Geology Site Account
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Elmhurst Gardens road cutting, SOUTH WOODFORD, London Borough of Redbridge, TQ407905, Historical site only
Site category: Palaeolithic site
Temporary exposure of deposits yielding fossils and Palaeolithic artifacts. Further excavations in the vicinity could yield further artifacts.
During construction of a cutting for a slip road for the M11 motorway at Southend Road (A406), Woodford in April 1975 an archaeologist found a flint hand axe in mint condition. It was discovered at the base of a layer of brickearth on the surface of the underlying gravel - a remnant of terrace gravel of the River Roding. Subsequent excavations by Essex County Council archaeologists revealed a scatter of flint stone tools at the same level, in the same fresh condition, indicating the exciting possibility that preserved here was an ancient ground surface where the tools had been left behind by their owners in the actual place where they were last used. In other words this was what archaeologists call a ‘primary context’ site and a rare example of a Palaeolithic ‘working floor’ similar to those that were found in the 19th century at Hackney in North London and more recently at Boxgrove in Sussex.
Because of their fresh condition, flint tools from this site 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’, published in 1980, revealed that this site may have been a hunting/butchery location. Experiments have found that the wear on the surfaces of stone tools formed by working different materials (e.g. meat, wood, bone, antler or hide) 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 to be present on one of the hand axes from this site, probably used as a butchering knife.
Unfortunately the groundwater circulating through the gravel here is slightly acidic due to its contact with the London Clay, which means that conditions were very unfavourable for the preservation of bone. There is therefore no evidence of which animals were butchered here but based on other sites of similar age the local wildlife at that time would have included bison, deer and straight-tusked elephant. Also found on the surface of the gravel were reddened and partly crazed flints which are interpreted as having been affected by fire. This site may therefore be one of the earliest to provide evidence of the use of fire in Britain.
The altitude of this gravel implies that it is of the same age as the Lynch Hill/Corbets Tey terrace of the Thames, the interglacial stage within which is about 300,000 years old (Marine Isotope Stages 10-8).
Nothing of this gravel can now be seen and no pedestrian access to the cutting is possible but the actual site was on the south side and immediately adjacent to the public park known as Elmhurst Gardens.
The same road cutting also yielded fossils from the London Clay. Between January 1974 and October 1975 boreholes for the retaining walls of the railway bridge brought up many marine fossils from the London Clay. Collecting from the floor of the cutting and from drainage trenches added to these finds which included crabs, lobsters, corals, gastropods and bivalves – inhabitants of the subtropical London Clay Sea that covered south-east England over 50 million years ago.
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Reference: White et al. 1998, Keeley 1980 (p. 161-162), Wymer 1985 (p. 298-299), Ward 1978.
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