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The Thames Through Time

A Burlington House lecture, held at the Geological Society on 20 September 2011

The Thames has witnessed dramatic changes throughout the course of its evolution that are intimately bound up with climate change and tectonic processes. For much of its history, the ancestral Thames was a substantially larger river, flowing in a more northerly route than today and entering the North Sea embayment to the north of a chalk landbridge connecting Britain to mainland Europe. The effects of major glaciation later destroyed that connection, leading to catastrophic overspill from ice-dammed lakes and diverting the Thames into its present course. Driven largely by glacial-interglacial climatic cycles combined with uplift, the river has laid down a stacked ‘staircase’ of terrace sediments that form one of the most important archives of Pleistocene environmental change anywhere in the world.

Rich remains of ice age mammals, plants, shells and other fossils from these sands and gravels provide a uniquely detailed insight into the changing landscape of Britain over the last half a million years. Some of the most remarkable sites are found in central London itself, including Trafalgar Square, where hippos, rhinos and elephants roamed the banks of the Thames 125 000 years ago. In addition, the Thames valley has acted as a conduit for early human movements, providing raw materials for stone tool manufacture and lush environments for hunting animals. Danielle Schreve will draw together these different lines of evidence and present the latest scientific advances in our understanding of the Thames past.

You can also view the presentation and slides online (opens in a new window)


Danielle Schreve, Professor of Quaternary Science, Royal Holloway, University of London


Danielle Schreve is Professor of Quaternary Science and vertebrate palaeontologist in the Centre for Quaternary Research, Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her research focuses on Ice Age mammals and encompasses many different aspects including evolution, extinction, palaeoecology and mammalian responses to climate change, as well as reconstructing early human hunting and subsistence patterns. She has over published extensively and has contributed to numerous radio and TV programmes, including Channel 4’s Time Team and The Birth of Britain.

Danielle is a former President of the Geologists’ Association and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. She is a core member of the acclaimed Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project, a major multidisciplinary initiative that brings together archaeologists, palaeontologists, geologists and other specialists in order to investigate the ebb and flow of early human populations in Britain and western Europe. She is an active fieldworker and is currently leading new excavations in various sites in southern England and overseas.

Recent science and future promise

July 2010: members of the AHOB project team publishes new finds from East Anglia in proto-Thames deposits pushing the earliest evidence of humans in Britain back beyond 780 000 years.

Recent discoveries of artefacts from Thames deposits in north Kent call into question the view that humans were absent from Britain for over 100 000 years and suggest that Neanderthals made occasional visits here during the early part of the last Ice Age.

New high-precision methods allow past interglacial periods to be more robustly dated and interpreted.