Since the early 16th century, England’s sprawling Althorp Estate has served as the seat of the Spencer family, an influential line of dazzling duchesses; passionate bibliophiles; and, perhaps most famously, the late Princess Diana, who moved to Althorp as a young teenager and lived there until her marriage to Prince Charles. Now, reports Simon de Bruxelles for the Telegraph, an unexpected discovery suggests the Northamptonshire estate was occupied by Neanderthals long before it became the seat of a fascinating aristocratic family.
Archaeologists sifting through a midden—or refuse heap—at Althorp recently uncovered pieces of worked sea shells that they expected to date to the Middle Ages. The team was surprised, then, when carbon dating revealed the shells were actually at least 40,000 years old, placing the relics within the long timeline of Neanderthals’ presence in Britain. Per the London Natural History Museum, the extinct human species inhabited the island as long as 400,000 years ago, repeatedly retreating from Britain when the climate became inhospitable and returning when conditions were more favorable.
“We don’t think the shells would have been the remnants of a prehistoric meal, as Althorp was even further from the sea then than it is today,” Roger Michel, executive director of the Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA), which is carrying out the excavation, tells the Telegraph. Instead, he says, the incised shells “could have been used for decoration or as spurs of mother of pearl for jewelry.”
Shaped antler off-cuts from the medieval settlement at Althorp. Let’s hope there’s still enough collagen trapped inside some of these to make C41 dating possible. Antler-work techniques came over with the Vikings. pic.twitter.com/IKcIxFUoWP
— Digital Archaeology (@DigiArchaeo) September 22, 2021
These artifacts may be the latest of many archaeological finds discrediting the “nasty and brutish” reputation once ascribed to Neanderthals, as Merrit Kennedy wrote for NPR in 2018. Researchers have previously found other examples of Neanderthal ornament-making, including an eagle talon that was likely worn as jewelry. Neanderthals may have also created cave art, intentionally buried their dead and nursed their sick back to health.
The archaeologists didn’t set out to find traces of a prehistoric species at Althorp. Charles Spencer, Diana’s younger brother and the current earl of Spencer, initially recruited the IDA to search for the remains of a medieval village called Olletorp, which was abandoned in the 14th century after being ravaged by the bubonic plague. (Spencer chronicled his burgeoning interest in archaeology in an essay for the Telegraph last month.) Olletorp is mentioned in the Domesday Book, a sweeping land survey commissioned by William I in 1085, and is believed to have lain “about 1,000 yards west of Althorp House,” the stately home on the property, according to the Telegraph.
IDA archaeologists have spent the past year digging test pits, mapping the area using ground-penetrating radar and taking core samples. In addition to the ancient shell pieces, the team has unearthed fragments of carved antler and flint dating to the Stone Age—an indication that tool-making took place at the excavation site. On Twitter, the organization added that it had discovered an “an intriguing network of stone walls and earthworks.”
Michel tells the Telegraph that he “still hope[s] to find Olletorp for Charles.” But the ancient archaeological finds suggest the site has a far more expansive history than the team anticipated. It was around 40,000 years ago that modern humans first started to arrive in Britain, opening up the possibility that further excavations at Althorp will uncover evidence from a crucial turning point in the region’s history.
“Our geophysical surveys of the site reveal many areas of interest that merit further exploration,” Michel says. “Althorp may very well tell the entire story of the settlement of Britain.”