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History Archaeological finds (Human)

Going Out With the Tide

REF NR: 228

1. On the Isle of Wight severe coastal erosion is revealing, and destroying, a rich heritage. As Rebecca Loader reports, it seems the best way to record it is through repeated long term surveys.

The archaeological value of the coastal zone has long been recognised on the Isle of Wight. The varied geomorphology means that a wide range of archaeological sites is present, but this same factor also contributes to an equally diverse range of threats. Coastal archaeology is subject to pressure from both nature and people. As the coast is developed and increasingly used, erosion is likely to be exacerbated by rising sea levels and climate change.

On the island's northern coast, organic materials are preserved within the intertidal and estuarine silts, and features such as fish traps, trackways and submerged forests are being revealed - and then destroyed by falling beach levels. The south-west coast has crumbling cliffs which are retreating at an alarming rate in places, exposing features such as prehistoric hearths, palaeoenvironmental deposits and bronze age urn cemeteries in the cliff face.

Much of the island's coastline falls within an area of natural beauty, and approximately half of its length is designated as heritage coast. Large areas important for their nature conservation value are variously nominated as Ramsar sites, SPAS, SACS and SSSIS. Consequently long stretches of the coast have policies of non-intervention in the shoreline management plan.

In recent years, English Heritage has provided funding for three coastal projects undertaken by Isle of Wight council's Archaeology and Historic Environment Service. The first of these, the Wootton-Quarr project, was a detailed survey of a 6km stretch of coast on the island's north-east side, together with study of its hinterland and offshore zone. This area was targeted because increasing amounts of Roman and medieval artefacts were being recovered from the intertidal zone, and there were mounting local concerns about erosion on this stretch of coast.

The intertidal survey, conducted 1990-97, produced more than 150 individual sites, from findspots of palaeolithic handaxes to post-medieval sea defences. An important aspect of the survey was the integration of archaeological and palaeoenvironmental data, and a wide range of specialists contributed to the project.

A preliminary historic sea level curve for the Solent was produced. Dendrochronological dating of samples from 58 fallen oaks in the intertidal zone produced a 770-year sequence dating from 3463 to 2694BC. Lithic scatters of late mesolithic/early neolithic date were recorded (8500-3000BC), including more than 100 flint and chert picks, microliths, arrowheads and several thousand other worked flints. These were often associated with concentrations of firecracked flints, evidence of human activity along the margins of old channels recorded across the intertidal zone by several hundred hand-augered cores. The same palaeochannels were traced offshore using marine geophysical techniques.

Radiocarbon analysis showed timber structures dated from most periods from the early neolithic to postmedieval. The function of many of these is unclear because no analogies have been found for them. Amongst the earliest structures revealed during the survey were trackways from the 4th millennium BC, visible only very rarely at extreme low water. These displayed different methods of construction using both hurdles and brushwood and larger split timbers, but the fact that they were so rarely accessible, and then not always during daylight hours, made detailed recording virtually impossible. In addition to timber structures dating from the bronze age, iron age and Roman periods (2050BC-AD410), artefact scatters including ceramics, briquetage (salt-working pottery), leather, bone and metalwork were recorded. The ceramics included a high proportion of imported material, both from the English south coast and from much further afield.

The largest timber structure identified at Wootton-Quarr was a post alignment dating from the 7th-9th centuries AD, stretching in fragmentary form for more than 1km at present mean low water. The erection of these posts represents a considerable expenditure of time and effort, but their function is unclear. They seem unlikely to have operated as a fish trap, and alternative suggestions include coastal revetment, marking land boundaries or perhaps a defensive role.

Large numbers of medieval ceramics were recovered from the intertidal zone, including a significant number of imported goods. These were probably related to trade with the Cistercian abbey of Quarr, which was founded in AD1132 and is located some 250m from the coast in the survey area.

After the completion of the Wootton-Quarr survey it was evident that there was still a need to assess how sites were eroding, and to record new features being exposed on this particularly rich but vulnerable stretch of coast. A five-year programme of less intensive monitoring was undertaken, throughout which time new sites continued to be revealed. This monitoring led to an improved understanding of the nature of erosion on the island's north-east coast, and produced some alarming results.

Whilst in the upper part of the intertidal zone it was evident that mobile sediments were alternately revealing then masking sites, in the lower intertidal zone as much as 30cm of silt had been stripped, destroying some features and exposing others. This is the zone which, arguably, contains the most important sites for understanding responses to coastal processes in the more remote past, but which is the most difficult to protect or manage.

In addition to the intertidal zone, the cliff line was repeatedly surveyed in an area where a monastic tile kiln of the late 13th to early 14th centuries had been excavated during the Wootton-Quarr project, before its destruction by coastal erosion. Here, the cliff was shown to have receded by 10m during 12 years of recording.

Throughout the 1990s, it became increasingly evident as a result of the Wootton-Quarr project and similar surveys around the country, that the archaeological resource in the coastal zone was extremely important. Meanwhile an English Heritage survey published in 1997 showed that a lack of systematic coastal survey meant that such sites were under-represented in local authority historic environment records (HERS). This meant that coastal heritage data could not be considered adequately in shoreline management plans, development control, and national and local research strategies.

Consequently English Heritage provided support for a survey of the island's entire coast and estuaries, which comprised documentary and cartographic research, interrogation of aerial photographs, and fieldwork. The survey was undertaken by the same staff and drew on expertise developed during the Wootton-Quarr survey. The result was to increase the number of coastal sites recorded in the HER by 186%. The survey highlighted areas which held particular potential and which were the most vulnerable to coastal erosion, but was not resourced to record and date individual sites.

Coastal survey on the island has been particularly successful because it has been carried out by workers familiar with the local coastal zone. The surveys were undertaken over a longer period of time than many rapid coastal surveys, in tandem with other work, meaning that areas could be visited on more than one occasion and at the optimum time for identifying features which are ephemeral and barely visible. The lowest tides on the Isle of Wight occur in the early spring and autumn, which do not coincide with the best weather conditions or longest hours of light, and so would not necessarily be the time of year chosen to carry out fieldwork had it been necessary to complete it within a continuous block of time. At these times of year, also, the intertidal zone is less likely to be masked by weed and algal growth which can reduce visibility in summer.

Coastal erosion is unremitting and, without the resources to monitor the coastal zone continuously, we are reliant on the vigilance of the general public to notify us of new finds. There have been two recent instances of important prehistoric finds eroding from the Isle of Wight's cliffs that have been reported by beach walkers. In 2000, a bronze age inverted cremation urn was noted about a metre down in the cliff face. Subsequent excavation revealed two further urns containing cremations. Two years later, a fragment of woven hurdle was reported to have fallen from the eroding face of an incised channel adjacent to the cliff edge on the southwest coast of the island. These finds were made on National Trust land and with help from the trust and the finders, we were able to successfully recover both. The National Trust also provided funding for radiocarbon dating of the hurdle that turned out to date from the early bronze age (2027-1887BC).

It is indisputable that important archaeological and palaeoenvironmental material will continue to erode from the cliffs and intertidal sediments around the whole of the country. The question of whether such sites can be protected, and how limited resources can be best used to record those sites and landscapes under threat may be more difficult to answer.

See R Loader, I Westmore & D Tomalin 1997 Time & Tide: an Archaeological Survey of the Wootton-Quarr Coast (Isle of Wight Council & English Heritage) and P Murphy & S Trow 2004 in Preserving Archaeological Remains in Situ? (Museum of London Archaeology Service), 209-18. Rebecca Loader is SMR and Archaeological Projects Officer, Isle of Wight Council County Archaeology Service.

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