Digging up the past is a race against time

Anthea Gerrie on the archaeologists who are trying to rewrite history in an Oxfordshire rubbish dump
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Indy Lifestyle Online
FRIDAY is the worst day of the week for the archaeologists of Stanton Harcourt. As they continue their dig in the Oxfordshire countryside for remains of a 200,000-year-old settlement, they are showered with a weekly delivery of domestic refuse.

Time is of the essence. This is a landfill site, and the dig has less than a year to continue before it is completely filled in with rubbish.

In the midst of it all is a circle where the archaeologists keep searching for human remains they believe exist at a site previously thought uninhabitable by man. They are working eight hours a day, six days a week, and employing extra helpers. As the weather warms up they will start wearing masks because the smell is so disgusting.

So far, the remains unearthed have included more than 1,000 large mammals - including woolly mammoths, elephant, bison, horse and deer - that prove there was a warm interglacial period in Britain 200,000 years ago.

But even more significant is the cache of beautifully made stone tools that Dr Katherine Scott, leading the dig, says could not possibly have washed into the excavated gravel pit that was once a river bed from any other area.

"I am hoping and praying we will come across human remains before time runs out," says Dr Scott "We have only been able to cover less than one third of the whole five-acre site in the time available."

Scott, a research fellow in prehistory at St Cross College, Oxford, works with her PhD student, Christine Buckingham, and a couple of helpers in the most foul conditions imaginable. "We are surrounded by garbage and seagull droppings; Friday is a particularly bad day when all the domestic refuse arrives.

"But the site was long ago marked for waste disposal landfill, and we have been funded to the tune of pounds 27,000 a year by the quarry owners."

Dr Scott became involved when a digger driver at the Stanton Harcourt quarry hit a tusk in 1989 and called her in to identify it. "It proved to be from a mammoth - the same in every respect as a woolly mammoth, except two-thirds the size, and given the temperature of the area, it's debatable whether it had any wool on it."

The team set about combing the whole five-acre site and came across the remains of straight-tusked elephant as well as horse, deer, lion, hyena and brown bear, all dating back a quarter of a million years. However, all the bones, tusks and teeth may ultimately prove less important than bags of brown silt that the team has not yet had a chance to fully identify. "They contain up to 50 species of insect that will provide vital information once we have had a chance to catalogue them."

Alas, commercial considerations will impede full discovery of the site: "The owners have been tremendously co-operative, but we have already lost two acres and will lose half the remaining three in May."

She admits she is upset by the contrast between the rubbish tip of today and the landscape she has reconstructed. "When you stand with all the rubbish bags flapping around you and the machinery roaring in the distance, it's astonishing to think this was once a meadow with a river running through it and a forest nearby.

"The meadow is the key to human habitation: it used to be thought that man did not want to live in forestland, but the evidence of grassland in the area puts a whole new slant on things. We know the beautifully made hand axes and other tools were fashioned out of Wallingford stone, which would have had to be carried upstream. The quality of the handiwork makes it hard to think of that species of early homo sapiens being all that much different from us."