Excavation at Happisburgh

The archaeological excavations at Happisburgh are located on the foreshore, sandwiched between the North Sea on one side and a towering cliff on the other. The deposits extend under the cliff, but the sea has destroyed the archaeological sediments on the seaward side of Happisburgh's wooden sea defences.

Most of the artefacts were found in situ during excavation, with additional pieces retrieved through sieving of all the excavated sediments. The majority were found in a series of gravel layers at the northern edge of the ancient river channel known as Happisbrgh Site 3. From just below beach level in the northernmost trench, the gravels deepen in the southernmost trench to about two metres below beach level. Earlier deposits underlying the gravel layers were recorded and sampled. A further two metres of channel sediment has been identified beneath, but it is too deep to excavate.

Aerial view of the site taken in 2008
  • Aerial view of the site taken in 2008, showing the sand-bank constructed to protect the site during high tides. Photograph by Mike Page, taken from a Microlite.

  • Aerial view of the site. Photograph by Mike Page, taken from a Microlite.

  • Happisburgh Site 3 (looking north) at low tide and during a storm. The excavation is located beyond the upturned Second World War pill box.

  • Surveying storm damage at the site in 2009.

  • A mechanical digger is used to clear the overburden. Here, estuarine sediments at the edge of the channel are being cleaned to reveal a thin gravel spread with artefacts.

  • Archaeological deposits are excavated by hand, using trowels, mattocks and shovels.

  • Higher-level gravel deposits are oxidised (rusty brown).

  • Further into the channel the dark grey sediments are waterlogged and contain wood, seeds and insects.

  • Spoil from the excavation is washed in the sea, using handheld sieves with an eight millimetre mesh.

  • Artefacts are rarely found in the sieve, but the washed residue may contain small bone fragments, plant remains and non-local rocks.

  • An auger with casing is used to investigate the sediments beneath the floor of the excavation. This has shown that the channel deposits extend to at least two metres below the lowest point of the excavation.

  • Understanding the ecological context of the human occupation has relied on an extensive program of sampling for biological remains. Carefully oriented samples have been collected for palaeomagnetic dating. Buckets contain samples that will be processed in the laboratory to recover plant remains and insects.

  • A monolith sample taken for measurements of the ancient magnetic field. This information has provided a key to dating the artefacts, which were recovered from the grey gravel above the monolith.

  • Geological mapping has identified an extensive buried landscape beyond the edge of the channel. These deposits have been investigated from cliff exposures and boreholes, and by cutting shallow test pits on the foreshore. To examine the geology, the modern beach is cleared from the foot of the cliff using a mechanical excavator, taking care not to disturb the cliff. This trench has exposed the contact between the glacial sequence (light grey) and an organic clay with tree stumps.

Aerial view of the site taken in 2008, showing the sand-bank constructed to protect the site during high tides. Photograph by Mike Page, taken from a Microlite.