More from the Cutting Edge: Further Discoveries of Clactonian Bifaces

By McNabb, John | Antiquity, June 1996 | Go to article overview

More from the Cutting Edge: Further Discoveries of Clactonian Bifaces


McNabb, John, Antiquity


In a recent paper Nick Ashton and I argued that there was a small number of bifaces that could be provenanced to traditionally non-biface Clactonian deposits at two of the more celebrated Clactonian sites, namely the type site of Clacton and the Lower Gravel at Swanscombe (McNabb & Ashton 1992). The provenance of these pieces is still the subject of much debate. To some extent the presence of a small number of bifaces in these deposits is something of a side issue. The existence of an independent habitually non-biface making tradition in the British Lower Palaeolithic has been disputed on technological grounds (McNabb 1992; McNabb & Ashton 1995), on methodological (McNabb & Ashton 1992), and historical grounds (McNabb 1996), and most importantly from reconstructions of early human behaviour (Ashton et al. 1994). Even the debate itself is rather parochial since European and especially French frameworks comfortably accommodate the occasional non-biface assemblage without reference to a non-biface making tradition.

Nevertheless the existence of the Clactonian is still a hot topic, and is still generating dialogue (Mithen 1994; McNabb & Ashton 1995; Mithen 1995). My own opinion is that the Clactonian, as traditionally conceived, represents a common and generalized technology, comprising cores, flakes, flaked flakes, and simple flake tools such as denticulates and notches. This 'tool box' technology is a component of almost every British Lower Palaeolithic site so far discovered. Scrapers and bifaces represent activity specific tools made for one task, or a number of inter-related tasks. Quantitative differences present in assemblage composition reflect functional and raw material considerations, as well as modern collecting and sampling biases.

In the writer's opinion one reason for the persistence of the Clactonian is the powerful hold that historical tradition continues to exercise over modern frameworks of interpretation (McNabb 1996; Dennell 1990). This paper aims to make three points. It represents an anecdote on the history of archaeological interpretation at the Lower Palaeolithic site of Barnfield Pit, Swanscombe. At the same time it serves to illustrate how strong an influence historically derived preconception can be. Finally, in establishing the presence of a small number of bifaces in the Lower Gravel at Swanscombe it changes the nature of the Clactonian dialogue. No longer is it why are there no bifaces in Clactonian deposits; now it should be why are there so few bifaces in some deposits compared to others?

In this paper I propose that A.T. Marston, who discovered flee first two portions of the Swanscombe skull, recovered a small collection of bifaces and thinning flakes from the Lower Gravel during the 1930s and 1940s. These artefacts were localized in one part of the pit. Because of his belief in a large fluvial channel existing in the vicinity of these discoveries, as well as the weight of prevailing theory, Marston failed to appreciate the true stratigraphic position of these artefacts.

Marston and the channel

Central to almost all of A.T. Marston's thinking on the stratigraphy of the Barnfield Pit was the erosional channel and its infilling sediments that he believed was present in the western part of the pit. Its position is indicated in FIGURE 1. The approximate direction of the channel is shown by dotted lines. Marston labelled this section F. The scale of the channel feature is clearly indicated in the sketch section, drawn by Marston in FIGURE 2.

The channel, Marston believed, was a fluvial event involving a down-cutting by the river from a land surface on the top of the Lower Middle Gravel (Marston's Older Middle Gravel, [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]). In the area of section F, the down-cutting removed the Lower Middle Gravel, the Lower Loam, and the Lower Gravel down to the Thanet Sand bedrock. The significance of the channel lies in Marston's views on the number of terraces present at Swanscombe. …

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