The Hidden History of the Norfolk Coast

The Hidden History of the Norfolk Coast
Art & Culture

Norfolk is famous throughout the world for its picturesque countryside and stunning coastline, but in recent years a different picture of Norfolk has emerged, as a pre-historic cradle of humanity, where hippos and hyenas once roamed free.

Over the past 25 years a number of remarkable discoveries have transformed our understanding of the Norfolk coast, and of human history as a whole. In that period, Norfolk has seen the discovery of the West Runton Mammoth, the oldest mammoth skeleton ever found in the UK; Seahenge; a pre-historic monument located in Holme-next-the-Sea which made national headlines when it was discovered in 1998; and the relatively recent discovery of the Happisburgh footprints, the oldest human footprints found outside Africa.

These discoveries are helping to enrich our understanding of the pre-historic world, and have seen Norfolk emerge as perhaps the most important archaeological site in Western Europe. This has given rise to the Deep History Coast Project, which aims to encourage people to visit Norfolk to learn more about our pre-historic ancestors.

In our latest article, we take a look at some of the most significant finds on Norfolk's Deep History Coast.

Happisburgh Hominid Footprints

One of the most important of the Deep History Coast finds, the Happisburgh Hominid Footprints completely revised our understanding of the history of human beings in Great Britain. Before the footprints were discovered in 2013, it was thought that the earliest human visitors to Britain arrived around half a million years ago, but the Happisburgh Footprints proved to be some 850,000 years old!

The footprints were left by a small group, possibly a family, of Homo antecessor, a species of human known as 'Pioneer Man'. The ancient footsteps were revealed when the sea washed away the sand at Happisburgh, providing scientists from the British Museum, Natural History Museum and Queen Mary University of London with the opportunity to create 3D records of the evidence before the sand and sea reclaimed them.


Similar to the discovery of the Happisburgh Hominid Footprints, Seahenge, a remarkable bronze-age structure strikingly similar to Stonehenge, was revealed following a series of tidal surges at Holme-next-the-Sea in 1998.

Unlike the Happisburgh Footprints, however, Seahenge is a relatively recent discovery, thought to date back in time 4,200 years ago.

The wooden oval structure with an inverted tree trunk at its centre was originally constructed inland, and had been gradually lost to the sea over time. The discovery proved to be controversial, as archaeologists elected to remove the timbers from the beach to save them for posterity. Many protestors believed the ancient structure should have remained in the ground in which they were originally placed some 4,200 years ago.

West Runton Mammoth

Discovered in 1990 in the cliffs of West Runton, the West Runton Mammoth is the most complete mammoth skeleton ever found, and is the oldest found in Great Britain.

The mammoth (which wasn't woolly) lived around 600,000-700,000 years ago, and would have weighed roughly twice as much as a modern African Bull Elephant.

The discovery was made when a local couple found the mammoth's pelvic bone at the bottom of the West Runton cliffs after a particularly stormy night. More bones emerged a year later after another storm, eventually leading to an exploratory dig in 1992, and a full three-month excavation in 1995.

What emerged was an 85% complete specimen of the Mammuthus Trogontherii - the Steppe Mammoth. This remarkable and entirely unique discovery can now be enjoyed by visitors to Cromer Museum, Norwich Castle Museum and The Norfolk Collections Centre at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, where the remains of the West Runton Mammoth are displayed.

So many fascinating finds have emerged in recent years on Norfolk's Deep History Coast, and the exciting things is there is so much more waiting to be uncovered. If you would like to come and do beach combing and exploration of your own in Norfolk, there are few better bases from which to explore than Heacham Manor - a luxury Elizabethan hotel on the North Norfolk coast. Check out our Stay Offers, for great special offers all year round.