On the earliest Acheulean in Britain: first dates and in-situ artefacts from the MIS 15 site of Fordwich (Kent, UK).
Northern Europe experienced cycles of hominin habitation and absence during the Middle Pleistocene. Fluvial gravel terrace sites in the east of Britain and north of France provide a majority of the data contributing to this understanding, mostly through the presence or absence of stone-tool artefacts. To date, however, relatively few sites have been radiometrically dated, and many have not been excavated in modern times, leading to an over-reliance on selectively sampled and poorly dated lithic assemblages. This includes Fordwich (Kent, UK), where over 330 bifaces were discovered through industrial quarrying in the 1920s. Here, we present the first excavation and dating of artefacts discovered in situ at Fordwich, alongside their technological analysis and relationship to those previously recovered. The site is demonstrated to retain deposits of Lower Palaeolithic artefacts, with 251 flakes, scrapers and cores identified to date. Infrared-radiofluorescence (IR-RF) dating of feldspar reveals 112 artefacts to have come from levels dating to at least 570 ± 36 to 513 ± 30 thousand years ago (ka) and are most plausibly assigned to an MIS 14 deposition, with artefacts produced during MIS 15 (approx. 560-620 ka). Indeed, these IR-RF samples provide minimum ages for artefacts. Combined with evidence from exposures linked to the original quarrying activities, a similar MIS 15 age is suggested for the more than 330 handaxe artefacts discovered in the 1920s. The remaining excavated artefacts come from levels dated to between 347 ± 22 and 385 ± 21 ka (MIS 10 or 11), with this later age interpreted to reflect post-MIS 14 deposition by substrate gullying and solifluction. These data demonstrate Fordwich to be one of the earliest Palaeolithic sites in northwestern Europe, and to retain the only large Acheulean handaxe assemblage directly dated to pre-MIS 13. Thus, Fordwich is determined to be a crucial piece of the pre-Anglian Palaeolithic puzzle in northern Europe.