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The 400,000 year old Swanscombe skull and the Ebbsfleet Elephant at the heart of Kent's prehistoric metropolis


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They say if you don't know where you've come from, you don't know where you're going.

Thankfully for the residents of Swanscombe and Kent they don't have far to travel to piece together a vital piece of early human history.

The Swanscombe Skull site as it was prior to the introduction of the heritage park.
The Swanscombe Skull site as it was prior to the introduction of the heritage park.

It's hard to imagine now but homes along the Thames Estuary were once on land which hyenas, cave lions and huge mammoth-sized elephants freely roamed.

They were joined by perhaps the town's oldest resident – a 400,000 year old ancestor to the Neanderthal species – known as the Swanscombe woman.

Swanscombe is one of only two sites in Britain where actual human remains of this very early period have been found.

The former Barnfield gravel pit gained international fame when part of a fossilized human skull was unearthed – originally believed to belong to a man due to its size but later confirmed as being that of a female.

Its discovery was made on a summer afternoon on June 29, 1935, by a 46-year-old dentist named Alvan Theophilus Marston, for who archaeology was just a hobby.

The Swanscombe Skull found at Barnfield Pit, Swanscombe. Photo: Natural History Museum
The Swanscombe Skull found at Barnfield Pit, Swanscombe. Photo: Natural History Museum

Marston had been digging around eight metres below the surface when he noticed the bone fragment protruding out.

The story goes he was unsure whether to retrieve it straight away in the absence of photographic evidence and thus risk controversy over its location, or leave it in the same spot.

He eventually decided to remove it and mark the spot before leaving the fragment with a chemist on Milton Street.

After his find he returned every weekend with his teenage son John and is said to have been so relentless in his pursuit that he even erected a wooden hut to sleep in.

Nearly a year later on March 15 the pair were rewarded for their persistence when they uncovered another piece of the skull. Today, a piece of granite marks the spot of Mr Marston's miraculous original find.

His account of the excavation is recounted in Chris Stringer's 'Home Britannicus: The Incredible Story of Human Life In Britain'.

In 2004 a competition was held to design an eye catching landmark for the site, the result was this hand axe sculpture by local Dartford architects
In 2004 a competition was held to design an eye catching landmark for the site, the result was this hand axe sculpture by local Dartford architects

"The left parietal bone came to light on Sunday, 15 March, 1936. My boy and I were working.

"We had encountered a pocket of bones, including a rhinoceros tooth, earlier in the day, but in the later afternoon. I began to encounter the parietal bone. There could be no doubt about it."

Mr Marston would continue to search the pit for many years after but without any success.

Then 20 years after his initial find a third, and to date, final piece of the skull was found by John J Wymer.

A piece of granite marks the spot of Mr Marston's miraculous original find at Swanscombe Heritage Park.

The story does not end here, however. It is actually believed some parts of the skull belonging to the face may still be missing.

A granite stone marks the spot of Alvan Marston's remarkable first discovery in 1935
A granite stone marks the spot of Alvan Marston's remarkable first discovery in 1935

In 1877, the Swanscombe Cement Works were established and it became the largest manufacturer and exporter of portland cement in Britain at the time.

Gravel from the quarry was used in the construction of the Mulberry Harbours, a temporary construct fashioned for British forces during the Second World War to help with the offloading of cargo onto beaches during the allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944.

It remains a possibility that a missing part may just be waiting to wash up on the shores of a French beach somewhere.

Local historian Christoph Bull says the fact they were able to find one, let alone three parts was a "miracle" given the site's industrial past.

In terms of Stone Age history he said Swanscombe was the "crown jewel in the whole of Southern England".

Swanscombe Heritage Park was opened in 2005 on the edge of the nature reserve to commemorate where the find was recorded 70 years prior.

Despite this Christoph believes it does not get the attention it deserves and says it should be taught about in schools across Kent.

"It should be something, especially schools, should be flocking to," he said. "It's so convenient, right on your front doorstop."

The historian carries out guided talks and walks on different aspects of history across Gravesend and Dartford but says the Swanscombe Skull would need a specific tour in its own right.

"Swanscombe has such a wonderful history," he said. "People don't think about it as a place for history but they should because it has got most of it in all spheres."

So what was Swanscombe like 400,000 years ago?

A visit is likely to have looked very different back then with wild encounters with hyenas, rhinos and even giant elephants, all of which would have roamed these grounds before several Ice Ages swept across Britain.

Straight tusked elephants are just some of the animals who once lived here before us
Straight tusked elephants are just some of the animals who once lived here before us

It also represented a time in history when the early examples of mankind had very different behaviours and roles.

For many of us the task of replenishing our fridges entails a short trip to the supermarket but the equivalent for our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have involved a touch more adrenaline than selecting between washing powder brands.

Despite holding a reputation as being primitive cavemen, "Neanderthals" were actually highly skilled and intelligent.

They had larger skulls and brains than the homo sapiens of today and were skilled tool makers.

More than 100,000 prehistoric flint tools have been recovered from Swanscombe, making it one of the richest early Stone Age sites in Britain.

The handaxe was one such example of the weaponry deployed by our prehistoric ancestors to catch and kill their prey.

Shopping "Swanscombe Man" style would have been a bit more dangerous than it is today
Shopping "Swanscombe Man" style would have been a bit more dangerous than it is today

Early hunters used its sharp flint point and edges for skinning and butchering the animals they caught, including hares, mice and voles.

But there has also been finds demonstrating how such tools were wielded against much larger foes.

Between 1997 and 2004 a series of archaeological excavations were carried out in the Ebbsfleet Valley in advance of High Speed 1's passage into Kent .

They were led by Dr Francis Wenban-Smith, a research professor of archaeology at the University of Southampton, working in partnership with Oxford Archaeology who commissioned the dig, near the Swanscombe Skull site.

Together they safely removed a 400,000-year-old elephant tusk from a building site near Swan Valley Community School on Southfleet Road, now Ebbsfleet Academy.

The mammoth find was one-and-a-half metres long and belonged to an extinct species of straight tusked elephants, capable of resting their chins on the back of their African Savannah equivalents today.

Dr Francis Wenban-Smith and one of the Neanderthal flint tools discovered in Swansombe. Photo: Oxford Archaeology and the University of Southampton
Dr Francis Wenban-Smith and one of the Neanderthal flint tools discovered in Swansombe. Photo: Oxford Archaeology and the University of Southampton

Dubbed the "Ebbsfleet Elephant", its skeleton had been preserved in the muddy sediment near what was then the edge of a small lake.

Evidence was also found of its butchery in the form of flint tools discarded nearby.

The remains of other animals which have long left these shores were also found including ancient auroch bulls, two species of rhinoceros, and several deer descendants.

As a result of these numerous finds the area has been designated as a site of special scientific interest and it is an offence to dig on the grounds, with a fine of up to £20,000.

Its importance was brought into focus just last month after it was ordered a recent planning application to build flats on the site of garages in Gilbert Close, which backs onto the Swanscombe Skull site, required a site visit from an archeological team first.

The Swanscombe skull itself is now located at the Natural History Musuem in London but who knows, the missing piece might still be out there.

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

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