Spectacular Ice Age mammal fossils and 850,000 year-old human footprints have been revealed on a 22-mile stretch of North Norfolk’s coast.
These finds mark the coast from Weybourne to Happisburgh as the oldest and most important archeological sites in northern Europe.
They include the UK’s most completely preserved fossilised mammoth skeleton along with the remains of wolves, bison, bears, rhinos and hyenas.
And Norfolk’s earliest families - or maybe tourists - also left their footprints dating back more than 850,000 years ago. These are the earliest evidence of human occupation in northern Europe and have not been discovered outside the Great Rift Valley of Africa.
This history goes back to when the land masses of the world were entirely different.
The coastal stretch, which starts in Weybourne, six miles east of Blakeney, has been named the Deep History Coast. It is being developed as a huge historical project to rival the Jurassic coast in Dorset. The Norfolk cliffs are only about 300 feet high but they are quite spectacular with chalk transported there in the Ice Age with younger Pleistocene beds below.
Fossil hunters have scoured the beaches at East and West Runton, ten miles to the east from Blakeney, for generations. The almost complete fossilised remains of the West Runton Steppe mammoth were discovered at the base of a cliff in 1990. And in 2017 amateur archeologists found the tibia of another mammoth in the sand at West Runton. Experts believe these beasts roamed the earth at least 700,000 years ago but it could be up to two million years old.
Perhaps most amazing of all the finds was a chance discovery of human footprints dating back 850,000 years in Happisburgh in 2013. Scientists from the British Museum, the Natural History Museum and Queen Mary University of London, conducting a shoreline survey found the oldest evidence of humans outside Africa’s Great Rift Valley with toe and heel prints of nomads hunting bison and feeding off plant and fish.
North Norfolk District Council is planning to follow through on plans to capitalise on these finds and the Deep History Coast. It intends to create visitor attractions such as a museum, videos and walks which tourists can follow on a mobile app. The initiative is in its early stages but a great start can be found at the Visit Norfolk website
The best time for fossil hunting is after a storm has washed the cliffs and topsoil or after a period of frosty weather which will crack the rocks.
Sponges and shell fossils, including brachiopods, echinoids and belemnites, are commonly found among the pebbles on the foreshore or at the foot of the cliffs. But care must be taken regarding the tides and cliff falls.
A good place to start your research is the UK Fossils Network