Ice-age hunter-gatherers at Bradgate Park

After being hidden for nearly 15,000 years, the lives of Ice Age hunter-gatherers who migrated to Europe to benefit from warmer climes was revealed in an archaeological project at a very rare Late Upper Paleolithic site in Bradgate Park, Leicestershire.

Archaeologists evaluate the Late Upper Palaeolithic site in Bradgate Park.
The Bradgate Park Trust commissioned University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) to investigate a site at Bradgate Park because continuing erosion of the site threatened to destroy the archaeological remains. The Bradgate Park Trust gained permission from Natural England, Historic England and Leicestershire County Council to allow a team of archaeologists from ULAS to carry out a full excavation of the site in order to record this nationally important heritage.

A flint projectile point that would have tipped a long dart, propelled by an atlatl (spear thrower).

The excavation revealed numerous worked flint artefacts, indicating a Late Upper Palaeolithic site dating to almost 15,000 years ago – at the beginning of the Lake Windermere Interstadial, a brief warming period towards the end of the Pleistocene (Ice Age). At that time Britain was part of the north-west European mainland, and had only just become accessible to human pioneers after 10,000 years of severe cold – the Last Glacial Maximum. The site is thought to be the remains of a hunting stand where hunters intercepted animals such as horse and deer that were passing through the gorge. While there are some twenty cave sites and a few more single Creswellian find spots around Britain, the Bradgate Park site is a very rare discovery of an open air site.

Archaeologists start to excavate the central area of the artefact scatter.
The excavation involved the meticulous hand excavation of the soil in small 20mm layers or ‘spits’, the 3D location of artefacts were plotted using GPS. This data suggests that the scatter has good spatial integrity with identifiable knapping zones and activity areas. Most of the tools are broken which bodes well for future spatial analysis – tools were likely left at their point of breakage. The tool classes and dispositions suggest that we have gearing up for the hunt (projectile point manufacture), re-tooling (replacement of damaged points) and subsequent processing of the catch (numerous scrapers, retouched blades and piercers). If there is a palimpsest of activities this may well have occurred over a period of weeks during one autumn c.14,500 years ago.  This seasonal model has some support from the findings from the Creswellian cave sites: summer hunting of wild horse is known from the southern caves (e.g. Gough’s Cave in Somerset) while there is evidence of over-wintering at Creswell Crags in Derbyshire. The two known open air Creswellian sites, Bradgate Park and Wey Manor Farm in Surrey) suggest that small groups operated in the landscape with seasonal aggregations at the cave sites.

Some of the finds found during the work.
Hand-recovered finds have reached 4,600 flints with a rich proportion of tools and by-products, at almost 10%. The central spits were the most prolific and produced some of the larger finds. Plotting of the finds has allowed a real time assessment of the results, leading to the identification of one very interesting pattern in the disposition of the flint cores. These display a circular pattern c.5m across. The working hypothesis is that these larger flints have rested against the bounds of a tent wall. A concentration of burnt flint is apparent across the tent circle with a clear concentration in the southern half. There are also some patterns in the tool classes, for example there are two clear arcs of blade scrapers around the tent circle, suggesting that hide working used the external frame of the tent.

A stout piercer. These are the most common find at the site, and were possibly used for heavy-duty work on materials like hide or antler.
Among the flint tools were Cheddar and Creswell points, tips and barbs for spears that were propelled with an atlatl, or spear thrower; scrapers, used to process animal hides; and numerous piercers. These were made on stout blades but all have snapped in use – suggesting the working of a hard material such as antler. The recovered flint technology and the particular type of tools indicate that the hunter-gatherers were of a culture termed ‘Creswellian’, named after Creswell Crags, a group of cave-sites flanking a limestone gorge on the border of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. The Creswellians were a late manifestation of a wider European grouping, the Magdalenian culture, which extended across Europe from Iberia to Russia. To Upper Palaeolithic archaeologists, sites such as Bradgate Park are the prehistoric equivalent of a Pompeii, preserving a record of human existence from a snapshot in time millennia ago. There is some irony in that this rare preservation of a hunters’ campsite is entirely due to the later creation of a medieval deer park which has not been cultivated.

Suggested hafting positions of Cheddar points on wooden spears - the arrangement provides both tip and barbs.
The people who left behind these clues were members of a small group of pioneer mobile hunter gatherers who repopulated north-west Europe towards the end of the last Ice Age with the rapid onset of a warmer climate (the Lake Windermere Interstadial) and the development of open grassland vegetation. The new environment attracted a rich fauna of large vertebrates including wild horse and red deer, two of the preferred prey species. Other species included mammoth, elk, wild cattle, wolf, arctic fox, arctic hare and brown bear. They were re-colonising lands that had been lost for circa 10,000 years – economic migrants in a period of rapid global climate change. In the 19th and earlier 20th century excavation of caves such as at Creswell Crags and Cheddar Gorge provided the first evidence for the archaeology of this period but open-air sites were missing pieces of the jigsaw. In recent years we have started to identify such sites allowing research of hunter-gatherer behaviour in the open environment.

Bradgate Park is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its rare geology, and very special ancient parkland and wet heath habitats.  It is also a Country Park and is included on the register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest.  There are also two Scheduled Ancient Monuments and five listed buildings which includes Bradgate House and Old John.  The management of the Park is supported by a Higher Level Stewardship agreement, which is helping to ensure that  these important environmental and heritage assets are cared for.

Lynden Cooper

COOPER, LP 2013 ‘An open-air Creswellian site at Bradgate Park, Newtown Linford, Leicestershire’ in Lithics: Journal of the Lithics Studies Society 33, 30-39

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