A group of archaeologists excavating: in the foreground two archaeologists are working within a 1 metre grid marked by strings.
Excavation of the MIS7 Palaeolithic site of Oak Tree Field, Cerney Wick, Gloucestershire in 2021. © Keith Wilkinson and Dig Ventures.
Excavation of the MIS7 Palaeolithic site of Oak Tree Field, Cerney Wick, Gloucestershire in 2021. © Keith Wilkinson and Dig Ventures.

Mapping the Palaeolithic in England

The English Palaeolithic: archaeology with a difference.

Introducing the Palaeolithic

The Old Stone Age, or Palaeolithic is an archaeological period apart...the Palaeolithic spanned time that is orders of magnitude greater than for any other archaeological period.

The Old Stone Age, or Palaeolithic as it is more formally known, is an archaeological period apart. Lasting more than four million years at a global scale and at least 900,000 years in Britain, the Palaeolithic spanned time that is orders of magnitude greater than for any other archaeological period.

The time encompasses the evolution of our earliest bipedal ancestors and indeed our own species, as well as the first human colonisation of Britain.

The time depth means that the Palaeolithic coincides with momentous changes in climate, manifested in Britain by ice ages (glacials), during which northern England was covered by ice sheets and the south by tundra, and interglacials, during which conditions were broadly similar to the present day. Each glacial and interglacial period coincides with a Marine Isotope Stage (MIS). These latter categorise changes of climate as manifested by chemical properties of a class of marine invertebrate (Foraminifera).

Unsurprisingly hominins (our evolutionary forebears as well as our own species) inhabited Britain during the interglacials (odd numbers in the Marine Isotope Stage series) and (mostly) avoided the area during the glacials (even Marine Isotope Stage numbers).

As well as being differentiated by time and the often ephemeral nature of an archaeological record characterised by stone artefacts and (sometimes) animal bones, the Palaeolithic is also different from other periods on more prosaic grounds. These are associated with the methodologies by which Palaeolithic sites are investigated and, in Britain at least, the personnel doing the investigating. Most archaeologists working in the commercial and curatorial sectors in England may have attended one or two classes on the Palaeolithic but are unlikely to have worked on a Palaeolithic site. Such circumstances are the product of the relatively few Palaeolithic archaeologists teaching in universities compared to those specialising in other periods and consequently the limited Palaeolithic research excavations in Britain.

The unfamiliarity of the Palaeolithic to most archaeologists...poses particular problems in the cultural resource management sector.

The unfamiliarity of the Palaeolithic to most archaeologists, when combined with the potentially huge scientific importance of sites of the period, poses particular problems in the cultural resource management sector.

For instance, can the location of Palaeolithic sites be predicted? What is the likely nature of archaeological preservation given different topographic and geological circumstances? How should potential Palaeolithic sites be investigated before a planning decision is made that might affect their preservation?

Historic England’s recent guidance on Curating the Palaeolithic (2023) provides extensive background information and highlights the importance of seeking advice from a specialist with appropriate expertise in the Pleistocene (the geological period from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago which encompasses the Palaeolithic).

However, few staff in either local planning authorities or Historic England fulfil such a criterion. Recognising the particular problem of the Palaeolithic in the planning system, Historic England therefore commissioned a project entitled ‘Palaeolithic archaeological potential of Pleistocene deposits in England: a geological mapping approach’ carried out by ARCA geoarchaeology between 2018 and 2023. Its product is a nationwide predictive mapping tool for the Palaeolithic.

Palaeolithic archaeological potential

The presence or otherwise of Palaeolithic archaeological sites in any area is dependent on whether geological layers dating to the Pleistocene occur. Further, the nature of any Palaeolithic remains that might be present is also largely a product of the strata that are present. For example, Palaeolithic artefacts are unlikely to occur within deposits that accumulated as a result of glacial activity and any artefacts that might be present will almost certainly have been derived from older strata. Given this fundamental importance of geology in predicting the English Palaeolithic record, the project used as its main data source British Geological Survey (BGS) 1:50,000 maps.

Geographic information system (GIS) polygons marking the distribution of geological strata of Pleistocene age (i.e. most categories of ‘superficial’ geology) were extracted from digital versions of the British Geological Survey maps. The polygons were next divided into the ten river basin districts used by the Environment Agency (see map below) and then by individual river catchments.

The other main data source used was the English Rivers Palaeolithic Survey database, a nationwide catalogue of Palaeolithic sites compiled by John Wymer and Wessex Archaeology in the late 1990s. The project then combined further Palaeolithic archaeological site databases at county (e.g. Suffolk) and regional level (e.g. the Midlands) and information captured from the published Pleistocene geological literature with the English Rivers Palaeolithic Survey in a new project-specific database. It then, finally, cross-referenced the geological polygons with the archaeological site database.

British Geological Survey categories that coincided with Palaeolithic archaeological finds were categorised based on the number and nature of the sites, according to the following scale:

Scale of significance of Palaeolithic remains




Fulfilling any of the ten categories of national interest given in Curating the Palaeolithic, ie presence of:

1/ human remains;

2/ remains from a period or area where evidence of a human presence is particularly rare;

3/ organic artefacts;

3/ well-preserved indicators of the contemporary environment;

5/ evidence of human lifestyles;

6/ deposits containing Palaeolithic remains that have a clear stratigraphic relationship;

7/ any artistic representation;

8/ features such as hearths, shelters, and floors;

9/ exploitation of a resource, such as a raw material;

10/ abundant artefacts.


Palaeolithic archaeological remains definitively present, but not meeting criteria for national interest.


Palaeolithic remains reported but their exact provenance is uncertain.


A broad category indicating where:

(a) deposits containing Palaeolithic archaeological remains are buried beneath a mapped British Geological Survey geological unit of Pleistocene age;

(b) Palaeolithic artefacts occur in secondary context with at least one climate stage interval between their original deposition and the context in which they were discovered (e.g. glacial deposits containing artefacts from the previous interglacial);

or (c) Palaeolithic artefacts occur as a lag (i.e. surrounding matrix has been lost, making it impossible to determine in which geological unit the artefacts were originally incorporated).

Lacking data

Palaeolithic archaeological remains not presently known and/or geological criteria (e.g. age) suggest that hominins were absent.

The product

The end result of the project is a GIS resource for England comprising polygons that categorise potential Palaeolithic archaeological significance according to the five-point scale above.

The GIS, and even the underpinning archaeological site database, is not a be-all-and-end-all resource that considers every aspect of the Palaeolithic and it is not a replacement for more detailed GIS resources available at a local level, for example those produced as part of a Historic Environment Record enhancement exercise. Rather it is intended to enable a ‘first response’, in other words a rapid assessment of whether a development coincides with deposits that might contain Palaeolithic archaeological remains.

What happens after that initial assessment is a matter for an archaeologist working with a planning authority, but where any category other than ‘Lacking data’ is indicated, would likely commence with a desk-based assessment carried out by (or with input from) a Pleistocene specialist with appropriate expertise

Unsurprisingly, given that ice sheets of the last glacial maximum disrupted earlier Pleistocene strata in northern areas, geological units with Palaeolithic archaeological potential mainly occur in southern and central England. However, this is not exclusively so. Upper Palaeolithic remains post-dating the last glaciation occur across northern England, while in some locations (e.g. in Lincolnshire) Middle Pleistocene interglacial sediments containing archaeological remains lie beneath deposits of the last glacial maximum. Understanding the Palaeolithic archaeological potential is therefore a country-wide necessity.

At the time of writing (May 2024) the ‘Palaeolithic archaeological potential of Pleistocene deposits in England: a geological mapping approach’ GIS is undergoing evaluation and it is hoped that the resource will be available by the summer.

About the authors

Name and role

Keith Wilkinson

Title and organisation
Professor of Geoarchaeology at University of Winchester
Keith has been teaching at Winchester since 1997. Previously he was in charge of environmental archaeology at Cotswold Archaeology. His main interests are environmental archaeology, geoarchaeology, geomorphology, climate change, Pleistocene geology and Palaeolithic archaeology.

Name and role

Monika Knul

Title and organisation
Lecturer at University of Winchester
Monika teaches Archaeology and Geography, GIS, Geomatics, archaeological field techniques, Palaeolithic archaeology and Archaeological Science.

Further information

At the time of writing (March 2024) the ‘Palaeolithic archaeological potential of Pleistocene deposits in England: a geological mapping approach’ GIS is undergoing evaluation and it is hoped that the resource will be available by the summer.

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