Early Occupation

The Foulness valley has been the focus of work by Professors Peter Halkon and James Innes. Much of what we know of the early occupation of this area comes from their detailed studies and much of what follows is a paraphrase of their publications.

Early climate and sea level had a huge impact on the early occupation of the area around Seaton Ross and the Foulness valley. All references below to sandy ridges are applicable to the area around Seaton Ross.

The Middle Stone Age – Mesolithic (9000 – 3600 BC)

People in the Mesolithic period were hunter-gatherers. This was a very efficient means of finding food but required that populations moved around to make the best use of the natural resources. This could mean having no fixed base or, more frequently, having seasonal camps. This could be as simple as a summer camp and a winter camp.

In the early Mesolithic (9000 – 6500 BC), the fens, pools, meres and river margins of the plain around Seaton Ross provided aquatic environments rich in fish and wildfowl, and habitat for fur-bearing animals such as beaver. Elk would also have been widespread for hunting. It is likely that the Foulness valley wetlands would have been a focus for foraging activity. Tools such as flints and axes have been found on the sandy ridges around the Everingham Carrs – particularly at the two Howe Hill sites in and on the edge of the wetland. One Howe Hill site must once have formed an island in the lake.

As the sea level rose in the later Mesolithic (6500 – 3600 BC) the close link between wetland margins and human occupation was broken as the wetlands partly dried out – leaving bogs and carr. These latter environments supported few edible plants and animals. Full deciduous forests also developed on drier land in the area – including oak, elm and hazel. Nearing the end of this period, the lower Foulness valley became an estuarine inlet and helped provide an increased opportunity for maritime contact across the North Sea and with southern Britain.

Pollen evidence seems to suggest the beginnings of forest farming (farming crops under the canopy of partly cleared woodland) during this phase of high sea level, which marks the transition to the New Stone Age (Neolithic) at about 3600 BC.

The New Stone Age – Neolithic (3600 – 2750 BC)

Neolithic peoples relied mainly on farming for their food resources. This meant that they established permanent settlements. However, they left only a few traces such as stone blades and axes – especially in low lying areas without building stone – and no direct evidence of settlement has been found in our area. It is interesting to note that many of the Foulness valley axeheads were from distant sources – Great Langdale in the Lake District, Graig Lwyd in North Wales, and from Northumberland. Neolithic peoples were trading across wide areas – possibly by boat.

To the north east of Seaton Ross near Rytham Gate, extensive crop markings of prehistoric age (not dated accurately) show patterns that have elsewhere been associated with herding – this could have been Neolithic, Bronze or Iron Age.

In the early Neolithic, the high sea levels resulted in estuarine conditions penetrating the lower Foulness valley (Wallingfen). In the higher valley around the Everingham Carrs, there were still extensive woodlands of alder, pine, hazel, oak and probably lime on the drier areas. Axes were used to clear and manage these woodlands, resulting in an opening out of the landscape on the sandy ridges.

The sandy soils were easy to work, despite limited fertility, but eventually became heathlands as surface vegetation was destroyed. Some arable agriculture occurred but may have been very localised on the lighter soils. The floodplain forests may only have been managed through coppicing.

The Bronze Age (2750 – 650 BC)

The sea level fell again in the early Bronze Age. There was a more intensive clearance of the valleyside woodlands especially upstream. There is evidence for larger animals, most likely cattle, grazing close to the river and pools. Hunting may have continued alongside the waterways – butchered red deer bones and antlers have been found.

Round barrows (burials) are often to be found on the crests of localized sand rises. A relatively large number of bronze axeheads have been found on the Foulness valley lowlands – suggesting they may have remained wooded. The number of prehistoric boats from the Humber basin provides ample evidence for a complex network of trade and exchange into the area.

At the end of the Bronze Age and into the early Iron Age, the climate deteriorated and produced a short-lived but intense cold and wet period about 650 BC. Swamp and fen spread.

All the information on this page is taken from: Peter Halkon & Jim Innes (2005) Settlement and Economy in a Changing Prehistoric Lowland Landcape: An East Yorkshire (UK) Case Study. European Journal of Archaeology Vol. 8(3): p225–259. Figures give far more details of the finds throughout this long period. This is reproduced here with the permission of the authors.

Image at top of page is an artist’s impression of Star Carr, a Mesolithic site in West Yorkshire, dating from 9,000 BC. Image by Dominic Andrews.

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