Worked Flints from the Cromer Forest Bed

W. J. Lewis Abbott

Natural Science February 97

[88] For the benefit of those not familiar with the geology of the Cromer district, I may, perhaps, be allowed to give the following particulars:–The valley to the west of Cromer, towards Sherringham, is still cloaked with a palaeolithic gravel, which sometimes attains a thickness of eight or ten feet, and forms the summit of the cliffs. It is of light-brown colour generally, and implements of well-known palaeolithic forms have been found in it for the last twenty years. They are well made, well finished, highly patinated, and only very lightly iron-stained, of an even uniform light-brown colour; calling strongly to mind the general facies of the Stanton Downham palaeoliths. Flint flakes are also found in the gravel; and occasionally an implement gets washed out and falls upon the beach, where naturally it gets knocked about. But let the abrasive and destructive beach-action be what it may, the implements still retain their type and colour, and worked flints from this bed can readily be distinguished from those derived from the underlying deposits.

Below this gravel come the fantastically twisted and folded Glacial beds, appropriately termed the contorted drift, now sweeping in a low, long graceful wave, such as one would see in mid-ocean on the surface of the Atlantic, and now, amidst countless undulations of indescribable paths, trending almost vertically for from thirty to forty feet; then perhaps descending just as quickly, embracing a Column of white or reddish brown material, which a lens reveals to be the old Crag or Cromer Forest Bed torn up in this fell swoop, push, or slide, and crushed to powder. In other places the contained fossils are less crushed, and frequently fragments are left of sufficient size for specific determination, especially when the torn-up mass is large, as some of them are; indeed, in the case of the great chalk islands, Some of them are from two to three hundred yards long, and are now quarried for lime burning. But size and weight appear to have been nothing to the forces which operated during the formation of these remarkable deposits, as these huge masses of chalk were picked up, rolled over, and stuck on end, apparently as easily as the fragments of Forest Bed were carried up to the top of the cliff. Some amount of .care is therefore necessary in reading the beds exposed in these cliffs. But all the abnormally violent action had ceased before the incoming of the comparatively peaceful conditions, under which the palaeolithic [90] gravels were deposited, since their deposition has never disturbed the underlying beds. The glacial deposits, on the other hand, may contain anything older than themselves, down to and including the Chalk.

Below the Glacial beds is the Forest Bed series. Into a full description of this we need scarcely enter here, suffice to observe that every one now knows this is not a Forest Bed at all, but was deposited in the estuary of a river, which during its history–probably like many others–fluctuated in salinity. When we first meet it, it is fresh, then a N.E. subsidence asserts itself and estuarine conditions obtain, but only for a while, and the last we see of this interesting link with the Pliocene period is that its waters are running fresh. During many parts of its life, at least, it was a powerful stream, sometimes cutting through the underlying Weybourn Crag. The latter, when present, rests upon the Chalk. Both in the Weybourn Crag and the Forest Bed, when they rest upon an impermeable sub-stratum, there is often developed a very heavy iron pan. One of these occurs in the Forest Bed, and is distinguished from the rest by the number of large mammalian bones it has preserved, from which fact it. has long been known as the Elephant Bed. There is another important feature about this bed which perhaps has not been publicly noticed, or at any rate I do not know that any one has drawn attention to the fact, although many have noticed it, and that is, its property of imparting to the contained fossils an amethystine tinge. This colour in silica is attributed to manganese, but as there is so much of this metal in most gravels without this coloration, it may be supposed that in the form of manganese dioxide, in which it occurs in ordinary river deposits, it does not so colour; but that as another oxide it may; and possibly the original dioxide of this pan may have been so altered, and thus colours not only the bones, but the contained flints. When the iron is the more active, we get the flints of a brown colour, with various amethystine tinges; when the reverse is the case, we get the flint assuming a beautiful black, with the same amethystine hue pervading. This staining process is often very deceptive; at first sight, a flint appears quite fresh, but the moment the edges are abraded the fact is revealed that the flint is very much altered. As might be expected, there is every intervening stage of alteration present, but all are characterised by this amethystine tinge. This peculiarity may at first appear unimportant, but when we remember that it is characteristic of the bed under consideration, it becomes of very great importance, as when present it enables one to fix the horizon of a flint or bone after it has been washed out of its original matrix.

To come at last to the main subject of this paper. Recently in working this "Elephant Bed " for bones, I was delightedy after breaking away some eighteen inches of the iron pan, to see sticking out what appeared to be an unmistakable worked flint. I called my wife to see it in situ, before it was removed, since I fully realised the opposition that would be raised by a certain section of [91] anthropologists to a Forest Bed implement. However, I left sufficient "pan" upon it to prove its original position.

By referring to Fig. 1, it will be seen that this flaked flint presents the outline of the hand-pick type of implement, a type that has come down to palaeolithic times; many collectors, like myself, will be able to pair it from the Thames and. other valleys. It is generally supposed that these were held in the hand, before the process of hafting had been discovered. There is a broad flaked face opposite the point, and the shape fits the hand in a most suggestive manner. It will be seen that whatever part "starchy fissure" or natural forces might have played in operating on the original flint nodule after it left the Chalk, there are only very few facets that do not show the well marked conchoidal ripplings, so characteristic of man's work; and practically whenever possible there are the characteristic pits of concussion, from which the bulbed flakes were removed when the tool was brought into its present outline; and in the last side operated upon these are

quite parallel for more than three-fourths of its length, and even turn the corner in the same zone.

These are points of inestimable importance: often a flint has been made to simulate an implement in outline through the removal of pieces or flakes by natural agencies–colloid fissure, prismatic fissure, frost-fracture, vicissitudes of gravel-making, etc.–associated, with other facets which, from their conchoidal fracture, we might attribute to man, and thus hastily give him credit for an implement he never made. In such specimens, the naturally removed flakes clearly post-date those supposed to have been removed by man, truncating or transversely bisecting the original flake-facet, removing all traces of the pit of concussion, which must have originally existed, perhaps several inches beyond the present periphery. It is certain that whatever may be the outline presented by such a flint, it manifests no marks of design, and cannot be regarded as the work of man. In an artificially-worked flint, the last flakes taken off which bring the implement into the desired shape should truncate or remove the pits of concussion from the earlier made facets, and carry with them their own pits as evidence of the part they played. I am fully aware that this is a most exacting test, and that by its application many a specimen, at present cherished, would be rejected; but it errs on the side of preventing us accepting anything as human, which may be the result of combined natural forces. Tested by these uncompromising rules, the specimens here described, from the Forest Bed, come out unscathed.

The point of the implement shown in Fig.1, and the edges that would be exposed if used in the manner suggested, show signs of abrasion, such as would be produced in active service; and when we see that these edges are obtuse, and that of all the others–some of which are quite acute–none show any such marks, may we not fairly consider this the rational explanation of the facts presented by [92] this interesting specimen? I am fully aware of the fact that implements ought to be seen before one passes an opinion upon them; and 1 am equally conscious that before one can determine the possibilities of natural forces, and distinguish them from man's work, one should have years of actual and practical experience–not so much in rummaging amongst second-hand collections, nor even in visiting pits and buying implements from workmen, but in making them oneself. When one understands so much of the working of flint as to be able to set out and make an implement of any pattern and style of work desired, and also is able to tell a modest forgery at sight, then one is qualified to say what man or nature can or cannot do. In the eye of such a one as this, I am certain that the present specimen would improve upon acquaintance.

Fig. 3 shows a worked bulbed flake from the same bed as no. 1. It is one of the purple-black specimens. Only a very small portion of the original surface remains. The removed flakes in all cases were detached by sharp well-directed blows administered from the bulbface, and frequently took a clean sharp direction quite across the flint, and when physically possible always show conchoidal ripplings and pits of concussion. It is this secondary flaking which gives rise to the present outline: only a very small portion of the original unworked surface of the flint remains. This specimen shows a well-marked éraillure, the meaning and importance of which must be explained at greater length.

I have tried some thousands of experiments of fixing flints and pitching round pebbles at them, and thus removing flakes, also by special suspension arrangements I am able to administer any number of blows at any particular spot with various degrees of force; but I have never yet been able to produce this scar in any way in which it may be conceived nature worked. In another, set of experiments I have placed the flints, fixed and otherwise, at the bottom of a long inclined trough, and have let the stones slide down and strike the flint, or have put heavy weights behind them in a screw-jack action, both directly upon the flint and with the interposition of a loose pebble, but all with the same negative result. On the other hand, when I have tried to make a clean chop off a mineral scores of times 1 have been annoyed by a characteristic kick, giving rise to the éraillure. I explain it to myself in this manner:–In an ordinary blow one just brings the hammer upon the object, and is regardless of the rebound, which generally initiates the return motion, and thus is unrecognised; but when one wants to hit in a certain place, in a definite direction, there is an unconscious concentration of all muscular power to make the blow fall at that particular spot, and even keep the hammer there, and this voluntary muscular opposition offered to the uprise of the striker forces it back, occasioning a secondary but light blow. This can also be well seen and heard when one attempts to drive a nail in an awkward place by a series of slow


Worked Flints from the Cromer Forest Bed.

Three-fourths natural size.

[94] deliberate blows, each of which will be followed by a second involuntary tap. It is this tap which removes the small flake from the bulb of percussion, and produces the well-known éraillure.. This, therefore, is characteristic of an intentionally directed blow. Upon submitting specimen no. 3 to Mr. J. Allen Brown, F.G.S., he at once noticed this inestimable hallmark. All experiments thus point to the éraillure. as being altogether more important than a mere bulb-of-percussion, and, so far as we are aware, may be taken as a proof of man's work, as it can easily be seen among flakes intentionally removed from a block, but so far as is known under no other circumstances.

Fig. 4 shows another example of the purple-black variety; but instead of being a chipped flake, it is worked all over, no portion of the original flint remaining unworked. The similarity to no. 3 in the flint, in the characteristic amethystine hue and in the work, is evident at a glance, and becomes more certain upon examination. The specimen was not obtained embedded in the pan, but at its outcrop on the foreshore below high-water mark, near the pan, which yielded nos. 1 and 3, Elephas meridionalis, etc. No one who has seen the two and passed an opinion doubts for a moment that they both came from the same bed.

Fig. 2 depicts a very interesting implement. Like many of the very early plateau specimens, and the palaeoliths, it is a naturally split flint and worked from one side only; the flaking is generally of a very bold and decisive character, although the edges show lighter but firm work, unaccompanied by contusion, thereby differing from the results of gravel-making, or beach-action, which invariably show the effect of undirected battering action. This implement was also out of the matrix when found, but its staining is so characteristic as to leave no doubt in my mind that it came out of the bed with which it was found associated.

I also discovered other specimens, some of which would doubtless strike some authorities as even more unmistakably human than those here figured, while the collection I was able to make of the. stained and weathered flints from this bed would enable one to feel little doubt in deciding whether or not nos. 4 and 2 came from the Forest Bed. Although I have here referred only to the pan, I may say that I obtained a number of small bulbed and bulbed-and-pitted flakes from another part of the bed, and I am certain that patient and diligent research in these beds would be rewarded with specimens that would satisfy the greatest sceptic procurable. The above were all found to the west of East Runton. Mr. Clement Reid, F.G.S., writes me:–"I have always considered that if implements were found in the Forest Bed, it would be at Runton, although up to the Present I have been unable to find any."

In conclusion, I may say that 1 have submitted these worked flints to a number of the first experts of the day, who have accorded them unqualified acceptance as being man's work. Sir John [94] Evans, F.R.S., who, as everybody knows, exercises with regard to such novelties a scientific caution that some might call extreme and who has sometimes called himself the St. Thomas of anthropologists, writes:–"No. 4 may or may not be artificial, and the same may be said of no. 3, with even more probability of its being made by man."

Bearing past history in mind, and the reception which has been accorded to these specimens, the unquestionable evidences they present of being artificially worked, the unmistakable positions from which they were obtained, and the conditions under which some of them were found in the matrix, are we not justified in admitting the existence of man in Britain in the Forest Bed period?


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