the footprints in this stiff muddy tidal bank were made by a small group of people, ranging from a toddler to young adults, making their way south, 900,000 years ago. Together with flints found in the same strata, these footprints extended the evidence for human occupation in northern Europe back 350,000 years further than any previous evidence. These hominids were probably members of a species which died out 600,000 years ago, called Homo antecessor. The tallest of this group was five feet seven inches in height, and his feet sank two inches into the mud, the children a mere inch. A wash of sand soon swept over the footprints and protected them: another way in which we write, with the land our parchment.

At Beeches Pit there had been artefacts, solid stones, and burnt earth. Here there were merely impressions, made by ancestors capable only of basic speech. Then these footprints, made in a minute, lay unseen under the sand for the best part of a million years: three-dimensional negatives of transient beings. They were next seen long after their species, and all other human species but one, had become extinct. The footprints lay in the intertidal zone and by the end of the month they were gone, destroyed by the sea, Mayfly footprints. Now they exist only in cyberspace: images in the computers of the scientists who studied them, then resurrected in a further level of abstraction in the words I now write.

What footprints will we leave? For many years I worked as a guide on small cruise ships in Antarctica. In January 2008 we anchored off Gand Island, where there was no record of any previous landing. The expedition staff went ashore first and walked off in different directions, making the first ever human footprints in this snow, the compressed crystals faintly turquoise. The guests we brought ashore included a Belgian baron, the grandson of explorer Adrien de Gerlache who gave this name to the outlying channel. Flakes fell in trance-like silence covering the compacted sole marks. Winter would soon return. They would be frozen in. One warmer-than-average summer they will be exposed, and will take longer to melt than the loose snow. The hollows my boots left will form low pedestals, as if, as some tribes like the Lapps believe, there is another world below, where my twin being walks upside beneath my feet pushing footprints in the air. It may not happen for many years. They may be seen by someone not yet born, when I, too, am no longer here, and only these words remain of me.

John Harrison is a travel, history and fiction writer with a special interest in human development and exploration. His awards include the British Guild of Travel Writers’ best narrative book, and the Wales Book of the Year and he is currently working on a book about the emergence of modern humankind.

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