Breaking New Ground

Reconnecting People with The Brecks

Beeches Pit

A site with evidence for the earliest human use of fire in Britain.

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Beeches Pit is an old brickpit with an interesting history. It is the site where evidence for the earliest use of fire in Britain has been found, along with Palaeolithic flint tools. It dates back some 400,000 years to the Hoxnian interglacial period. The site is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for this reason, and is the subject of ongoing research.

Beeches Pit is an ongoing archaeological site.

The Geological Story

Beeches Pit was first noticed by SBJ Skertchly in the 19th century. The local bedrock is Cretaceous Chalk overlain by a thin layer of chalky glacial till dating from the Anglian ice age. Overlying this, he found about 3.7 m (12 ft) of “loams with carbonaceous seams” containing fossil shells, and he recorded flint tools and mammal bones. Researchers in the 1970s investigated an outcrop of tufa, a chalky sediment deposited around springs. They found it contained a remarkable assemblage of fossil molluscs that was typical of the Hoxnian interglacial, a warm period that followed the Anglian. Further investigations in the 1990s showed that there was a water body here, with swampy areas where yellowish-brown clays and dark organic-rich muds had accumulated, and also the springs giving rise to the tufa deposits. Local wildlife included bison, deer, rhinoceros, frog and vole.

The Geological Story

Excavations by the University of Liverpool, 1996. [Image: John Gowlett, University of Liverpool]

Dipping organic silty clay beds of Hoxnian age. It is likely that they are dipping because the underlying chalk beds have collapsed due to the formation of a doline or solution hollow.

The Quest For Fire

The excavations provided fascinating detail about early human occupation at this site during the Hoxnian. They found evidence that people came here on repeated occasions to camp. Dark, carbon-rich patches indicated hearth sites at several levels in the geological sequence – the earliest evidence for fire use in Britain. Knapped flint tools of the Acheulean industry were scattered around these patches, some showing signs of burning. Some cores and flakes could be refitted together, showing that knapping took place on site.

The Quest For Fire

An Acheulean handaxe uncovered, 1993.

The Quest For Fire

Charcoal patches and burned flints excavated by the University of Liverpool, 1998. [Image: John Gowlett, University of Liverpool]

A block of sediment was removed in 1997 for laboratory research at the University of Liverpool.

[Image courtesy Prof John Gowlett, University of Liverpool]

Beeches Pit is a valuable window into the world of our ancestors, probably Homo heidelbergensis, a species ancestral to ourselves and the Neanderthals.

A heidelberger camp. [Image courtesy Beverly Curl]

Visiting Beeches Pit

The site is on public access land in the forest, marked on Ordnance Survey Explorer map no.229 ‘Thetford Forest in The Brecks’ (c.TL 798 719). Please access the site from the Icknield Way Path by using the line of the field’s boundary hedge as your guide. It is surrounded by broad-leaved trees. Please do not disturb any of the geological features you see, as this is a site of ongoing scientific research.

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