Hominin activity on the Chalk uplands of southeast Britain: a geomorphological perspective on the archaeological record

L. Blundell


The northwest European chalklands provide an internationally important dataset for the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic. Archaeologists have, however, concentrated primarily on the Chalk lowland fluvial contexts, with recent interpretations emphasising their importance as preferentially targeted hominin environments. There has been relatively little systematic investigation of the plateaux and interfluves, or consideration of how their record properly relates to established occupation chronologies.

The Unified Palaeolithic Landscape Approach (UPLA) seeks to address this imbalance by integrating geomorphology and landscape processes into considerations of past human behaviour. It argues that, as preservation and release are the primary controls on archaeological survival, geomorphology will provide a more robust first-order explanation for artefact distribution patterns than habitat preference alone. I attempted to test this UPLA perspective by examining the relationship between palaeoliths and the geological context in which they were found.

Using data drawn from three Chalk upland areas — the Chilterns and the North and South Downs of southern Britain — and treating the Quaternary Clay-with-flints as a proxy for the degree of erosion suffered by the chalklands, I proposed that poor Clay-with-flints survival would produce only rare archaeological traces of human activity. Dense unbroken Clay-with-flints survival, offering little scope for release, would similarly result in low recorded artefact distribution. Between these extremes, however, each landscape would have optimal cover/erosion levels for artefact release and discovery. In short, if geomorphology, not human behaviour, is the prime control over recorded artefact density, the relative abundance of upland find-spots should increase and decrease proportionally to Clay-with-flints survival. This paper presents the preliminary results of my study, demonstrating a clear, non-linear correlation between surviving Clay-with-flints cover and find-spot density within each study area.

Full reference: Blundell, L. 2016. Hominin activity on the Chalk uplands of southeast Britain: a geomorphological perspective on the archaeological record. Lithics: the Journal of the Lithic Studies Society 37: 54–64.

Keywords: Clay-with-flints, geomorphology, plateau, Pleistocene, Palaeolithic

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