Evidence of Ice Age hunters found in Bradgate Park, Leicestershire

Archaeologists working on the site in Bradgate Park.
Archaeologists working on the site in Bradgate Park.

In February, Bradgate Park Trust commissioned ULAS to investigate remains found at the Little Matlock Gorge site – a project that, by its conclusion two weeks later has revealed that Ice Age hunters targeted Bradgate Park as an ideal hunting ground.

The gradual erosion of a footpath at the eastern end of the site in recent years has revealed numerous worked flint artefacts indicating an Upper Palaeolithic site dating to almost 15,000 years ago – at the beginning of the Lake Windermere Interstadial, a brief warming period towards the end of the Pleistocene (Ice Age). At that time the UK was part of the north-west European mainland, and had only just become accessible to human pioneers after 10,000 years of severe cold – the Last Glacial Maximum.

Some of the finds found during the work.
Some of the finds found during the work.

Among the flint tools were Cheddar and Creswell points, tips and barbs for spears that were propelled with an atlatl, or spear thrower; scrapers, used to process animal hides; and numerous piercers. The latter tools were made on stout blades but all have snapped in use – suggesting the working of a hard material such as antler.

These relics of the past have been used to determine who and what may have been active in the area during the period. Lynden Cooper, Project Officer at ULAS, explains: “Rapid climate change c15,000 years ago led to large tracts of new grassland territory becoming accessible to animals such as horse, deer and reindeer. A small band of humans, late Magdalenian hunters, also entered this new land of plenty, and within a short period of time had evolved into the Creswellian people. Innovative stone tool technology can be seen to reflect new hunting strategies required to cope with ecological changes resulting from the warming climate.”

The project was undertaken by ULAS and assisted by Rob Clough, a Bradgate Park Ranger, as well as Graham and Christine Coombes who made the first finds of the flint pieces in 2001. The recovered flint technology and the particular type of tools indicate that the hunter-gatherers were of a culture termed ‘Creswellian’, named after Creswell Crags, a group of cave sites flanking a limestone gorge on the border of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. The Creswellians were a late manifestation of a wider European grouping, the Magdalenian culture, which extended across Europe from Iberia to Russia.

Suggested hafting positions of Cheddar points on wooden spears – the arrangement provides both tip and barb.
Suggested hafting positions of Cheddar points on wooden spears – the arrangement provides both tip and barb.

The site is thought to be the remains of a hunting stand where hunters intercepted animals such as horse and deer that were passing through the gorge. While there are some twenty cave sites and a few more single Creswellian find spots around the UK, the Bradgate Park site is a very rare discovery of an open air site.

The work is part of a larger scheme to better understand the varied ecology and heritage of the Park, and enable Bradgate Park to enter into Higher Level Stewardship. Landscape architects Cookson & Tickner have been appointed to produce a Parkland Plan and ULAS have been commissioned to carry out some archaeological surveys.

Peter Tyldesley, Land Agent and Surveyor at the Bradgate Park Trust said: “The existence of this site has been known about for several years but it is only now, thanks to our entering Higher Level Stewardship and the financial assistance received from Natural England for the preparation of our Parkland Plan, that we have been able to commission this much-needed evaluation. We are delighted to have been able to appoint ULAS to undertake the work as they have a wealth of expertise right on our doorstep.”

The excavations will provide information on the extent and nature of the occupation and allow informed decisions on its future management.

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