Rescue begins for seabed relics from 6000BC
Maev Kennedy, arts and heritage correspondent
Monday May 27, 2002
A time capsule from the stone age, described by English Heritage chief archaeologist David Miles as unique in Britain and of international importance, is threatened by a combination of changing sea levels, dredging and trawling, and the wakes of boats and ferries crossing the Solent straits between the Hampshire coast and the Isle of Wight - as well as the effects of the weekend's gales.
Parts of the site lost six inches of protective silt and peat this winter alone.
On the sea bed, which was dry land until 6,000BC, prehistoric stone tools still lie where they were made or dropped, among the roots of giant oak trees. The first finds, including flint arrows and knives, recently brought up by archaeologist divers, are so perfectly preserved they look like modern replicas.
The first excavators were blue lobsters, which archaeologists gradually realised were kicking out ancient man made stone tools, as they dug themselves into the muddy seabed.
Tree roots and branches have come up with the marks of stone tools. Finds of organic material, including timber, leather, and animal and possibly human remains, are confidently expected, preserved in the deep layers of silt and peat.
Further surveying and excavation work planned by the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology has become a giant piece of rescue archaeology, as material is laid bare by every tide: once exposed to air, any organic material starts decaying instantly.
Archaeologists had believed all trace of human habitation had been swept away in the inundation which created the Isle of Wight. Recent discoveries prove that the land flooded more gradually, as the sea broke in through the sand bars protecting the salt marshes. However, the flooding was fast enough to force the rapid abandonment of habitation sites, flint working sites, and killing sites where prey species were trapped, slaughtered and butchered for thousands of years: the date of the finds ranges from stone hand axes 30,000 years old, to the flint tools made by the last inhabitants before the water broke through.
On the Isle of Wight, county archaeologists Frank Basford and Rebecca Loading are patrolling hundreds of endangered sites in the inter-tidal zones, recording and recovering artefacts which include ancient causeways and fish traps, and a tangle of Roman rope in the mud of a modern harbour.
More modern objects from countless shipwrecks are also at risk. Recent finds include a syringe from the medicine chest of a 17th century ship's surgeon, for injecting mercury into the urethra of any luckless sailor who had contracted syphilis.
English Heritage will be monitoring and grant aiding the work, as an Act of Parliament, which becomes law on July 1, extends its powers to cover maritime archaeology.
Posted by phil
28th May 2002ce