Dr Alice Roberts follows a year of British archaeology. She visits Jersey where she meets a team of archaeologists hoping to shed new light on the Neanderthals.
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We might be a small island, but we've got a big history.
Everywhere you stand, there are worlds beneath your feet.
And so, every year, hundreds of archaeologists across Britain
go looking for more clues into our story.
Who lived here, when, and how?
So there was a blade in here, here...
So he's being attacked from all angles.
Archaeology is a complex jigsaw puzzle drawing everything together
from skeletons to swords, temples to treasure.
-He's biting his shield.
-Biting his shield, yeah.
From Orkney to Devon, we're joining this year's quest -
on sea, land and air.
We share all of the questions and find some of the answers.
As we join the teams in the field
Digging for Britain.
These islands we call the British Isles have been inhabited,
on and off, for hundreds of thousands of years.
And for most of that time, the early communities here
were living through what we now know as the Stone Age.
But who were these people?
What were their lives really like?
And when did the foundations of our modern society emerge?
With no written records to draw on, it is only through archaeology
that we can hope to gain an insight
into the lives of our ancient ancestors.
Tonight, I'll be coming come face to face
with Stone Age people on Orkney...
The wealth of secrets that we could learn from this is quite incredible.
..learning some disturbing truths about Britain's Ice Age hunters...
We have clear proof of cannibalism in this site.
..and visiting the Channel Islands
on the trail of some misunderstood early humans.
Nature just doesn't allow
a creature that isn't perfectly fitted to its environment
to thrive and exist.
We'll be travelling backwards in time
on a journey spanning 100,000 years of human pre-history
to uncover the changing story of the first inhabitants of Britain.
Stonehenge is our biggest, and most famous, Stone Age monument
and it dates back some 5,000 years.
These mysterious stones have been written about
since the time of the Anglo-Saxons, and studied by antiquarians
since Henry VIII sat on the English throne.
There are many theories about how it was built and why.
As an ancient calendar, a place of the dead,
or a temple for worshiping pagan gods.
Every year, archaeologists conduct new digs
and explore new theories about our most iconic landmark.
Four years ago, two eminent archaeologists,
Professor Tim Darvill and Geoff Wainwright,
got permission to dig within the stone circle
for the first time in almost 50 years.
What they suggested sparked interest from around the world.
They advanced the extraordinary and controversial theory
that, at its beginning, Stonehenge had been a centre of healing.
I'm not heading for Stonehenge. Instead, I'm going right to the very edge of West Wales,
which is well over 100 miles away from Salisbury Plain.
And in case that sounds odd, I can assure you, there's a very good reason that I'm here.
The earliest phase of stone building used
a special type of rock called Bluestone.
These distinctive stones were erected around 2300 BC.
Geology tells us they were mined from a hilltop here in Preseli,
where Tim and Geoff believe that springs welling up from the ground
may have been thought to have had healing powers.
Just when you think it's safe to go, another cow appears!
On a nice, sunny day, this is an absolutely spectacular bit of countryside.
But today I cannot see a thing.
I know the team are working up there in the hills.
I can't see the hills at all.
And at some point, I'm going to have to turn off this road onto a dirt tack,
so that should be exciting.
It's absolutely tipping it down.
I can't believe these archaeologists are out in this weather.
This year the Stonehenge team are at the spot these healing springs are found,
and where the famous Bluestones were quarried.
They're digging at the site of a 4,000 year old Neolithic tomb,
which was built right in the shadow of the Bluestone quarry.
They're looking for dating evidence that might tie this tomb
to the earliest building phase at Stonehenge,
and that may mean that whoever was buried here
also had some direct link with Stonehenge.
The link between the Preseli Hills and Stonehenge
was first recognised in 1923 by geologist Herbert Thomas.
Through geological analysis,
he posited that the distinctive Spotted Dolerites, or Bluestone,
could only have come from this exact spot in Wales.
-Alice, hi. Great to see you.
Walking up onto the hill here, the ground's just covered
-with large stones. Are these the famous Preseli Bluestone?
-This is the famous Preseli Hills,
Carn Menyn, where the Bluestones, the Spotted Dolerite come from,
which they used for the central settings at Stonehenge.
What you are looking at is the Spotted Dolerite. Here's a superb example right here.
Feel the texture of it. It's really very pleasing-looking rock.
This is a landscape where you come to take the rocks,
You can literally just pluck them off the surface of the ground.
I saw one a minute ago -
here it is right behind where we're standing.
-That looks like a prefect standing stone.
-Doesn't it? Exactly right.
Literally, people could come here, pick it up and take it away.
Getting it out of the ground is not a problem at all -
some simple levers would be quite adequate for that.
Nevertheless, it would have been a huge engineering feat,
moving 80 massive stones
over 150 miles from this hill in Wales to Salisbury Plain.
Tim and Geoff think the reason these stones were so prized was because of
their connection to this to this area's healing springs.
And the tomb suggests that this place in Wales
was already a sacred site.
The archaeologist knew that the tomb had been disturbed,
and probably looted, long ago.
But to explore what's left,
they've excavated a section through the tomb's outer edge.
With this very small trench,
you've actually made a significant discovery?
It's a little piece of keyhole surgery into an important monument,
but it's actually lived up to our expectations perfectly.
Let's show you what we've got in the trench.
Now, you can see this if you like is a platform just inside the ditch.
They've found something intriguing - a ditch and a raised bank.
And, importantly, it looks as though the bank
has pairs of standing stones imbedded in it.
They believe this means the site was originally
a small ceremonial monument,
which was subsequently covered over by a tomb.
The interesting thing is that at Stonehenge there are Bluestones
that were set in pairs of holes, OK?
So there is an architectural link between this site and Stonehenge.
With this tomb, with this ceremonial monument, we have
obviously got a very important person who may have been responsible
for the impetus that caused these stones to be transported.
The team will also be collecting samples for radio carbon dating
to establish when this monument was built.
They'll have their results later this year,
and perhaps these will provide Tim and Geoff with more evidence that
whoever was buried here had some direct involvement
with the birth of Stonehenge.
See you later.
And while the team wait for the rain to stop,
Tim will show me more evidence they found during the dig.
It's nice to get into a slightly more sheltered spot.
And is this an artefact from the excavation?
This is an artefact from the excavation.
What it is, is a hammer stone. You can see the way that the surface is pitted
where it's been used to bang really quite hard.
I'm always amazed when archaeologists show me objects like this
and I think, "Well, to me that just looks like a stone."
So it's this kind of pecking on the surface you're looking at?
Yes, giveaway characteristics. What are they doing with it?
Well, here, right next to where we found these two hammer stones
was this beautiful flake. This has come off a huge block
and at some point somebody's used a hammer,
probably just like the one here - in fact may even have been this hammer -
to literally strike the side of the block and take off that flake.
I presume it isn't always this misty and murky and rainy and foggy
when you're digging up here?
It does feel like we're sitting in the mists of time today.
Upland archaeology is one of those strange fields of archaeology.
We're working in really quite a hostile environment up here.
It can turn nasty quite quickly, so we have to be prepared for that.
We've already discovered from this small excavation
that something that was thought to be a tomb is much more than that,
it looks like it was a ceremonial site as well.
If they can get radiocarbon dates, then that makes this even more important.
It means that we are getting much closer to really understanding what was going on in the Neolithic.
Stonehenge continued to be developed throughout the subsequent Bronze Age.
But the first stones were erected towards the end of the Neolithic,
around 4,500 years ago.
This period saw huge changes in society...
for the first time people began to farm the land
and to permanently settle.
500 miles north of Stonehenge there is some of the best surviving
Neolithic archaeology anywhere in Europe -
on the Islands of Orkney.
Last summer I visited a dig at the Links of Noltland, on the small Orkney island of Westray.
On a windswept beach, archaeologists were uncovering a Neolithic farmstead
and what has been described as our earliest domestic goddess,
The Westray Wifey.
This year I'm back on Orkney, to visit another Neolithic site
that is revealing more important clues about these early farmers, and their complex beliefs.
This is Banks Farm on the Island of South Ronaldsay where just last year
some construction work up by the farmhouse, revealed a previously undisturbed Neolithic tomb.
This wasn't the first time an important Neolithic tomb had been found on Orkney.
In 1958 a local farmer uncovered the now world famous Tomb of The Eagles.
Inside it were 16,000 human bones as well as 725 bird bones,
many of which were from white-tailed sea eagles.
The unearthing of another Neolithic tomb on Orkney is enormously significant,
a once in a generation event.
Hamish Mowatt made a startling discovery right outside his front door.
There was a hole the size of my fist, so I get the torch,
shine in, you could see the rock face.
Well, at that point you're looking in at something
that hasn't seen the light of day for thousands of years, I expect.
The old heart starts to pound a bit then, and you, well, you can't leave it at that point.
Then when I shined the torch, this eerie white object with two holes,
was sort of looking back in at me.
So I sort of sat back and looked again, yes, that's definitely a skull.
What a remarkable thing to find, just metres away from your house.
-Well, yes, it's just really is basically ten metres outside the door.
The discovery by Hamish that this mysterious mound right on his doorstep contained human remains
gave archaeologists the opportunity to excavate undisturbed chambers inside a Neolithic Tomb.
And I'm off now to meet the archaeologist who led the excavations.
Did you have to move in and dig it quickly because it had been opened up to the elements?
Yeah, as soon as we realised there were human remains in the cell here,
the whole thing's full of water.
It became apparent we had to move quickly because
we weren't sure how the conditions had changed within the tomb.
Because part of the tomb had been unwittingly damaged by previous building work,
water was now seeping in, and the team faced a race against time
to rescue the archaeology hidden inside.
Dan kept a unique video diary of the unfolding dig.
Day Two of the excavations at Banks and we haven't had
the weather on our side today. It's been pretty rainy and we've had gale force winds.
So we're hoping to carry on tomorrow
with the idea of removing the top slab of one of the cells,
with the idea of excavating the human remains that may be in there.
The team soon realised that this was a sizable tomb, consisting of a central passageway
with five separate cells, or chambers, leading off it.
We've been digging our section into the passage here.
This is the east cell, with very restricted access into here,
and there's a skull sitting just there in the top, so we're trying to get access to that through here.
Once the team had removed the layers of mud and clay they were able to access the chambers,
and the human remains inside them.
Skull just straight back.
The team's first impression was that skulls had been placed as a closing
offering when the tomb was finally sealed.
It's a captivating glimpse of these people's burial rituals going back some 5,000 years.
As well as the skulls, there were hundreds of other human bones in the chambers,
all mixed together in a jumbled mass.
Excavating them was a slow and delicate process.
Each precious fragment was catalogued and carefully removed, for further study.
Can we actually get down and have a look inside the tomb itself?
-So we can open this chamber?
-Yeah, we could have a look in.
This is pretty similar to how it was when we first looked in here.
Where the bits of skull were tucked in amongst these stones as a sort of final offering,
before this doorway was sealed up and the tomb sealed off for good.
Dan, how amazing to have the opportunity to excavate this,
where you know it's absolutely pristine.
Yeah, it's quite an amazing, amazing experience.
I worked in this cell myself.
As you remove that bone you're doing that in reverse, and you kind of get the sense of how
that person put that bone there in the first place - 5,000 years ago.
The wealth of secrets that we could learn from this is quite incredible.
The construction work has completely changed the environment of this tomb.
It's had it's entire roof taken off, so it's now exposed to the elements,
in a way that for the last 5,000 years it never has been before.
And this means that the archaeology is under threat.
The human remains in here, are under threat.
If the archaeologists don't act fast then there may be very little left to excavate.
Having recovered the bones the team moved them to their lab in Kirkwall to begin the analysis.
They would also be able to compare this new discover with the famous Tomb of the Eagles.
It lies a little over a mile from Banks tomb,
and has revealed some disturbing truths about Neolithic society.
Recent research has shown that around a quarter of the skulls
from the Tomb of the Eagles show clear signs of violence.
Dan and the team want to answer two key questions.
What can they can learn about burial rituals from these bones?
And does comparing Banks Tomb with the Tomb of the Eagles tell us anything new?
Have you an idea of how many individuals might be represented?
So far it's about 14. We are looking at quite a number of bones.
If you imagine there's five cells there you could times that very roughly by five.
So this could be a communal burial place for a whole community.
I'm really surprised at how well preserved the bones are.
There's damage on this one but, you know, still the actual skull is pretty much intact.
It is, yeah, and that's quite an interesting skull in itself,
because that was placed as a sort of closing offering
into the east cell before the passageway was finally sealed off.
So this would've been one of the last people buried in the tomb.
I think skulls are amazing cos you are looking at somebody's face, aren't you?
It's only early days, but the team are starting to build up a picture of these communal burial rituals.
At this stage, do you have any idea of whether these bones were placed in the grave as bones.
Were they de-fleshed, or just a jumble of bones, or were whole bodies were placed there?
Are we looking at bodies being taken in and perhaps,
maybe put into the central chamber or the passage,
and being allowed to decompose and then at some point they're moved into various cells at certain times?
Then they become intermingled by later activity and become
-this mass of bones, this mass of the ancestors.
Got any evidence of violence for instance?
Tomb of the Eagles, as recent research has shown, there is a lot of evidence for this.
There's less so here at Banks, so far, but we haven't actually got that many cranium fragments.
That looks like it might've been a little fracture there,
there's a definite dent in the top of that person's skull,
but just turn it very carefully...
Yeah, there's no evidence of it penetrating through to the inner surface of the skull there.
Do you think the Tomb of the Eagles is an interesting comparison? Is it contemporary?
I would say they're probably contemporary and we await radiocarbon dates.
We are certainly looking at communities in that area over several hundreds of years,
expressing their sort of identity in death through these monuments.
The preliminary work here has thrown up some fascinating questions.
Did something occur in this Neolithic society
that made them abandon one tomb and construct a new one?
or, were there two rival populations here,
each with their own competing ancestor culture?
Dan and his team are in the first year of what promises to be the most
thorough examination of a British Neolithic tomb ever undertaken.
We're getting an amazingly detailed picture emerging, of rituals and beliefs
that seem very alien to us today, very strange.
Imagine how different it was then, when you would have been laying your dead to rest in a communal tomb,
and probably pushing aside the bones, even the rotting bodies of more distant ancestors.
It seems very odd indeed, I think, to us today, and it's a ritual,
it's a belief system which has disappeared from memory was never recorded in history,
and the only chance we have of trying to understand it is through archaeological investigation.
The community buried at Banks Tomb were amongst the first farmers in
Britain, and they've left permanent evidence of their lives behind.
But moving back beyond the Neolithic, our ancestors lived a more mobile, nomadic existence,
during what's known as the Mesolithic.
Finding evidence of the transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic has proved very elusive.
But, a community archaeology group in Scotland may have discovered a site which could shed light
on this gap in our knowledge.
Over the past 20 years a dedicated group of volunteer archaeologists
have been excavating sites around the Daer Valley in Scotland.
They're looking for evidence of a missing link in archaeology.
The Daer Valley sits in an area of land between the Rivers Clyde and Tweed.
Hidden in this remote valley are clues about a huge leap
in our ancestors' technology and lifestyles.
OK, how we doing? Everybody OK?
Leading the research is Tam Ward.
The reason that we're on this site is because the hill has been ploughed up
for new forest and when that happens
the plough exposes the archaeological sites for us,
so all we really need to do is walk up and down the furrows and, literally, find what's lying about.
Dense scatters of flint are churned up by the forestry ploughs.
These flints provide clues that archaeology is lurking beneath the peat.
If we found one of these bags in an entire site, we would think we were lucky,
and we are finding masses and masses of material in here. It's so exciting.
Just below the peat is the original ground level, which is covered in evidence of our ancestors' lives.
The style of tools suggests this is a Mesolithic site,
and so Tam and his team are the first people to touch these flints in over 6,000 years.
The volunteers give up their weekends to unearth fragments of their ancient ancestors' lives.
Been doing this for a number of years now,
and it sort of becomes a bit of an addiction after a while.
We'll dig anywhere, anything, any opportunity.
Well, what always strikes me is this is such an unremarkable valley.
You would drive past it and never give it a second thought and yet there's 10,000 years of history here,
that is still waiting for somebody to come along and ruin their knees and their back digging it up.
Tam and his team have found over 250 archaeological sites in this one valley alone,
and there could be many more waiting to be explored.
Today the team has exposed a large area and they work
inwards from the outer edges, digging down just a few inches.
The sheer volume of flint suggests this was a camp site, an incredibly rare thing to find.
You can just imagine ancient people expertly making their tools in their camp,
or perhaps re-sharpening a trusty weapon before a hunting expedition.
Tam has been finding typically Mesolithic, styles of tools.
We have a microlith, this is what they were manufacturing most of the time.
Microliths were part of a distinctive Mesolithic technology.
These tiny flint blades were imbedded into the shafts of arrows
and harpoons to increase their effectiveness.
They date to an era when people relied on hunting and gathering.
They hadn't yet begun to farm the land or to husband animals.
Here in the Daer Valley, Tam and his team think they have made a significant discovery.
because they've found both Mesolithic and later Neolithic technologies on the same sites.
We've began to find Neolithic evidence, and this is in the form of this pottery.
Now this is the earliest pottery to be used anywhere in Europe and these pots were quite large pots
and these indicate people are settled in the landscape
as opposed to travelling through it, because these pots do not travel.
That can only mean one thing, the very first farmers.
Now the most interesting thing about that is, are these the same people who were former hunter-gathers?
The use of pottery signifies a radical change
in people's lifestyle - it goes hand in hand with settlement
Tam has also found these distinctive smaller Mesolithic
and larger Neolithic scrapers at the same sites, in the same levels.
As farming became more important even simple tools like these were changing.
And beautiful Neolithic arrowheads, like this, begin to replace
the Mesolithic Microliths, the tools of the hunt were also changing.
We think this is a transition between the two earliest cultures...
the Mesolithic and the Neolithic, and if that's correct then that's a really major discovery.
This valley is yielding clues about a crucial transition in human history -
it marked the end of a nomadic culture that had been around for millennia,
and saw the birth of a structured society that we would recognize today.
But travelling backwards to the beginning of the Mesolithic another site is yielding
extraordinary evidence of life going back some 11,000 years.
At the tail end of the Ice Age, Britain was thawing out and the climate was warming up
and people were beginning to change the way they lived in this newly hospitable landscape.
They were making the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherers to becoming more settled.
The most important Mesolithic site in Britain was discovered
just after the second world war, at Star Carr in North Yorkshire.
This remarkable site is still re-shaping our view of people at the time.
Since 2004, York and Manchester universities have been digging there.
The new excavations have revealed that Star Carr was in fact much
larger than previously thought, covering at least three acres.
The site was sealed by peat and left undisturbed for over 10,000 years.
I've come to the York University to meet a team who have been working on Star Carr, for over a decade
and to find out why all is not well at Britain's most famous Mesolithic site.
Over the last 60 years, tens of thousands of artefacts
have been found at Star Carr.
And because of the lack of oxygen in the peat, the preservation was remarkable.
What emerged were not just stone tools, but organic remains.
Leading the post excavation work is Dr Nicky Milner.
-These are some of your most recent finds?
It's not just stone, it's not just flint. Well, what's this?
This is a digging stick, and it's actually made of wood.
And it looks a bit like a normal branch of a tree but actually
when you look at it, it has actually been carefully carved.
And you've got this amazing point at the end which would have been used for digging.
But it's incredible when you think that it's about 10,000 years old.
It's fantastic. You can build up a picture
of how these people survived, what they were doing.
We've never found anything like this before.
Somebody was holding this and digging for their food.
It's amazing to have something like this surviving,
but this wasn't the only remarkable thing the team discovered.
The really exciting thing about our recent finds is the structure that was found,
it had a big hollow in the ground and it had post holes around it
and this is the earliest kind of structure,
a bit like a house, I suppose, that we know of in Britain.
These small holes are a hugely significant discovery,
it's the earliest evidence that these people weren't just living in temporary camps
but were settling down and building more permanent structures and not just houses.
And then as well as that we also have evidence of
a platform, made out of worked planks, which goes out into lake.
-So a jetty?
-Like a jetty but it goes about 30 meters across the edge of the lake.
Really important cos it's the earliest evidence of carpentry we have in Europe.
Preserved in the peat for over 10,000 years
is the first proof of our ancestors working in wood on a massive scale.
If they're building structures like that they're staying at that place for a while, aren't they?
It seems to be overturning all our expectations of what people were like at this time.
I think we have to accept that they were more sophisticated than we thought they were.
The unique preservation at Star Carr provides an astonishing wealth of
detail about our ancestors' everyday lives.
So what about these, these are lovely?
These are called barbed points and if you look at them carefully
they've been carved to have these little harpoon-like points.
What are they made of?
They're made of red deer antler.
-There're really beautifully made.
Quite evil looking, those little barbs.
It's so lovely to have a site where organic remains preserved, because you start to see more of the culture
and more of the technology - you're not just relying on the stone tools, you're seeing wooden tools,
antler, antler little harpoons, they're lovely.
The finds that Nicky and the team have recovered from the excavations really help to paint a picture
of what was happening here over 10,000 years ago.
There's a whole lost world trapped beneath the peat, and clear evidence of people
settling in their environment, in way that hasn't been seen before.
Ben Elliott, one of the team here at York, has been using some of finds
to discover more about the skills of these Mesolithic people.
You're not just looking at artefacts which have been dug up, are you?
No, as part of my kind of own research I've been conducting some experimental
archaeology and having a go at recreating some of the types of artefacts we find at Star Carr.
-So can we have a go?
-Yes, we can do.
Yes, the first thing that people are doing at Star Carr
are making these kind of longways grooves and they use their flint blades to slowly incise...
And you can see the material starts to come away, especially when it's wet.
-Oh, yeah, can I have a go?
-Yeah, of course you can.
-Get a feel for just how soft it is.
And they say this is exactly what they would have been doing is it, using flint tools like this?
I have to say I am getting to the point where I just want a power tool!
After just a few minutes, I'm really getting a sense of how Ben's research is unlocking the skill
and artistry represented in the Star Carr tools.
It is coming off.
Once you have two parallel grooves defined along the length
of the antler you then have this kind of strip.
So what are they doing with these strips once they've removed them?
They start to carve them using flint tools.
And this, as you can see, is again it's quite a gradual process, but you can sort of,
using your flint flakes you can gradually sharpen off
and create quite a sharp point to the tips so a pretty formidable weapon, really.
Do you mind if I have a go? Is it all right? Thank you.
Just want to get an idea of how...
You have to hold the blade in a certain way. That's the stuff.
It makes a nice sound.
Yeah, so doing this experimental archaeology,
is that helping you to interpret the material you're finding?
Oh, yeah. Doing these experiments has given me a sense of
the experience of what life might've been like at the site.
Nearly 200 of these barbed antler points have been found at Star Carr,
97% of those found in the whole of Britain.
Star Carr is one of the most important Stone Age sites in Britain,
It's given archaeologists an amazing opportunity to try to understand
what was happening here in the Mesolithic.
But when they were excavating recently they started to make finds which were worrying,
not because of the deep past, but because of what might happen at Star Carr in the future.
Something drastic has happened and it's threatening the very existence of this important site.
So although things were preserved in the ground for 10,000 years
over the last 60 years or so it's taken a turn for the worse,
so this is something that was excavated in 1985.
And what is it? It's the skull of a large animal?
-That's the base of the skull that's been completely almost pancaked.
So, this was excavated about 25 years ago,
but in the last few years
we've got some serious problems. These were excavated in 2007.
So, that's an antler from the original excavations on the site,
-so when would that have been excavated?
So 60 years on.
-It's just like leather.
-Oh, my goodness.
-It has been conserved.
Isn't that strange. It's like a leathery banana skin.
And in fact we have very little anther and bone
compared with the 1950s
I can show you what those are like - you are going to be quite shocked.
Oh, my goodness, it's completely soft.
It's like a piece of rubber.
That is so strange.
Another piece here.
So this is bone...
-that's almost jelly, isn't it?
This is bone that's been completely demineralised.
It was when we found this and did all the tests
and realized it was extremely acidic, it's basically, it's...
We've been told by our specialists it's a bit like car battery acid.
For 10,000 years this Mesolithic world has lain perfectly preserved,
just waiting to be discovered.
But now something terrible has happened to the peat, it's no longer preserving the finds.
It's destroying them. So why is it so acidic? That's worse than it just being a peat bog.
It's basically because the water table has fallen dramatically,
that's let oxygen into the deposits, and that's created a chemical reaction and created sulphuric acid.
So what does the future hold for this site?
Well, luckily we have got five more years funding from
the European Research Council so we will be going back.
I was taken aback to see the state of preservation
of that bone and antler from the excavations at Star Carr,
and if that level of deterioration continues at the site
then much of the precious evidence there will be lost forever.
So that means it's fantastic news that the archaeologists have secured
funding to go back and excavate and rescue this archaeology
from one of Britain's most important Mesolithic sites.
Stepping back even further in time, whilst Britain was still in the grip
of the Ice Age, we arrive in the Palaeolithic, or Old Stone Age.
Around 14,000 years ago, as Britain began to thaw,
modern humans started to colonise this newly hospitable landscape.
Our Palaeolithic ancestors left only very subtle traces of their lives behind.
They didn't live in houses. So what we're trying to spot is evidence of their campsites,
imagine trying to find a camp that's thousands of years old.
It takes a keen eye, and a fair bit of detective work!
At the end of the Ice Age, the expanse of land
between Britain and France was a vast and rich hunting ground,
known as the La Manche Plain.
As the ice melted away and the sea level rose the English Channel swallowed up this land.
But there are a few areas of this lost landscape still with us,
and the Channel Island of Jersey is one of them.
I'm on my way to a site, that's so new,
that you won't find mention of it in archaeological textbooks or journals.
It's been called Les Varines after the road that leads there.
This discovery was made by local man Peter Bohea.
Peter, you found this site, how on earth did you come across it?
Well, it was purely an accidental find,
I was running through this field one evening, fortunately
the field had just been lifted of its Jersey new potatoes
and so it was lovely fresh soil, and lying on the surface I just found a flint core.
Did you know what it was, or did you think that looks prehistoric
and it looks like a perhaps a stone tool?
I knew it was prehistoric, I know what a piece of worked flint looks like,
and I got home and spoke to my wife who is a curator of archaeology,
she confirmed it was a flint core.
Very useful to have an archaeologist at home after you find things out ruining!
Oh, it certainly is.
Last year, following up on Peter's discovery, a team of archaeologists
excavated a few small test pits,
which seemed to indicate this might be an ancient, Palaeolithic, site.
Many other famous sites from this era have been found in caves,
but this is an open field, so it is an incredibly rare find.
These people certainly weren't the caricature cavemen of popular culture.
Leading the dig here at Les Varines is Dr Chantal Conneller.
What we've got here is a campsite that dates to about 14,000 years ago, we don't know the scale of it.
There seems to be huge amounts of material coming out from the plough soil, so it may be
people who live by hunting and gathering, who moved across quite large areas,
but camped here in this very spot.
A Palaeolithic site looks very different from later archaeology,
where there are walls and features to follow.
This means Chantal and her students need to meticulously plot every stone tool that they find.
And the soil here is rock hard, so the going is tough.
So have you found anything of interest yet, or is this very early stages?
We've been going for nearly two weeks now, but now we're getting quite dense scatters,
so all these little flags show a single bit of flint and we're also getting quite a few tools.
So, there's this little piece of flint here we think is part of
a scraping tool, probably for working hides,
but sometimes they're used for working wood as well.
So we have maybe people gearing up for hunting expeditions or repairing their weapons
but also other activities going on as well involving the processing of animal remains.
Last year, I visited a site of a similar age at Creswell Crags.
Here other Ice Age hunters were making beautiful art.
It's clear from this site that these people weren't just cavemen,
perhaps they're better described as tent people.
They might have used caves for art and ritual,
but above all, they were nomadic hunters ranging over large areas.
The tools found at Les Varines are the real treasure of the Stone Age,
and they're all the archaeologists have to go on.
From these simple bits of flint, they can build a compelling picture of life here 14,000 years ago.
-So shall I wash that?
Very technologically advanced washing equipment.
Hm, that's very nice. What is it.
This is a little tool called a burin, or an engraver.
You can see this triangular point here?
And these were used for working bone and antler.
So for kind of digging in, for making an incision into those materials?
Yes, there's little indentations, each of those represent an act of re-sharpening.
People are obviously using this tool for quite
a time so they used it, it became blunt and they re-sharpening it.
-So their taking off little slivers of flint.
And what's this larger one that you washed?
This is part of a blade. That edge there is very sharp.
It would easily have cut through reindeer hide or reindeer skin.
These stone tools are different from those found at later sites like Star Carr and the Daer Valley.
This Palaeolithic technology was designed for the specialized hunting
of migrating animals like reindeer or horse.
I think when you start understanding how all these tiny
little bits of stone might have been used, we're looking at
quite a sophisticated technology, and you start to think these people were very much like us.
But they have a different world view from us -
the way they treat their dead at Gough's Cave,
the way they decorate caves and some of their tools, which obviously have
great meaning to them, so though in some ways they
seem like us, in other ways they would have seemed very alien.
It's amazing to be finding these little traces of them.
It's very exciting just because it's so old, and it's nice
to be the first person for 14,000 years to be touching these tools.
This is an incredibly exciting site because it seems that underneath the plough soil
we have intact archaeology and the remains of a hunter-gatherer
camp from the very end of the Ice Age.
This is such an ephemeral thing to find, something
that is much more likely to disappear than be preserved.
So we have the opportunity to gain some precious insights into the world
of those pioneering hunter-gathers who were re-colonising Northern Europe
after the ice sheets receded.
But as well as finding clues about these Ice Age hunters' everyday lives,
archaeologists have also uncovered evidence that shows these people
were very different from us.
Finds from a cave in Cheddar Gorge, are now held in London's Natural History Museum.
Rescue excavations at Gough's Cave between 1987 and 1992
revealed evidence of hunter-gatherers using the cave, and human remains.
Last year, a team of experts from the Natural History Museum re-examined some of those bones.
What they found was truly gruesome.
20 years ago clues emerged that seemed to be evidence for cannibalism.
The new analysis strengthens this theory.
This jaw bone has been deliberately broken to extract bone marrow
these people were eating their own kind.
And a closer inspection of the bones has revealed something new and extraordinary.
We had the vault of the skull, or three skulls,
which was absolutely perfectly preserved.
And there was a sort of... Why they were saving it.
We have clear proof of cannibalism in this site, so if they were going
to modify the skull it was probably to extract brain,
but the way they modified it is not just to extract brain
because they would have break it in much easier way to extract it.
But here we observe a very clear process of complete defleshing.
You can almost imagine somebody peeling off the tissues,
and then cutting down underneath.
Exactly. It's a classic example of scalping.
So peeling like this and cut, cut, cut, cut.
All across. When we analyzed the face and other parts
they are clear signs that they were going much more in detail,
so they were cutting the eyes, they were cutting the cheek,
they were cutting the lips.
Why would they want to that?
We think that was to produce a container and the simple movement
of an anatomical position to put it upside down
it just tells you want it was, and it was a cup.
Even as an anatomist, as someone who has dissected human cadavers,
I find it extraordinary the lengths they were going to,
to scrupulously clean up a skull to transform it into a cup.
And this new research shows us how they were doing it,
but why is another question entirely.
Were they driven by hunger, or by their beliefs,
was this just an elaborate funerary ritual?
And whom were they eating - their enemies, or their friends and relatives?
It seems strange to our modern sensibilities that our
ancient ancestors would make such macabre objects.
And as is so often the case, archaeology can provide us
with the evidence, but not with the reasons, why.
Before we modern humans arrived on these shores, there were other,
different, humans who roamed the British Isles.
And there is evidence of their lives here, on the Channel Island of Jersey.
During colder periods of the Ice Age, the sea levels
around Britain would have been significantly lower than today.
The English Channel, and much of the North Sea,
would have been dry land,
and the Channel Islands would have stood out as areas of high ground in a flat landscape.
I'm here to meet a team of archaeologists who are hoping
to shed light on a much-maligned human species - the Neanderthals.
Neanderthals survived and thrived in Europe
for hundreds of thousands of years - through periods of major climate
change as glaciations repeatedly brought ice sheets down over northern Europe.
And they were here long before we modern humans arrived on the scene.
The Neanderthals were a distinct and separate branch of the human evolutionary tree.
They evolved in Europe some time before 300,000 years ago.
And before modern humans emerged from Africa,
the lands north of the Mediterranean were the domain of the Neanderthals.
I've arranged to meet Dr Matt Pope, of University College London,
-who is one of the co-directors of the project here.
-I'm Matt, Matt, nice to meet you.
-This is Kevin, our guide.
So we're going to go and have a look at La Cotte from the sea?
We've got a beautiful bay,
and round the corner some archaeology.
What a fantastic way to do archaeology! I could get used to this.
La Cotte de St Brelade is of international significance because it's one of the few places
that Neanderthal remains have been discovered in North West Atlantic Europe.
This is a fantastic way to view from the sea.
I mean, most people when they look at La Cotte,
they're looking at it either from the site or from the headland above.
We're trying to give a different perspective here, what we're able to do here
looking at these stacks, the remains of an entire valley system.
And it's within these valley systems that the Neanderthals were almost certainly hunting
and moving following herds of mammoth, rhinoceros and other animals.
We're actually paddling over the top of a submerged Ice Age landscape,
and the sea is fairly calm today, but just occasionally we get hit by the bow wave of a ferry.
And then you have to be really careful about being close to reefs
as white water starts breaking over them.
Matt is using kayaks to map every part of the Jersey coastline,
looking for new caves, and with them, new archaeology.
So La Cotte is really just the beginning?
I don't think we'll equal the size and the importance of La Cotte,
but what we can start to do is fill in the gaps, and try and create
an entire history of occupation and periods of abandonment,
this side of the English Channel river for the past half million years.
Travelling round the coast by kayak is a fantastic way to survey it, you can get really close.
And it's great to go along with Matt and see that he's not just looking at the modern landscape
of today but imagining in his mind's eye the ancient coastline.
La Cotte is such a famous site, but there maybe other important archaeological sites
as yet undiscovered around this coast, but for now I want to get over there and see it up close.
La Cotte has provided us with a wealth of information about the lives of Neanderthals.
Archaeologists have been digging here for over 100 years.
And in the 1960s, Prince Charles even took part in the excavations.
Matt and his team suspected that La Cotte might have more to reveal,
so this year they're trying to establish if there's any untouched archaeology here.
They're clearing away backfill debris from previous excavations to expose the original sediments.
Because of the tides, they can only work here for a few hours at a time.
It's a dangerous environment, hence the hard hats.
-Hello! What an amazing site!
-Yeah, it's great.
Now how much of this is original archaeology,
and how much of it is the back fill from previous excavations?
Well, when we first came here,
we were under the impression that most of this was material left over from previous excavations.
The picture that we're starting to build up, and from Martin Bate's excavations here,
is in fact large parts of this site remain unexcavated and intact.
It's really exciting that there is pristine archaeology here.
This means the team can start to plan future excavations
and perhaps learn more about what the Neanderthals were doing here over a huge length of time.
And few tantalising fragments have even been emerging from the exploratory dig.
So, Becky, these are some of the finds which have been coming out today?
Yeah, there's a couple of bits Bully's just pulled out.
-Is that flint?
-Is it, they're both flint.
They're quite heavily damaged around these edges, here.
Oh, that's not something somebody's done to them?
No, if it was freshly struck you'd expect to see a sharp feather edge.
It must have been exciting to realise that you have got in situ pristine archaeology here?
Fantastic, especially when we had no idea that there was this much here.
There's never a time you walk up here where it doesn't strike you - it's always exciting.
This site is so iconic and famous, but I think in some ways that distracts from its real importance,
which is that the Neanderthals were coming back here to this cave over tens of thousands of year.
It holds out the promise of really understanding how
Neanderthals adapted to this changing climate in Europe during the Ice Age.
But back to the present and the tide is rising really rapidly
so if we don't get out of here we're going to get stuck.
Over 250,000 individual stone tools have been found at La Cotte -
more than all the other Neanderthal sites in Britain combined.
Becky and Matt have arranged for some of the best to be brought down to the beach.
They can demonstrate just how sophisticated the Neanderthals really were.
You've got artefacts here from a very long period of time, what do they tell us about the Neanderthals?
What's interesting about this collection as a whole
is there's a lot of flint in it, which these artefacts are here, and there's no flint on the island.
The nearest source is of flint is perhaps 20 kilometres away.
They're probably following animals here in a place where
there's not brilliant stone for making tools,
so they're bringing that in from elsewhere.
There is flint around here in the beaches but it's useless.
They know where the good raw material sources are.
The Neanderthals certainly weren't primitive brutes.
These tools show real sophistication and intelligence.
This one is particularly beautiful.
Yeah, this part of a much bigger piece, but I don't recognise
the raw material at all so this is something very exotic.
I mean, that's beautiful, it's been really carefully manufactured.
What's also interesting is that it comes from the very early excavations that took place
in the upper part of the cave,
and these may have been some of the last Neanderthals here.
That suggests somebody who is good at making something functional, and they've got an eye for beauty.
It doesn't look like a technology of people on the edge - we need to focus on that.
Neanderthals, if they, compared to humans, lacked the ability to make tools,
lacked the ability to think, they would have been extinct before they'd even started.
Nature just doesn't allow a creature that isn't perfectly fitted to its environment to thrive and exist.
My 100,000-year long journey ends here, with these surprising truths
about the sophistication, and achievements, of the Neanderthals.
Along the way, I've seen so much fresh evidence of ingenuity and invention.
From the epic building of Stonehenge
to the first wooden structures found in Europe.
I've also seen exciting new discoveries being made.
And tiny clues uncovered that are all adding to the complex jigsaw
puzzle that is ancient Britain.
In many ways the Stone Age seems unimaginably distant to us
and the voices of our ancient ancestors have long since faded into silence.
But archaeology helps us to piece their stories together -
revealing how they lived, how they viewed their world.
And showing us how the foundations of our modern society emerged.
And so with many questions still unanswered,
the digging continues.
You can get hands on with archaeology yourself
with BBC Hands on History.
Find events near you and download family activities
to try at home on the website.
In the final episode of the series, Dr Alice Roberts goes in search of our elusive Stone Age ancestors. Along the way she visits the Channel island of Jersey where she meets a team of archaeologists hoping to shed new light on the much-maligned Neanderthals, and embarks on a kayak survey of the coastline looking for undiscovered sites hidden in the cliffs.
At the Natural history museum Alice comes face to face with the dark side of our Ice Age ancestors lives - she sees evidence of cannibalism and the ritual use of human skulls. And she meets a team who are hoping to unlock the secrets of Stonehenge, not on Salisbury plain, but in the remote Preseli Hills of Wales.