West Runton revisited

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Jan Willem van der Drift (The Netherlands)

Historic finds

In 1900, nobody knew what kind of tools man used before the handaxe. Some scholars assumed that early-man used ‘eoliths’ – handy natural forms. That theory turned out to be false. The earliest tools were manmade flakes and cores, and this is now called Mode-I. James Reid Moir was one of the first to make claims about such tools and Fig. 1 shows a flake on which Reid Moir wrote that it came from below the Weybourne Crag near Cromer.

Fig. 1. This flake was found over a century ago by Reid Moir (drawing from reference 1).

However, the flaking angles, the form of the bulb and other fracture-signals on Reid Moir’s flakes differ slightly from what we see on flakes found in Neolithic sites or in connection with handaxes. This led most archaeologists to believe that Reid Moir’s flakes were not manmade.


In the 1980s, Dutch collectors found pebble tools in aggregate that was dredged from the sea, offshore from Norfolk. A group of four collectors (Ab Lagerweij, André Cardol, John de Koning and Herman van der Made) decided to visit East Anglia and search for sites on land. They hoped to find pebble tools in the Cromer Forest Bed, which is a freshwater deposit dated to the Cromerian, which contains fossils from steppe mammoth, rhinoceros and horse. The Anglian glaciers covered this formation with sand, gravel and till, but it lies exposed on the coast.

The four did not find any pebble tools in the Cromer Forest Bed but were amazed to find five concentrations of flakes and cores in a far older bed, at the waterline in West Runton (see references 2 and 3). The formation immediately below the Cromer Forest Bed is called the Wroxham Crag, which is about one million years old and consists of marine deposits: the Shelly Gravel and Weybourne Crag.

The flakes and cores were found in a freshwater bed below the Weybourne Crag, called the Cromer Stone Bed. The Stone Bed is placed at the end of the Tiglian warm phase, 1.8 million years ago, based on its fossils (southern mammoth, Etruscan rhinoceros, Trogontherium cuvieri, mice and water voles). This discovery brought Reid Moir’s flakes back into the spotlight and reopened the discussion. Are these flakes the result of a geological process (geofacts) or are they manmade (artefacts)?

Flaking methods

To find the answer, we must first understand how our ancestors made flakes. The handaxe-makers and Modern man took a stone in one free, unsupported hand and hit that with a hammer stone held in the other. This method is called freehand flaking. It produces flakes with a platform, one point of impact and a bulb. The fracture-signals on the flakes from the Stone Bed are (as was already noted on Reid Moir’s flakes) slightly different – their signals tell us that forces worked from two opposed sides. They are therefore called bipolar flakes. Bipolar fractures are very common in natural processes. Fig. 2 shows flints that were broken by bipolar forces, when they got caught between the Cretaceous bedrock and the Anglian glaciers. Many archaeologists therefore classify all freehand flakes as manmade and all bipolar flakes as geofacts.

Fig. 2. These geofacts formed 450.000 years ago, when glaciers crushed beds from the top of the Cretaceous.

However, in reality, nearly all Mode-I flakes are bipolar. Our ancestors learned to make stone tools when they were cracking bones to eat the marrow. The bones were not broken by freehand flaking, but were smashed on the ground using stones, because this produces greater forces. Some hammer-strikes no doubt failed and accidentally broke stones that lay on the ground, creating obviously sharp fragments. So accidentally breaking stones taught our ancestors to break stones intentionally to create tools. At Lomekwi-3 in Kenya, they already made good flakes 3.3 million years ago. Fig. 3 demonstrates that this was done on the ground using the Oblique Bipolar Flaking method (OBF, references 4 and 5).

Fig. 3. Cracking bones to eat the marrow inevitably led to Oblique Bipolar Flaking.

OBF has a major advantage over freehand flaking as it works on all stones. Freehand flaking only works on stones which have a striking platform that is at an acute angle to the reduction face. Rounded cobbles do not have this, so it was nearly impossible for early man to flake the rounded cobbles he found on riverbanks using the freehand method. OBF therefore remained the standard Mode-I flaking method.

Additional arguments

With OBF, we can experimentally copy the forms found in the Stone Bed. This suggests that the finds are manmade, but geofacts can look deceivingly similar. So additional proof is needed to draw firm conclusions. It would be ideal if hominid fossils were found in the same bed, but sadly that is not the case. However, there are other arguments that can be used. The first is geological: the fragile fossils in the Cromer Forest Bed and marine Crag are still intact, so the Stone Bed lies below formations that were not disturbed by the Anglian glaciers. Therefore, the forces that produced the geofacts in Fig. 2 did not make the flakes in the Stone Bed. Another argument is that the flakes and cores in the Stone Bed are concentrated, whilst geofacts tend to show a random distribution (as in Fig. 2).

A third argument is that many thick flakes and cores were intentionally modelled (into, for example, heavy-duty scrapers) by removing small chips (retouches). Furthermore, specialists like Henry de Lumley and Gerhard Bosinski recognised the flakes as manmade. Professor Bosinski even came to Holland to open the temporary museum exhibition of the Stone Bed finds.

The thinnest flakes have the sharpest cutting edges, so the handaxe-makers and Modern man preferred thin flakes and resharpened these when they became worn. However, in the Stone Bed, we see exactly the opposite: the best thin flakes were discarded without resharpening, whilst many thick flakes were retouched. That goes against everyone’s gut feelings. Why would early man throw his best flakes away? But geological phenomena treat all objects in the same way, so this selective behaviour is decisive proof that the retouches are manmade. If a geological process had made the steep retouches, that process would have also affected the thin flakes – their fragile edges would be destroyed. The intact fragile edges prove that the flakes became embedded in protective sediments and so the steep retouches must be manmade.

The same phenomenon is seen in all other Mode-I sites – early-man in the Olduvai-Gorge also retouched heavy-duty scrapers but discarded his best flakes without resharpening. The flakes from the Stone Bed in Fig. 4 teach us that early-man did this because he used OBF.

Fig. 4. Mode-I hominids modelled the edges of thick flakes with steep retouches. They placed the flake on the floor and hit its edge like the clay ball suggests. But when you use this method on a thin flake, it destroys the fragile cutting-edge. This is why early man did not resharpen his best Mode-I flakes, but simply discarded them after use.

On the left, you see how easy it is to make steep retouches when a thick flake lies on the ground, but if you try to resharpen a thin flake (on the right) with the same method, you only crush its edge. So, Mode-I-makers did not resharpen thin flakes because they worked on the ground (OBF), whilst handaxe-makers did resharpen thin flakes, because they used freehand techniques.

Many more tools are shown in my paper The Palaeolithic; how and why. It also explains why the handaxe was invented in Africa at a time when the climate became dryer, why the Clactonian peoples did not make classic handaxes, how pebble tool traditions are related to the Clactonian, how the Levallois techniques were invented more than a million years ago and why these techniques only became popular around 300.000 years ago, and how the Neanderthals lived and why they went extinct. So, if you want to know ‘how and why’ we became human, you should read reference 5.


Apes can only live in warm climates because they need calories from fruits and edible plants all year round. Early man, on the other hand, learned to live on bone marrow and meat. This diet enabled him to leave Africa and survive the winters in Shangchen (East-Chinese province Lantian, 2.1 million years ago) and in Dmanisi (Georgia, 1.8 million years ago, reference 4). East Anglia lies further north, so you might expect that man needed fire and clothes to live there, but 1.8 million years ago that was not necessary because the climate there was subtropical.

Seven thousand years ago, the farmers from the Middle East came to Northwest Europe using the Danube-Rhine route (hence the name Danubian-culture) and 40,000 years ago, the first Modern humans followed the same route. This was obviously the shortest, fastest and easiest route, so it makes sense that Mode-I groups followed the same route to the Rhine-Meuse delta (reference 5) and since the Channel did not yet exist, the coastline led them straight to West Runton.

West Runton revisited

In 2019, 100 years after Reid Moir published his book ‘Pre-Palaeolithic Man’, Jan Blok and I visited West Runton and compared the situation to photos Ab Lagerweij, André Cardol, John de Koning and Herman van der Made took in the 1990s. It was sad to see that the coastal erosion had completely destroyed the sites they found at the waterline. Reid Moir’s sites had probably already disappeared before the war. So, Blok and I felt very lucky to still find a small spot where the Stone Bed (with a few cores and flakes) was visible between the sand.


1: J.W.P. van der Drift: Explained away, J. Reid Moir. In: apanarcheo.nl/APANExtern14-full.pdf pp. 72-76.

2: A.C. Lagerweij, A. Cardol, J.M. de Koning, H. van der Made: Werktuigen uit het Stone Bed van East Anglia 1,8 miljoen jaar B.P.:https://www.apanarcheo.nl/Extern13.pdf

3: Illustrations and a short text related to the West Runton finds: https://www.apanarcheo.nl/West%20Runton%20Stonebed%20East%20Anglia/West%20Runton%20Stonebed%20East%20Anglia.html

4: J.W.P. van der Drift: Oblique Bipolar Flaking, the new interpretation of Mode-I: http://biblio.naturalsciences.be/associated_publications/notae-praehistoricae/NP32/np32_159-164.pdf

5: J.W.P. van der Drift: The Palaeolithic; how and why in https://www.apanarcheo.nl/the%20Paleolithic%20how%20and%20why.pdf

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