ID COR2_024 / Sue Howlett

TitleThe man who dug the Mersea Barrow

On 16th April, 1912, a sprightly gentleman, resplendent in plus-fours and a bushy walrus moustache, alighted from a Great Eastern steam train at Colchester Station, en route to Mersea Island. His desti tion was Fairhaven House, still standing today in Seaview Avenue, where he would be staying for most of the next six weeks at the temperance boarding house run by Mrs Emily Weaver, wife of the local Evangelist Minister. The gentleman was Samuel Hazzledine Warren, an eminent geologist and archaeologist. He had arrived to undertake the first ever excavation of the mysterious mound known as Mersea Mount, or the Mersea Barrow.

Samuel Hazzledine Warren, born in 1872, was the privileged only son of a wholesale provision merchant who had made a sufficient fortune to employ five servants to look after a family of three! This inherited wealth enabled Warren to retire from the family business in 1903, when, following his marriage to Agnes Rainbow, he moved to Forest View Road, Loughton, Essex. The couple were disappointed in their hope for a family, but Warren was hugely popular with the local children, who were frequently invited into his home to see the latest exhibits in his ever-expanding private museum. Warren was renowned for his 'mischievous chuckle and keen sense of humour', and loved talking about his impressive collection of finds dating from as far back as the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) period, almost half a million years ago.

By the time Warren arrived on Mersea Island to uncover the secrets of the ancient barrow, he had already made his name as a geologist. After a private education he taught himself mineralogy and the identification of geological strata by fieldwork in North Wales and other areas. As a new member of the Geologists' Association, he published his first paper at the age of 25, arguing that the chipped flints widely believed to be pre-Stone Age human artefacts could have been formed naturally by the grounding of pack-ice on the floor of what was once shallow sea. This caused a heated controversy, which Warren would jokingly resolve 'with a wicked twinkle in his eyes', and the words, 'I call these flakings the work of mermaids'.

Soon after settling in Essex, Warren began to make regular train journeys to Clacton-on-Sea, where he would spend one or two weeks each year combing the eroding foreshore and exploring the deep layers of London Clay and gravel deposits formed by the original course of the River Thames. Over years of patient digging and excavation, he would carry home bags of specimens - fossilized remains of elephant, hippopotamus and turtle, sharks' teeth and molluscs, as well as seeds and flint implements. His most spectacular find was made in 1911, the year before he came to Mersea, when Warren discovered an amazingly preserved wooden spear. From the level at which it was found, this was dated at around 400,000 years old, and still remains the oldest wooden artefact ever found in Britain. It was made of yew, and probably used by the earliest hunters to thrust into their prey, rather than being thrown. The original spear found by Warren is displayed in the Natural History Museum, although a replica has been displayed at Colchester Museum'.

As well as the wooden spear, Warren also discovered many examples of flint flakes and 'chopper cores' which pointed to significant flint-working in the same area. He suggested the term 'Clactonian' for these artefacts, and this term is still generally used for European flint tools of the inter-glacial 'Hoxnian' period, around 400,000 years ago. Such tools were made by striking thick flakes from a central flint core, the flakes being used as scrapers and the cores as choppers. The makers were probably of the 'Homo Erectus' species rather than 'Homo Sapiens', the ancestors of modern humans who evolved around 200,000 years ago. In 1910, Warren also explored similar deposits in the valley of the River Lea, which he described in a series of articles in the Quarter Jour l of the Geological Society, and which contributed many fine specimens of prehistoric flora and fauna to his growing collection.

Hazzledine Warren's excavation of the Mersea Barrow, less than two thousand years old, must have proved a considerable contrast to earlier discoveries. However, his geological expertise and meticulous analytical methods were invaluable at a time when archaeology was in its infancy. Digging began on 16th April 1912, supervised by Warren, with only one day away from the site until 8th May. At a key point in the excavation, Warren was unfortunately obliged to return home to Loughton, but on Monday 20th May he was eager to return to the Barrow to resume his excavation. With an eight-minute wait at Colchester Station for the bus to Mersea, he took the opportunity to arrange a brief meeting with the curator of Colchester Museum, Arthur Wright, to whom Warren wished to present some fragile plaster casts of his most significant finds from Clacton. The following day, on Tuesday 21st May, the workmen's spades struck something solid and the secrets of the Mersea Barrow were at last revealed.

Hazzledine Warren's successful excavation of the Mersea Barrow was only one of many outstanding achievements in a career lasting over fifty years. In 1913-15 he was President of the Essex Field Club (a position he again held in 1940-42), while his wife served throughout the Great War as a local Commandant of the Red Cross at Loughton. During his long membership of the Essex Field Club, Warren contributed more than thirty papers to the society's journal and led many of its field trips. One of these expeditions was to Mersea Island on 20th September, 1913. The members arrived at the Barrow by motor omnibus and entered through the new tunnel which had replaced the open excavation trench. They were fortunate enough to view the Roman tile-built tomb, which had been left in place at the heart of the burial mound, before visiting a Red Hill, West Mersea Church and the foundations of the rare Roman wheel-tomb, which at that time was believed to be the foundation of a Roman lighthouse, or 'Pharos'.

Before her death in 1937, Agnew Mary Warren shared a keen interest in her husband's work and accompanied him on many field trips. They were 'always accompanied by the little Irish terrier, "Silex", who shared his master's gift for persistence and nosing things out'! These trips allowed Warren to study the prehistory of the submerged land surface of the Lincolnshire and Essex coasts. In 1919 Warren returned to North Wales, where he discovered a Neolithic axe factory, and other investigations took him to the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and France.

Hazzledine Warren was a member of several learned societies and held office in most of them. From 1917-20 he served on the Council of the Geological Society and from 1922-24 he was President of the Geologists' Association. Between 1912-39 he was intermittently on the Council of the Royal Anthropological Institute and was one of the earliest members and then Honorary member of the Prehistoric Society. As well as reading papers at society meetings, Warren often showed lantern slides of his work and discoveries, such as one talk to the Royal Anthropological Institute on the mysterious 'Deneholes' of Essex. Between 1897 and 1958 he published more than seventy papers and articles, gaining an international reputation and public accolades. The Prestwich Medal of the Geological Society was awarded to Warren in 1939, for his application of geological methods to archaeological excavations, and for his use of modern analogues to understand ancient processes - for example his study of charcoal burners' huts in Epping Forest which cast light on prehistoric hut-circles. This was followed in 1949 by the Henry Stopes Medal of the Geologists' Association.

The vast collection of stone and flint artefacts, fossils and plant material which filled the Warrens' home at Loughton was fortunately reduced in 1936, when the Natural History Museum acquired his mammalian remains from the Pleistocene epoch (the geological time period that spanned from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago). This enabled the Warrens to move into a new, smaller house built in grounds adjoining their first home. Agnes Warren died in 1937, and when Hazzledine Warren died in 1958 he was buried in the same grave in Loughton cemetery. This was appropriately covered with struck flint flakes - even the Warrens' dog had been given a name meaning 'flint'. In his will, Warren left his surviving collection to the British Museum. Among other material, the geological and botanical material which Warren collected from the Mersea Barrow in 1912 had already been given to the Essex Museum of Natural History at Stratford. This later became the Passmore Edwards Museum and closed in 1998, but its collections, including specimens found by Warren at Mersea, are now held by the Essex Field Club.

Outside the specialist fields of Geology and Prehistoric archaeology, Samuel Hazzledine Warren's name is little known. But he deserves to be remembered on Mersea, for those momentous weeks in 1912 when he excavated the previously undisturbed Roman tumulus, or burial mound, the Mersea Barrow. The lead casket and fine glass urn with its unidentified cremated bones, which he discovered and brought to the surface, were taken to Colchester Castle Museum where they have been seen by tens of thousands of visitors over the past hundred years. Now at last they have returned, on temporary loan, to the island where they lay hidden for 1800 years. To see the contents of the Barrow, which Hazzledine Warren so carefully searched for and at last revealed, visit Mersea Museum between May and September 2012, the centenary of the momentous excavation.
[In August 2014 the contents returned to Mersea Museum and are on display during normal opening hours.]

An article published in Mersea Island Courier Edition 530, 2 May 2012. The illustrations have been omitted from this online version, but more information and pictures can be found on

For more information on the Barrow, see West Mersea Barrow

AuthorSue Howlett
PublishedMay 2012
SourceMersea Museum