A stacked Late Quaternary fluvio-periglacial sequence from the Axe valley, southern England with implications for landscape evolution and Palaeolithic archaeology

A.G. Brown, L.S. Basell, P.S. Toms

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    The current model of mid-latitude late Quaternary terrace sequences, is that they are uplift-driven but climatically controlled terrace staircases, relating to both regional-scale crustal and tectonic factors, and palaeohydrological variations forced by quasi-cyclic climatic conditions in the 100 K world (post Mid Pleistocene Transition). This model appears to hold for the majority of the river valleys draining into the English Channel which exhibit 8–15 terrace levels over approximately 60–100 m of altitudinal elevation. However, one valley, the Axe, has only one major morphological terrace and has long-been regarded as anomalous. This paper uses both conventional and novel stratigraphical methods (digital granulometry and terrestrial laser scanning) to show that this terrace is a stacked sedimentary sequence of 20–30 m thickness with a quasi-continuous (i.e. with hiatuses) pulsed, record of fluvial and periglacial sedimentation over at least the last 300–400 K yrs as determined principally by OSL dating of the upper two thirds of the sequence. Since uplift has been regional, there is no evidence of anomalous neotectonics, and climatic history must be comparable to the adjacent catchments (both of which have staircase sequences) a catchment-specific mechanism is required. The Axe is the only valley in North West Europe incised entirely into the near-horizontally bedded chert (crypto-crystalline quartz) and sand-rich Lower Cretaceous rocks creating a buried valley. Mapping of the valley slopes has identified many large landslide scars associated with past and present springs. It is proposed that these are thaw-slump scars and represent large hill-slope failures caused by Vauclausian water pressures and hydraulic fracturing of the chert during rapid permafrost melting. A simple 1D model of this thermokarstic process is used to explore this mechanism, and it is proposed that the resultant anomalously high input of chert and sand into the valley during terminations caused pulsed aggradation until the last termination. It is also proposed that interglacial and interstadial incision may have been prevented by the over-sized and interlocking nature of the sub-angular chert clasts until the Lateglacial when confinement of the river overcame this immobility threshold. One result of this hydrogeologically mediated valley evolution was to provide a sequence of proximal Palaeolithic archaeology over two MIS cycles. This study demonstrates that uplift tectonics and climate alone do not fully determine Quaternary valley evolution and that lithological and hydrogeological conditions are a fundamental cause of variation in terrestrial Quaternary records and landform evolution.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)106 - 121
    Number of pages16
    JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
    Early online date24 Apr 2015
    Publication statusPublished - 15 May 2015


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