© the British Museum. Frere's Hoxne hand axe as submitted in 1797 to the Society of Antiquars, London (SAL)






















































































prehistoric hoxne

Archbishop James Usher

Discoveries at Hoxne Challenge the Church

Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) was appointed Primate of all Ireland by James I and held that position from 1625 until his death. During that time he famously published a chronology of the world that put the date and time of creation as 9.00pm, Sunday the 23rd of October 4004 BC. Such was the power and influence of the church at this time, that this date of 4004 BC was widely accepted to be the definitive date of creation. Archbishop Ussher's chronology also provided the following key dates for events in the Bible:

• 4004 BC - Creation of the World

• 2348 BC – Noah’s Flood

• 1921 BC - God's conversation with Abraham

• 4 BC - The birth of Jesus


I’m sure you are thinking to yourself, this is all very interesting but what’s it got to do with Hoxne? Read on!


John Frere (1740–1807)

On 10th of August 1740 John Frere was born in Finningham, near Hoxne. As well as being a country squire at Roydon Hall, he was a graduate of Cambridge and a member of both the Royal Society of Antiquars and the Royal Society. In June 1797, Frere paused to watch workman digging clay for bricks in a pit at the site of the Hoxne clay brick pit. His attention was caught by the regularly shaped triangular flints which the workmen were using to fill up potholes in the road. Frere recognised the flints as human tools which we now call hand axes. This was the earliest recognition that hand axes were the work of early humans - rather than the widely held view that they were the result of thunderbolts or meteorites. The flints had come from a layer of gravel 12 feet below the surface, underneath layers of sand and brick-earth. Frere correctly interpreted the overlying deposits as riverine.


John Frere Engraving of Hoxne Hand Axe

On the 22 June 1797, Frere wrote a letter to the Royal Society of Antiquars (illustrated with two fine engravings above and two samples of hand axe) which would later set the stage for Palaeolithic Archaeology as we know it today. One of the hand axes is on permanent display at the British Museum.


In his letter, he came to the conclusion that the flints were “weapons of war, fabricated by a people who had not the use of metals” and that “the situation in which these weapons were found may tempt us to refer them to a very remote period indeed: even beyond that of the present world”. Frere’s article was in effect publically challenging Archbishop Ussher’s date of creation of 4004 BC which most authorities accepted as the literal truth of the Bible. However, at the time the Secretary of the Royal Society, the Reverend John Bland, was less than impressed and John Frere received little comment other than thanks for his “curious and most interesting communication”. Nevertheless, Frere’s letter was published in Archaeologia 13 in 1800 but again received no response from the authorities at the time.


In 1859, the archaeologist John Evans and the geologist Joseph Prestwick visited Abbeville in northern France, where the French claimed to have discovered hand axes and other tools in undisturbed deposits 11 feet below the ground. On returning to Britain, Evans was waiting for some friends at the Society of Antiquaries and, looking at one of the display cases, was “absolutely horror-struck to see in it three or four implements precisely resembling those found at Abbeville and Amiens”. He consulted Archaeologia 13, found Frere’s entry and immediately visited Hoxne to test Frere’s theories. In a paper to the Royal Society on the 26th May 1859, Prestwick and Evans concluded that Frere’s conclusions were indeed correct. From this date onwards, the Hoxne brick pit has remained one of the most important sites in British Palaeolithic archaeology. The Hoxne brick pit, overgrown and long since worked-out, can still be seen to the south of Hoxne, on the east side of the road to Eye.


John Frere Plaque, Finningham Church


A month later, Charles Darwin’s "Origin of Species" was published. Whilst it did not deal with human evolution, the ramifications were all too obvious. Darwin’s second book, The Descent of Man, published in 1871, discussed these ideas in greater detail. Frere himself died 52 years before Prestwick and Evans established the authenticity of his discoveries.


On the 22nd June 1997, the bicentenary of his letter to the Society, a group of Frere’s intellectual heirs met at Hoxne to celebrate the occasion. They decided to commemorate the life of John Frere with a memorial plaque. The plaque, unveiled in 2000 at Finningham Church, proclaims that Frere "from his discoveries at Hoxne was the first to realise the immense antiquity of mankind".




Hoxnian Interglacial

Excavations of the Hoxne brick pit by the British Association in 1896 and later by both Cambridge University in 1955 and Chicago University in the 1970’s, established the climatic context of the flint and animal remains. A major interglacial period - the Hoxnian - was identified as being approximately 375,000 to 425,000 years ago. The Hoxnian Stage is the name for a middle Pleistocene stage in the British Isles. It precedes the Anglian Stage and follows the Wolstonian Stage in the British Isles.


The main archaeological excavations at Hoxne were undertaken by a team from Chicago University during the 1970s. They uncovered extensive flint working areas on the edge of an ancient river. These early Hoxonians made hand axes and other flint tools and used them to butcher the carcasses of animals they had either scavenged or hunted. Analysis of pollen and animal bones showed that the area was inhabited by a number of exotic creatures including elephants, rhinoceros and lions as well as deer. The Chicago team discovered that the early humans who visited Hoxne probably did so about 320,000 years ago during a relatively temperate stage of the Wolstonian glaciation. Ironically the finds that made Hoxne famous date to a different period from the one to which Hoxne has given its name. The study uncovered extensive flint working areas on the edge of an ancient river.


The evidence from the Chicago excavations suggests that the site witnessed two or three periods of occupation during which groups made brief halts beside a lake or slowly moving body of water. Groupings of stones at Hoxne were interpreted as 'structures' - the earliest structures ever found in Britain. Their function is unknown, but they may have been placed there to consolidate the muddy ground at the edge of the lake.



Quaternary Hoxnian Interglacial period, Lower Palaeolithic


An illustration of a lakeside campsite 400,000 years ago of 'Acheulian man' (Homo erectus) in the Quaternary Hoxnian Interglacial period, Lower Palaeolithic © The Natural History Museum



Hoxne Man


Hoxne Man

To commemorate Hoxne’s Paleolithic past, in 2003 a 10 foot high oak carving, Hoxne Man, (complete with spear and flint hand-axe) was installed in Brakey Wood, Hoxne. This and other sculptures in the area were created by local artists Ben Platt-Mills and Ray Brooks.




Want to find out more?



The Lower Paleolithic Site at Hoxne, England

Synopsis: At the edge of the small Suffolk village of Hoxne lies what is arguably the single most important Middle Pleistocene archaeological site in Europe. Here the deposits contain not only prehistoric artifacts but also extraordinary records of fossil flora and fauna, making Hoxne one of the few paleolithic sites where early hominid materials can be found with other types of information in their primary contexts. Much controversy has surrounded the interpretation of these prehistoric materials and their stratigraphic position since John Frere published the first account of the site in 1797. Seeking to resolve some of the disputes, a team from the University of Chicago began in 1971 the most extensive series of excavations yet undertaken. This profusely illustrated volume presents the results of the team's five summers of excavations, which ended in 1978, and includes contributions by twelve specialists who represent many branches of Quaternary science. Although some uncertainty remains on various minor questions, this will stand for many years to come as the definitive study of Hoxne's archaeological and geochronological significance.


The Quaternary Deposits at Hoxne, Suffolk (1956)

The Late Lowestoftian macroflora is described from a new stratum at Hoxne, Suffolk, underlying the Pleistocene lacustrine beds investigated by Professor Richard West, FRS.


A Lowestofian Late-Glacial Flora from the Pleistocene Deposits at Hoxne, Suffolk; by C Turner

This book expolres the geology and palaeobotany of Quaternary deposits at Hoxne, Suffolk.


References & Links to other web sites:

British The Geological Society - Geoscientist 18.8 August 2008

British Archaeology. Great Sites: Hoxne

Hoxne Lithic Hand Axe Reproduction by John Lord

The Freer Family Research Directory