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Geology Site Account


Clacton Cliffs and Foreshore (part of Clacton Cliffs and Foreshore SSSI), CLACTON, Tendring District, TM173143, Site of Special Scientific Interest

 
 
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Site of Special Scientific Interest designated for the importance of its geology.

The SSSI consists of three individual sites as follows: TM 173 143 (Clacton cliffs and foreshore), TM 156 134 (Clacton golf course) and TM 146 128 (Jaywick foreshore).

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Description of the sites

Clacton is one of the principal prehistoric sites in Europe and a site of considerable international importance. The story starts in the 1830s when Essex amateur geologist John Brown discovered channel deposits exposed in the West Cliff at Clacton, close to the pier and below the Martello tower on Marine Parade West. The channel deposits were seen to cut down through the Lower Holland Gravel (laid down by the Thames-Medway River) and into the London Clay. Brown had discovered what is now considered to be a key site in British Quaternary (Ice Age) studies because it allows the Quaternary geological sequence of the Lower Thames in south Essex to be linked to that of East Anglia. The site in those days was an eroding cliff (before it was obscured by sea defences) and it yielded some spectacular fossils including the bones of lion, rhinoceros and elephant. It has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

The Clacton Cliffs and Foreshore SSSI, as it is known, is a complex series of sediment-filled channels which intersect, but bear no relation to, the present coastline and consist of three separate sites (see map and section). The two main sites are where the channels were formerly exposed - the cliffs and foreshore at Clacton and the foreshore at Lion Point, Jaywick. The third site is between the two at Clacton Golf Course. A further site (not part of the SSSI) is the former Butlins holiday camp. Detailed descriptions can be found in The Quaternary of the Thames by David Bridgland (1994).

The channel is actually the bed of the Thames-Medway River when it flowed through here about 400,000 years ago. The sediments in the channel have provided a diverse fossil record with molluscs from freshwater and estuarine environments and a vertebrate record ranging from bones or teeth of vole, water rat and beaver to boar, deer, horse, lion, rhinoceros and straight-tusked elephant. There is also a sub-species of fallow deer unique to Clacton called Dama dama clactoniana. The sediments consist of freshwater clays, sands and gravels overlain by estuarine clays and peats which allow geologists to reconstruct the conditions when the deposits were laid down, with freshwater beds being overcome by a rise in sea-level. Pollen recovered from the freshwater sediments, tells us that the surrounding countryside at this time consisted of oak, elm and alder forest - indicating a warm-temperate climate - which declined in warmth in the estuarine beds as conifers and firs became dominant. Some of the molluscs are species (the ‘Rhenish fauna’) that indicate a link between the River Thames and the River Rhine. The combination of flora and fauna at Clacton give the deposits a particular character which enables the temperate, or interglacial, stage they belong to, to be distinguished from older and younger interglacial stages. In particular a link can be made to interglacial deposits at Hoxne in Suffolk, which gives its name to the interglacial stage, the Hoxnian, which occurred about 400,000 years ago. One of the pollen types present cannot be related to any species known today and it is referred to as ‘Type X’, which was thought to be indicative of the Hoxnian, though this now is challenged (see entry for Walton-on-the-Naze cliffs).

Evidence for early human occupation

The Clacton channel is also uniquely important for evidence of early humans. Clacton is the ‘type site’ of the Clactonian Palaeolithic industry; a simple flint-working industry, with flakes struck off larger flints, leaving cores. No hand-axes have been found. The flint tools are from the Freshwater Beds in the channel and they represent the earliest undisputed evidence of human presence in Essex (but see entry for Wivenhoe Gravel Pit and Westcliff in Southend-on-Sea district). The tip of a wooden spear, made of yew, was also found in the cliffs, which, until recently, was the oldest man-made wooden object in the world. It remains the oldest in Britain. ‘Clacton man’ was not a modern human (Homo sapiens) and was not Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis), but an ancestor of the Neanderthals and probably related to an earlier British human species known as ‘Heidelberg man’ (Homo heidelbergensis).

Controlled archaeological excavations were carried out at the golf course in 1934, which yielded 190 flint artefacts. In 1969 and 1970 a further series of excavations where made on the golf course along a line north-west to south-east across the southern bank of the channel. These yielded over 1200 artefacts, many of which were in mint condition, in other words they had not been blunted or otherwise damaged by incorporation into later deposits. In fact, in some cases the flints could actually be fitted back together (refitted), indicating not just that humans were in this area, but that they were actually living where the golf course is now, about 400,000 years ago, using the simplest technology. Because of their fresh condition, some of these tools have been analysed for microscopic signs of wear on the surfaces to try to establish how they were used and what they were used for. The results of this ‘micro-wear analysis’ confirmed that this site was a hunting/butchery location. Experiments have found that the wear on the surfaces of stone tools formed by working different materials have distinctive appearances and can be distinguished from one another. The slicing of meat associated with the butchering of animals produces a distinctive polish known as ‘meat polish’ and this was found on some of the Clacton tools together with probable evidence of the working of wood and bone, and the scraping of animal hides.

The work of Samuel Hazzledine Warren

Although the Clacton channel deposits were discovered and extensively described in the nineteenth century they were only then known from the site of their original discovery. It was Essex amateur geologist Samuel Hazzledine Warren who recognised that part of the Clacton sequence occurs on the foreshore at Lion Point, Jaywick and was part of the same channel. Much of our present knowledge of the channel deposits can be credited to Warren who devoted a considerable proportion of his life’s work to these deposits and to the Clactonian flint industry. It was Warren who found the tip of the wooden spear in 1911. Warren also collected a large number of fossils including a very small jaw of a straight-tusked elephant which he identified as belonging to an unborn individual. At the time of Warren’s discoveries there were others who were also collecting fossils from the cliffs, such as local amateur geologist Harold Picton of Clacton College, who assembled a fine collection of mammal bones and teeth that he exhibited when he led a field trip to Clacton for the Essex Field Club in 1911.

Current research

Work on the Clacton Channel sequence is far from over. This account is, of necessity, brief and omits much detail and argument, leaving a number of incomplete explanations. There are several channels in the complex and the evidence from these does not always agree; also the composition of the younger Wigborough Gravel (also laid down by the Thames-Medway River) which overlies the channel deposits is not the same as the Wigborough Gravel elsewhere on the Tendring peninsula, allowing debate as to its relation to the main body. Most interesting of all is the enigmatic ‘Clactonian’ flint industry, with its curious and puzzling lack of hand-axes which are so common at older and younger Palaeolithic sites.

Unfortunately the West Cliff at Clacton is now landscaped and the Jaywick foreshore is obscured by the build up of shingle brought about by the ‘fish-tail’ coastal protection structures.



Part of the tooth of an elephant on the foreshore at Clacton. Photo © C. Gibson

 

Early courses of the Thames and Medway through Essex - 4.
Early courses of the Thames and Medway through Essex - 4.
Tendring district in Clacton Channel times
Tendring district in Clacton Channel times
The excavation on Clacton Golf Course in 1970.
The excavation on Clacton Golf Course in 1970.
The Clacton spear point
The Clacton spear point
Clactonian flint tools from Clacton cliffs.
Clactonian flint tools from Clacton cliffs.

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Reference: Warren 1924, Bridgland 1994 (p. 330-347)

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