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Lion Pit SSSI, CHAFFORD HUNDRED, Thurrock District, TQ59777816, Site of Special Scientific Interest
Site category: Palaeolithic site
Site of Special Scientific Interest designated for the importance of its geology. Situated within Chafford Gorges Nature Park.
This site, part of an old tramway cutting created in the nineteenth century to transport chalk from Lion Pit to the riverside wharves, has been a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) since 1953. Although overgrown, an excellent section through Ice Age sediments is present which are banked up at the northern end against an ancient chalk cliff that existed here about 200,000 years ago. The deposits form part of the Mucking Formation which is the downstream equivalent of the Taplow terrace of the Thames. At that time the site was situated at the northern edge of the Thames’ flood-plain.
These river deposits span a period of deposition from one glacial stage through to the next (Marine Isotope Stages 8 to 6) which includes the intervening interglacial stage (Marine Iso-tope Stage 7), at the beginning of which there were early humans here, making stone tools on the gravel beach below the cliff.
The interglacial deposits comprise silt, sand and clay which is associated with the famous Grays brickearth that was exploited by numerous brick pits in Grays in the early nineteenth century (see above). They contain fossil molluscs and pollen that can provide valuable evidence of the climate and vegetation at this time. Evidence of human occupation has been flint knapping debris in the lower gravel which is undisturbed. Remarkably it has actually been possible to refit some flakes together which proves that humans were actually manufacturing stone tools here. The humans occupying the site were Neanderthals and the tools they left behind are a distinctive type known as ‘Levallois’, named after the Paris suburb where it was first recognised. Characterised by ‘tortoise’ cores and flakes with faceted striking platforms this technique was prominent in Britain only during a relatively brief period of the Ice Age (see box). Another notable Levallois site is Purfleet (see entry under Purfleet Chalk Pits).
The tramway cutting has also produced the fossil bones of several species of mammals such as brown bear, rhinoceros, bison, mammoth and straight-tusked elephant. One of the earliest records of fossils from here was in 1890 when a partial elephant skeleton was found, on top of which was a layer of crushed ivory several metres long. Of particular interest were the cut marks on the pelvis of a rhinoc-eros which could only have been produced by a sharp stone tool. These marks suggest that the animal was deliberately butchered here by early humans.
To summarise, here in the Lion Gorge tramway cutting we can combine geology and archaeology to reconstruct a vivid picture of Neanderthals sitting on a stony beach of the Thames, at the base of chalk cliff, making beautiful stone tools and using them to butcher rhino bones. Neanderthals were actually at this spot 200,000 years ago going about their everyday business. This is a very evocative reconstruction and one that underlines the uniqueness of this site.
The site is south of the embankment, which carries Philip Sydney Road across the cutting. The cutting is the route of a public footpath but the deposits are not easily visible due to landslips and the growth of vegetation. As this is an SSSI no collecting or excavation of any kind is permitted.
Lion Pit Tramway Cutting is part of Chafford Gorges Nature Park and is managed by the Essex Wildlife Trust.
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Reference: Schreve et al. 2006, Bridgland 1994 (p. 237-251), Lucy 2009.
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