Imagine you’re a dentist and you decide to take the day off work to indulge yourself in your favourite hobby; palaeontology. As a keen sleuth looking for buried treasure, you reason that by visiting a working gravel quarry, where the workman will already be digging great big holes so you don’t have to, you stand a better chance of unearthing something precious.
Well, that’s exactly what Alvan T Marston did at Barnfield Pit in Swanscombe, near Dartford in North West Kent. The dentist and keen collector of ancient flint tools uncovered part of the oldest skull ever found in Britain. It was a fragment of the remains of an ancient form of human called Homo Heidelbergensis, which dates back to around 380,000 years ago. Altogether, there were 3 finds of the same skull in 1935, 1936 and later in 1955 by John Wymer.
Barnfield Pit is one of only two sites in Britain which have yielded such amazing human fossils; the other being at Boxgrove, where half a million-year-old Heidelbergensis leg bones and teeth were found. Over the years, the Barnfield site has been a treasure trove to explorers, yielding over 6000 handaxes, 250 cores, 500 flake-tools and not far off 15,000 pieces of stone tool debris.
Marston made his discovery at a depth of about eight metres below the surface on the face of the pit, thanks to the quarrying already underway. So the story goes, he noticed the bone fragment sticking out and recognised it as being part of a human bone from the back of the skull.
X marks the spot
At this point, he wasn’t sure what to do; should he leave it there so he could prove to others exactly where it had been found, or take it with him and risk controversy over his claim of its location?
After giving it some thought, he decided to remove the fragment, and leave it with a local chemist. Before he left, he marked the spot where he’d found it and duly asked the site foreman of the quarry to stop digging where it had been found, whilst he notified the British Museum of his discovery.
Although it’s not clear why, the response he got from The British Museum was somewhat lacklustre, and they didn’t really seem to be interested. Feeling frustrated yet undeterred by this, Alvan still spent most of his spare time at the weekends looking for more of the skull. During the following year, on Sunday 15 March 1936, he found another part of the same skull close to the spot of his initial find. This time it was the left parietal bone; finally, his hard work had paid off! This, of course, led to much interest in the site and as mentioned earlier, it was nearly 20 years later on Saturday 30th July 1955, that a third piece of the same skull was found. So, if there’s one thing we can say for certain, the weekends are the best time to go bone hunting 🙂
Swanscombe Man or Swanscombe Woman?
The skull was originally thought to have belonged to a man, but it’s now widely accepted that it was a female skull as, despite its thickness, the size of the fossilized muscle attached to it suggests it was indeed a woman.
The depth at which the bone fragments were found (and the types of axe tools found at the same depth) suggest that she lived long before the Neanderthals and was, in fact, their distant ancestor, despite the skull proportions being similar – The Neanderthals died out a mere 30,000 years ago.
What about the Swanscombe lions, rhinos and elephants?
Yep, I know, I know – I didn’t believe it either, but according to this page of the Kent County Council’s website, it’s true! Whilst the page mentions loads of words I’ve never heard of, it sure does say that the remains of lions, rhinos, elephants and bears have indeed been found in Swanscombe – Who knew?
Where can I see the skull?
If you want to take a look at the find, it’s on display at the Natural History Museum. If you don’t fancy that and you’re a Swanscombe local, there’s a large piece of granite marking the spot of the prehistoric find at the Swanscombe Heritage Park.
Finally, if you want to see lions, elephants and rhinos, you’re gonna have to book a trip to a safari park!