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Ancient European Hearth Volume 50 Number 6, November/December 1997
by Theresa A. McGill

What may be one of Europe's oldest hearths has been found at a 400,000-year-old Stone Age site in southeastern England by archaeologists from Liverpool University. The find consisted of an area of red, baked sediments, whose limited expanse suggests a controlled fire rather than a natural one. The burnt sediments have been removed intact as part of a one-cubic-meter block so laboratory tests can be undertaken to help identify the nature of the burning.

According to John Gowlett, who is directing the excavation, the soil's magnetism will be examined to determine if the sediments were heated repeatedly--a good indication that the burning represents the remains of a hearth rather than a forest fire. They will also examine the sediments under a microscope. Structural differences between the burnt and unburnt sediments or minute traces of burnt bone could indicate that the fire was man-made. Part of the sediments will be preserved for future researchers and new methods of analysis.

The site, near Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, was in a favorable spot near a source of water. According to Gowlett, it seems to have been used over centuries during a lull between the Ice Ages, when numerous large mammals, including bear and deer, undoubtedly hunted by early humans, were found in the area. Thousands of flint flakes have been discovered at the camp, the by-products of stone tool manufacturing, and many have been matched to the cores from which they were struck.

Human control of fire is well documented at sites dating from 150,000 to 200,000 years ago, and remains of hearths between 300,000 and 400,000 years old have been found at a handful of sites in France, Hungary, and China. If confirmed, this latest find will provide further evidence that early humans had mastered the use of fire, in this case the ancestors of Neandertals in northern Europe.

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© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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