Dating from between 12,000 and 11,000BC, the eight-acre site is the only one of its type ever discovered in Britain and is almost certainly of international importance. Until now, all major British late palaeolithic (Stone Age) sites of this age have been found in caves. It is the first time in this country that a settlement from this period has been discovered in the open air.
It is of immense importance because archaeologists believe that it is precisely in open-air locations like that at Newark - and not in caves - that most Stone Age people lived. 'The idea that prehistoric people lived mainly in caves derives from a figment of the Victorian imagination,' says a leading British prehistorian, Dr Roger Jacobi, of the University of Nottingham.
Because caves tend to preserve archaeological deposits well, they have over the years attracted a disproportionate amount of archaeological and public attention and have produced a misleading view of the Stone Age. The Newark site could potentially help provide a more accurate image of Stone Age life, with the settlement's prehistoric inhabitants living in tents or huts made of skin and wood.
A preliminary examination of the site has yielded a dozen Stone Age tools - mainly flint knives, scrapers and piercers - most of them in mint condition. There is also evidence that the tools were actually manufactured on the site, and in one area a cluster of tools was found along with tool-making debris.
The site is just 20 miles from one of Britain's most famous Stone Age cave complexes - the publicly accessible Cresswell Crags on the borders of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire - and archaeologists suspect that the Newark site may have been the open- air base from which hunters visited Cresswell.
It is not yet known whether the Newark site - discovered by archaeologists from the Trent and Peak Archaeological Trust - was inhabited permanently or only seasonally; whether it flourished for only a few years or for many centuries; or even whether it consisted of tents - or more substantial structures.
Judging by the pristine nature of the prehistoric flint tools which have been discovered so far, much of the Stone Age settlement could still be intact, complete with tool-manufacturing workshops, campfire areas, and possibly even the remnants of huts. Further investigations at the site may help answer some of the key questions about life in late palaeolithic Britain. The area may reveal whether the Stone Age inhabitants lived in permanent settlements, and if they did, how large they were. It could also reveal whether they produced large quantitites of art, and if so whether that art provides information about palaeolithic religion.
An excavation would also be likely to reveal much about palaeolithic technology, architecture and daily life. Carbonised food remains - especially seeds and nuts - could yield vast amounts of information about Stone Age man's diet and economy. The site could also have buried within it unique British evidence of enclosures, tents, huts and storage pits. In one German palaeolithic site entire paved floors were unearthed.
English Heritage, the government- funded organisation with national responsiblity for archaelogical sites, is to try and find some way of protecting the Newark site.
'We will be examining ways of helping both financially and technically in trying to ensure that the site is not destroyed,' says Dr Andrew Brown, English Heritate's inspector of ancient monuments for the central Midlands. It is not yet clear however, whether their action will prevent the site being deep-ploughed and seriously damaged in the future.