West Runton Deep History Coast

The deep history coast

The unique Deep History Coast in north-east Norfolk is home to some of the earliest evidence of human British civilisation with footsteps left by the UK's first tourists nearly one million years ago. The world's biggest mammoth skeleton remains were found at West Runton and a 550,000 year old flint axe was discovered in Happisburgh. Discover more about this fascinating coastline steeped in millions of years worth of history.

exploring the deep history coast

This part of Norfolk has universally changed understanding of pre-prehistoric times. Discoveries have meant the Norfolk Deep History Coast has contained some of the most important archaeological finds in Western Europe, the country's best preserved Neanderthal site and is the only county where evidence of four species of human have been found. This part of the country is where, pre-Ice Age, Britain was connected via a land mass to the Continent known as Doggerland.

Footprints dating back 850,000 years have been left at Happisburgh by the first visitors to Norfolk. These footprints, belonging to nomads hunting bison, rhinos, deer and mammoths, have become the oldest evidence of humans outside Africa's Great Rift Valley. The footprints were found in 2013 by chance when a team of scientists were, after high seas had scoured the shoreline revealing estuary mud, conducting a geophysics survey.

Historically, this area would have been a great plain, similar to East Africa's Serengeti, grazed by animals. The footmarks were discovered in what would have been an estuary of a river system that flowed into the North Sea and included the Thames, which was fed by an extinct river from the Midlands called the Bytham. The footprints were found to be the marks of toes and heels of five adults and children.

Along the coast at West Runton, the remains of a 600,000 year old mammoth were discovered. This discovery is the oldest mammoth skeleton to have been found in the UK and the most complete specimen of the species to have been found in the world. After a stormy night in 1990, a couple walking by the bottom of the cliffs discovered the pelvic bone of the mammoth. A year or so late after another storm, more bones were revealed. This lead to an exploratory dig taking place in 1992 and then an excavation in 1995. The most complete skeleton of a mammoth was revealed, identified as the species Mammuthus trogontherii (Steppe Mammoth).

Most of the skeleton was there; about 85%, and the missing parts were nibbled off by scavenging hyaenas as shown by hyaena bitemarks and fossilised hyaena dung! The skeleton is 4m tall at the shoulder and weighs 10 tonnes, making it twice as large as discoveries on the Jurassic Coast. You can see some of the remains in Cromer Museum, Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse and Norwich Castle Museum. Along the West Runton Freshwater Bed, rhino teeth and bones have also been found.

Furthermore, around 550,000 years ago, there was the discovery of a flint hand axe at Happisburgh. This Palaeolithic tool had been preserved in a former forest within a dense peaty deposit. The axe was discovered by a dog-walker in 2000, which led to even older tool and bone finds. The significance of this find changed history. It pushed back the evidence for human colonisation this far north by 100,000 years or more. You can see the flint tool at Norwich Castle Museum, just a short drive from north Norfolk.

Beachcombing along the Deep History Coast at beaches including West Runton and Happisburgh which is 16 miles away, can be fascinating with finds including amber, fossil sea urchins and belemnites. Search the shores of Hunstanton and you may find sharks teeth and look out for fossilised coral along Sheringham beach. There is also Cromer's underwater chalk reef 200m from the shore, the Cromer chalk ridge (the hightest point in East Anglia) and the prehistoric Cromer Forest-Bed in Weybourne. Each year, there are more than 20,000 fossil finds! You can take any fossil finds to the Cromer Museum for identification.

Please note: As long as you are not in a protected area, you can pick up small fossils that are lying around on the ground. Please do not remove any fossils from rocks or cliffs, and large fossils are best left for all to enjoy. If you are lucky enough to come across a rare find, please report it to a museum and if you're in a Site of Specific Scientific Interest, please follow any rules they might have. They are there to protect geology for future generations.

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