Wednesday, 11 April 2012

La Cotte de St Brelade

La Cotte has always held a fascination for me, ever since I was fortunate to visit the site in the mid-1970s. Of course, we had to be extremely careful, as the granite here does not make a solid cave; all to easily, it can fracture and come tumbling down. As a result, it is off limits to the general public, although there is a reconstruction in the Jersey museum of what it may have been like back in Paleolithic times, when Neanderthal man lived there for a while.

I lived in St Brelade's Bay, and to gaze across the bay, and realise that the site one is looking at was inhabited around 100,000 BC is amazing. While the timescale is but a scratch on the geological clock, it is still vast to human beings like ourselves. It was inhabited by homo sapiens, as well, hunter gathers, because the tribes came and went; this was not the later farming and settled communities of the Neolithic or new stone age.

Excavations have taken place from around 1910 onwards. Robert R. Marett (1866 - 1943) worked on the palaeolithic site of from 1910 - 1914, recovering some hominid teeth and other remains of habitation by Nearnderthal man. He published "The Site, Fauna, and Industry of La Cotte de St. Brelade, Jersey" (Archaeologia LXVII, 1916).

In 1911, Arthur Smith Woodward (director of the geology department at the British Museum of Natural History) was asked by R.R. Marrett to inspected the findings at La Cotte.At the time, Woodward was engaged in the archaeological discovery of "Piltdown man", which later became notorious as a hoax, and he used a comparison of findings at La Cotte to argue for an early dating of his Piltdown material.

The Cambridge University excavations of the 1960s and 1970s found important examples of remains of Pleistocene mammals carried into La Cotte, including a pile of bones and teeth of woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros. Princes Charles took part (as a student) in these excavations, directed by Professor C.M.B. McBurney, which were published as "La Cotte de St. Brelade 1961 - 1978: Excavations by C.B.M. McBurney." (Geo Books, Norwich).

The photos I have headed this post were found this week by a friend in an attic, where they had been placed and forgotten. They were probably taken by Josephine Parmeter, and they show one of the digs, probably on in the 1960s. It is a fascinating glimpse into the past excavations, a visual time capsule.

The gentleman with white hair is most probably Arthur Mourant, who was one of the most distinguished Jerseymen of his day, and who even when elderly, would climb up the Pinnacle rock at L'Etacq. A polymath, knowledgeable about geology and archeology, he was an early advocate of continental drift before it became accepted geology, and also did pioneering work in blood groups.

I wrote about La Cotte and new excavations and analysis taking place last year in the Autumn edition of the Parish Magazine, and this seems a good opportunity to reprint that here.

Oldest immigrants

Excavations at La Cotte this year reveal more about Jersey’s earliest inhabitants

THE cave at La Cotte de St Brelade, at the end of Quaisne Bay, and just below Portelet Common, has long been known to be the site of the earliest habitation in Jersey. Neanderthal man lived here around 250,000 years ago - the earliest record we have of the occupation of the Channel Islands by an intelligent species. The Neanderthals are named after their discovery in the Neander Valley, close to Düsseldorf in Germany. They died out only around 30,000 years ago, and were close enough cousins to human beings to interbreed. They were like us, only shorter, more heavily built and much stronger, particularly in the arms and hands, and with a thick bony brow ridge. No one knows for certain the reason why they died out.

The cave at La Cotte was inhabited by these hunter-gatherer tribes in between Ice Ages, spanning a period of over a quarter of a million years, adapting to the climate changes. They lived in a bleak land on the edge of the snows and glaciers that were even then receding northward.

Evidence suggests they hunted in groups, stampeding woolly mammoths with short spears to drive them across the granite headland and over the cliff. Then they would light fires, cook the meat and feast.

A new look at the cave this year has revealed more about our earliest immigrants. "Archaeologists have developed new ways of looking at stone tools since La Cotte de St Brelade was excavated in the 1970s," says Dr Beccy Scott from the British Museum and the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project who is investigating the site. "Neanderthals were travelling to Jersey already equipped with good quality flint tools, then reworking them, very, very carefully so as not to waste anything. They were extremely good at recycling." Flint is not a native rock to Jersey, so the Neanderthals had to bring it with them; it was a versatile rock, suitable for shaping stone arrow heads, spear heads and knives.

A cave in granite is unusual, and it is not surprising that there have been dangerous rock falls there. For public safety, the cave is barricaded off with barbed wire and a locked gate, and only accessible by archaeologists working under controlled conditions.

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