Experts in the Neanderthal period have welcomed steps taken to protect the internationally important archaeological site of La Cotte de St. Brelade.
Although Jersey residents are rightly proud of this impressive archaeological site, it is also internationally famous because of the exceptional finds made there. For scientists studying the evolution and eventual extinction of the Neanderthals, it is one of only a handful of sites worldwide that allow them to look at these questions.
Over the last eight years, storm surges have eroded archaeological deposits from the site, potentially resulting in the loss of vital information about our ancestors and how they lived.
A project co-ordinated by Jersey Heritage has begun work to protect the site, which would allow archaeologists to stabilise and investigate the intact deposits. Whilst this work will inform the future management of this key site, there is also the possibility that significant finds could be made.
Professor Chris Stringer, research leader in Human Origins at the Natural History Museum, London, welcomed the steps taken to protect La Cotte: “We now have good evidence of the Neanderthals from early in their evolution (for example the 400,000 year old sites of Swanscombe in England and Sima de los Huesos in Spain) and from about 40-120,000 years ago (many sites in Europe and Asia).
But the period in between is much less well known, which is why a site like La Cotte de St Brelade is so crucial as it contains rich evidence from throughout this time (200,000 – 40,000 years ago. The planned work at La Cotte will help towards its long-term conservation. The potential for important discoveries is very high, and I look forward to seeing the results of this exciting work!”
Professor Clive Gamble, a Trustee of the British Museum, who led a 3 year project re-analysing artefacts excavated from La Cotte over 30 years ago commented: “Our research on the La Cotte collections has uncovered new knowledge about Neanderthals and confirmed the international significance of the site for the study of deep human history. Protecting this treasure trove of information about our earliest ancestors is crucially important and I fully support the far-sighted initiatives being taken by Jersey Heritage”
Archaeologist Dr Beccy Scott of the British Museum said: “it was the exceptional archaeological record of La Cotte that drew me to Jersey 10 years ago. There is no other site in Europe that allows you to look at how early Neanderthal behaviour developed over the last 230,000 years. The British Museum has been involved in excavations in Jersey since 2009 and we look forward to working with our colleagues to understand more about this extraordinary site once the protection works are complete”.
Dr Matt Pope from UCL Institute of Archaeology has led salvage work at La Cotte following erosion of the site by the storms; he explained: “The deposits immediately under threat have not been investigated through modern archaeological methods, so the task of saving them from the sea and bringing them under proper study is urgent.
La Cotte preserves a sequence Ice Age sediments spanning in excess of 200,000 years of prehistory and climate change, it includes the period when Neanderthals underwent extinction. Protecting these deposits is important but we are also excited about what new discoveries we might make during the works.”
The last major excavations at La Cotte took place more than 30 years ago, but since 2009 experts have brought the site under renewed study, using new scientific techniques and re-analysing the old collections cared for by Jersey Heritage.
Several major projects have been undertaken, including the Ice Age Island project in collaborations with Jersey Heritage. This ongoing research has been nominated for the Current Archaeology Research Project of the Year award.