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Submerged beneath the waves of the English Channel is a hidden archaeological record of Neanderthal activity dating back thousands of years to the last glacial period — including discarded spear tips that would have likely been used to hunt bison, reindeer and woolly mammoths. This is the conclusion of archaeologist Dr Matthew Pope of University College London and his colleagues who studied this past landscape by taking advantage of an area of the seafloor off the coast of Jersey that is briefly exposed during the lowest of tides. Using an isolated 18th century coastal fortification a mile offshore as their basecamp, the team recovered more than a dozen Neanderthal stone tools from the normally-submerged landscape — including one distinctive stone spear tip.
While the English Channel separates Britain from continental Europe today, the two landmasses have been directly linked at times in the past.
Dr Pope explained: “At different times that landscape is going to be different. At some points, it’s going to be inundated by the sea.”
He continued: “At other points, it’s going to be on the edge of a vast landscape of river valleys and rocky outcrops, great places for hunting.”
During the time in which Neanderthals occupied northern Europe — some 400,000–40,000 years ago, the Earth experienced several ice ages. The coldest of these periods saw the Arctic ice sheet reach well beyond the Arctic circle, at some time nearly extending as far south as London.
As a result of so much water being locked up in the ice, global sea levels were much lower than those seen today — leaving the English Channel dry and traversable on foot.
Evidence of Neanderthal hunters (inset) has been found in the English Channel (pictured)
Dr Matthew Pope of University College London and his colleagues explored the Violet Bank at low tide
By analysing today’s seabed, scientists have been able to develop a picture of how the English Channel might have looked during these dry periods. Jersey, for example — today an island — would have appeared as a plateau rising up out of a rocky, textured landscape.
Meanwhile, undulating gullies and crevices that today are filled with sediments would back then have been covered in grass and shrubs, providing both navigable routes and food for roaming animals such as bison and woolly mammoths.
Dr Pope and his colleagues hypothesised that Neanderthals would have taken advantage of this complicated terrain to hunt — ambushing and cornering their prey in the dried-out channel’s natural pathways.
In fact, in caves on Jersey, the researchers have found the butchered remains of bison, mammoth and reindeer, but it remained unclear whether the island’s surroundings were indeed once used as a hunting ground.
To find out, the team needed to access what is today the sea floor — a feat which, naturally, comes with an assortment of logistical problems.
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Dr Pope and his team used Seymour Tower — an 18th century offshore fortification — as a basecamp
The team only had four–five hours each day to scour the Violet Bank for artefacts
Dr Pope said: “Most of these rocky landscapes are too deeply submerged for us to carry out normal archaeology. We’d have to dive, or use robotic submarines. It’s very difficult to find this kind of fragile evidence using those kinds of techniques.”
However, there is one part of the English Channel that the researchers could access without need of diving equipment — or, at least, for four–five hours of the day at certain times of the year.
The “Violet Bank” is a shallow granite reef off the south-west corner of Jersey that is exposed above the water during particularly low tides, at which times it is accessible to some two-and-a-half miles out from the coast.
To cut down the time taken to trek out to the bank from the shore each day and make the most of the short windows in which the reef can be explored on foot, the researchers made camp in Seymour Tower, a fortress built in the late 18th century on a rocky outcrop, L’Avarison, about a mile out from the coastline.
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Pictured: an example of a Levallois point like that found on the Violet Bank by the team
Dr Pope said: “It meant that we were in that landscape. As soon as the tide started to fall, we could emerge from the tower right into the middle of that landscape and then take different transects and different directions looking for artefacts and recording sediments.
“We had to plan every single day in terms of how far we were going to move, what time we were going to start retreating, and come up with achievable targets for each day. The tide is just something you can’t negotiate with.”
His colleague and University College London geoarchaeologist Letty Ingrey added: “It’s not like anything I’ve ever done. This was far more extreme, because we were staying out in a tower that at high tide was just surrounded by the sea.
“It’s just you in this tiny little world with the rest of your team. The tower itself is quite cosy. It’s got a fire, it’s got a kitchen, we ate well. It had electricity from solar panels, so it felt quite self-sufficient. It was a wonderful environment to work in.”
The team is already planning similar investigations, Dr Pope said
The researchers weren’t exactly searching blind — with their survey of the Violet Bank being informed by local experts who had previously explored the area during really low tides.
Dr Pope explained: “We knew there were artefacts in that landscape because people from Jersey, who know that landscape intimately, had shown us a few. But this was the first time we’d systematically gone looking for them and recorded their position.”
The team spent four days in May this year venturing out from Seymour Tower, scanning the ground for evidence of stone tools and taking sediment samples for dating purposes while drones flew overhead, mapping the normally-submerged ancient landscape.
Dr Pope said: “We found there were artefacts out there. Some of those artefacts were clearly neo-palaeolithic — that’s the technology that’s used by Neanderthal people. A couple of them were tools that showed us the kinds of activities that were taking place out there.”
In all, the researchers succeeded in recovering around two dozen artefacts from the Violet Bank. The most significant, they said, was a type of spearhead known as a “Levallois point” that was typically used by Neanderthals for hunting.
Ms Ingrey said: “It’s amazing when you find stuff like that. Someone dropped this tens or hundreds of thousands years ago. It’s really possible this was lost during a hunt.”
According to the researchers, their finds offer a clear sign that Neanderthals once used the area around the Violet Bank for hunting — and that there are likely more artefacts to be discovered on the seafloor.
Furthermore, the project has demonstrated that safe and meaningful archaeological work is possible on coastal plains like the Violet Bank during their brief intertidal windows.
The team is already planning similar investigations, Dr Pope said. He explained: “This was a pilot project.
“We’re back to developing a longer-term project that can take advantage of low tides over three or four years to not only record that entire reef, but also to make some initial inroads to some other reefs in the English Channel region.