Broom Lower Palaeolithic Site (Part 1 of 2)

Background of the Broom site

The Broom site lies in the valley of the River Axe, on the border between Devon and Dorset (south-west England; Figure 1). The Pleistocene sediments, deposited around the confluence between the Axe and its right-bank tributary, the Blackwater, were exposed through commercial gravel working during the latter half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, with Acheulean artefacts collected by quarry workers and local antiquarians. Three pits were worked over this period: the Railway Ballast Pit, Pratt's Old Pit, and Pratt's New Pit. Of particular importance were the collecting activities of C.E. Bean Broom1(Urban District Surveyor for Sherborne and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries) during the 1930s and early 1940s, combined with his compilation of an extensive documentary archive.

Figure 1: Location of Broom Lower Palaeolithic site (image copyright, Dr Rob Hosfield)

The overwhelming use of chert (Figure 2) as the raw material for the Broom artefacts is in marked contrast with the widespread use of flint in southern and south-eastern Britain during the Lower Palaeolithic. This chert signature is a key factor in the importance of the Broom assemblage, enabling investigations into the impact of non-flint raw materials upon knapping strategies and biface form. The presence of distinctively asymmetrical bifaces at Broom permitsconsideration of issues central to current discussions of Acheulean material culture: the nature and meaning of artefact symmetry, the significance or not of discrete types, and the role of transmission mechanisms, individual skill, and the maintenance of traditions. The size of the Broom assemblage relative to the numbers of Lower Palaeolithic artefacts elsewhere in the south-west raises important questions about the nature of earlier Palaeolithic settlement in the region, the UK, and north-western Europe at this time. Finally the Acheulean biface-dominated assemblage at Broom is associated with surprisingly low-level terrace deposits, the elevations of which are suggestive of later Middle Pleistocene ages when compared with other southern British rivers. Broom is therefore of considerable interest both with respect to the earlier Palaeolithic occupation of Britain and with regards to the nature of contemporaneous variations in the wider Acheulean world.

arch-Broom-2

Figure 2: Chert bifaces from Broom (image copyright, Dr Chris Green)

The discovery of pollen within the Broom sediments is important for the understanding of Middle Pleistocene environments, particularly in conjunction with our recent OSL dating of the sediments themselves. The Axe valley is also distinctive in comparison with the Pleistocene rivers of south and south-eastern Britain and with its near neighbours to the west, the Otter and the Exe, in its lack of a clearly defined terrace 'staircase'. The exposure of its sediments at Broom enables consideration of both local depositional processes and valley-wide controls such as the underlying bedrock, regional uplift, and climatic impacts.

Our recent fieldwork and artefact investigations

Since the work of C.E. Bean in the 1930s and 40s, two principal phases of field investigations have been conducted at Broom, in 1978-82 (by Nick Stephens, Rick Shakesby and Chris Green) and 2000-06 (by Rob Hosfield and Jenni Chambers):

  • The 1978-82 field investigations sought to identify the stratigraphic sequences recorded in previously published and unpublished accounts, explore relationships between the sediment sequences in the three separate Broom pits, and relocate specific horizons recorded in Bean's notebooks.
  • The 2000-06 investigations aimed to further explore the contexts of the Broom Palaeolithic artefacts, expose sediments suitable for OSL dating, and record the Broom artefacts held by Exeter Museum and those in the C.E. Bean collection (housed at the Dorset County Museum, Dorchester).

Details of the results of the 1978-82 and 2000-06 fieldwork and artefact analyses can be found here.

For full details of the Broom research, please see our recent monograph (from which the above summary text is drawn):

Hosfield, R. & Green, C. P. (eds.) 2013. Quaternary History and Palaeolithic Archaeology in the Axe Valley at Broom, South West England. Oxbow: Oxford.

Rob Hosfield & Chris Green, April 2014

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