Flooded gravel pits with a remarkable story of Neanderthals and mammoths.
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Lynford Water is an area of flooded gravel pits in the Wissey valley now managed for recreation by the Forestry Commission, including an area of sandy beach. It is the closest the Brecks comes to having a seaside. 60,000 years ago it was a very different place, a chilly, open ‘mammoth steppe’ landscape with a very different wildlife and a population of Neanderthal humans. The evidence was found in an excavation here in 2002, at the eastern end of the site (see map).
A wetland nature reserve.
The floor of the Wissey valley is underlain by sands and gravels deposited by meltwater torrents during the most recent ice age, the Devensian cold period. There are also organic-rich muds deposited in a channel of the ancient Wissey, and it was here that distinctive Neanderthal ‘boutcoupé’ handaxes were found, associated with remains of at least 11 woolly mammoths. Although there is no definite evidence that humans killed the mammoths, it is possible that they scavenged the carcasses, removing limbs to be eaten elsewhere. Interestingly, a stone has been found that may have served for striking sparks to make fire. Such finds have made Lynford one of the most important Earth heritage sites in Britain.
Excavating mammoth tusks, 1992. [Photo courtesy Nigel Larkin]
Evidence for the Neanderthals is scattered around East Anglia in the form of flint tools of the Mousterian industry. No skeletal remains have ever been found in the region. Neanderthals seem to have evolved about 300,000 years ago from Homo heidelbergensis as a cold climate-adapted species of human; meanwhile our own ancestors were evolving in Africa.
A Neanderthal ‘bout coupé’ handaxe from Lynford, part of the Mousterian toolkit.
The muds also contained fossil remains of local plants and animals, adding to the picture of life on the Devensian ‘mammoth steppe’. Bison, reindeer and woolly rhinoceros browsed the tough herbage, preyed on by carnivores including wolf and hyaena. Small mammals included ground squirrel and tundra vole. Rushes and sedges abounded along the river bank, and there was a rich aquatic plant life, including stonewort and water buttercup. The landscape had very few trees.
A Wissey valley scene 60,000 years ago. [Image by Dennis Payne, courtesy Historic England]
The Neanderthals must have had a camp site somewhere not far way – but this remains to be discovered. [Image by Dennis Payne, courtesy Historic England]
A feature of the Devensian landscape may be seen nearby on the edge of the floodplain. A group of wet hollows in the woods (see map) are the remains of periglacial ground-ice depressions. These would have formed more than 10,000 years ago, where blisters of ice known as pingos developed in the subsoil over springs or buried bodies of water. They would have expanded in winter then melted in summer, eventually leaving the depressions we see today. For more information about their formation see the Trail site Thompson Common.
A pingo pond in the woods.
Cretaceous Chalk forms the bedrock of the Brecks; it also stores ground water as the region’s most important aquifer. It used to supply Lynford Hall from a borehole (see map). As well as containing layers of flint the Chalk has bands of harder rock, and these may often restrict the passage of water. A hard band called the Chalk Rock horizon outcrops at Lynford along both sides of the Wissey valley, and it produces springs and wet flushes in the landscape. It is likely to have fed the ground-ice depressions on the valley floor.
The old pump house for Lynford Hall.
The site is public access land marked as ‘Gravel Pits’ on Ordnance Survey Explorer map no.229 ‘Thetford Forest in The Brecks’ (c. TL 820 946). There is a free parking area signed ‘Lynford Water’. A set of interpretation panels explain the site’s wildlife and history.