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Archaeology and Early History



Archaeological and environmental evidence provides the only clues about the lifestyle and living conditions of the people who lived in and around Dartford during the early Prehistoric period. It is not known exactly when human groups first made their way into what is now Britain, but it was probably c. 450,000 B.C. This is quite late in the spread of the human species.

Early humans (hominids) had been living in the world's equatorial zone since about four million years B.C. By about one million years B.C. a fairly advanced hominid species known as Homo erectus had spread throughout Africa, Asia, and southern Europe.

Traces of early 'man' (including women!) in Britain suggest occasional visits during the warmer periods within the Anglian glaciation, and during what is known as the Hoxnian interglacial period. Two distinct early Prehistoric cultures can be recognised in the Dartford area hundreds of thousands of years old. Each culture had its own different tool-making technologies. These cultural traditions are known as the Clactonian and the Acheulian.

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   Clactonian flake tools
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The Clactonian Culture is named after a superb collection of Prehistoric material found on a site close to Clacton-on-Sea in Essex. At Swanscombe, near Dartford, the deposits known locally as the 'Lower Gravels' contained distinctive Clactonian-style tools, suggesting that a Clactonian tribe had established a riverside campsite in the area over 400,000 years ago.

Members of the Clactonian tribe made distinctive tools from flint flakes struck from larger nodules ('cores') of flint. Some of these tools are very crude. Others show a slightly higher standard of craftsmanship, particularly flint cores worked to a rough edge for use as choppers or chopping tools.

Riverside sites like that at Swanscombe seem to have been especially favoured by these early Clactonian people. Wild animals came to drink on the banks of the river channels, and could be easily hunted. The river environment also provided a rich variety of plants and aquatic species.

   Animal bones
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Pollen samples taken from the Lower Gravels at Swanscombe suggest that reed swamps, fen habitats and light woodland surrounded the site. Animals found in the area at the time included straight-tusked elephants, fallow deer, horse, wild ox, red deer and rhinoceros.


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The 300,000 year-old 'Swanscombe Skull' retrieved from Barnfield Pit in Craylands Lane, Swanscombe, is world-famous. The original skull is housed at the Natural History Museum in London. A replica taken from the original skull is on permanent display at Dartford Borough Museum. This skull (in three separate pieces) was that of a young woman who belonged to a tribe of nomadic hunters associated with the Acheulian Culture.

   Swanscombe skull
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The Acheulian Culture had its own distinctive tradition of tool-making which was very different from the earlier Clactonian Culture. These Acheulian tribespeople made distinctive hand-axes by shaping a large nodule of flint to the required shape. Early examples were fashioned using a stone hammer. Hand-axes were multi-purpose tools used variously as knives, choppers, axes and digging tools in various domestic and hunting activities. Other tools manufactured included less-pointed hand-axes (cleavers) as well as scrapers and trimmed flakes.

Environmental evidence from Barnfield Pit suggests that these Acheulian tribespeople lived in relatively open grassland conditions as evidenced by the large number of horse and wild ox remains retrieved from the site. Fossil pollen indicates that hazel, alder, pine and oak trees bordered the river.

Archaeologists have deduced that in a scavenging, hunting and food-gathering economy, the tribe of people frequenting the Swanscombe area would have been limited to twenty to fifty people at the most. A tribal group like this would need a considerable range of territory in order to survive.

   Acheulian axe heads
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Whether this small group was an 'extended family' with occasional intermingling with other groups is not known. It is unlikely that they ever stayed in one place very long, although certain well-favoured places such as Swanscombe may have attracted longer settlement over periods of weeks or months, or even seasonal.

The riverside at Swanscombe seems to have been more of an activity area than a residential area, where animals were skinned and butchered, and where hand-axes were manufactured and used over many hundreds of years. These tribespeople would also have made things from wood, hide and bone - including spears and containers for collecting food. Other Acheulian riverside sites have been found at Stoke Newington (London), Hitchin (Hertfordshire), Ipswich (Suffolk), Hoxne (Suffolk) and Marks Tey (Essex).

Acheulian hand-axes have been found throughout the Dartford area, suggesting that these early tribespeople hunted over a wide area, and that their activities were not solely restricted to riverside sites.

Next topic: Roman Dartford


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