Introduction

Bouldnor Cliff is a submerged pre-historic site eleven metres below the surface and approximately 250 metres offshore of Bouldnor, near Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight. It lies within the Solent Maritime Special Area of Conservation.    

Excavations have been on-going at Bouldnor Cliff since the 8,000 year old Mesolithic settlement was first identified in 1999, when a lobster was seen throwing Stone Age worked flints from its burrow. Since then the site has yielded numerous secrets, including the oldest piece of string and more than a quarter of all the worked Mesolithic timber that has ever been recovered in this country. The material so far recovered has already demonstrated that the technology of the era was 2,000 years ahead of what archaeologists previously believed. 

The site is constantly being eroded by the Solent’s tides and new material is exposed each year. The Maritime Archaeology Trust continue to monitor the site and to undertake rescue recoveries and excavation when significant material is under threat. The fast flowing tidal conditions of the Solent pose numerous problems for archaeologists working at Bouldnor, and several new techniques have been developed to make work easier. These have included ‘Box Sampling’ which allowed sections of seabed to be lifted in a case and excavated on dry land. 

Trust Director, Garry Momber, can be heard talking about Bouldnor Cliff to Francis Pryor on the BBC Radio 4 programme: 'Britain's Atlantis' (30 minute programme available via BBC's iPlayer). A summary of the Bouldnor Cliff site can also be obtained from this Hampshire View article (first published in February 2012).

Investigations

Work on this fascinating prehistoric site began back in the 1980s, when it was identified as a preserved prehistoric forest with associated peat deposits.

However, it wasn't until 1998 when the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology began investigating the site as part of the European 'LIFE' Project that research began again. It was on a routine survey dive as part of SolMAP 98 that project volunteers first spotted interesting worked flints in a lobster burrow. Needless to say excitement grew and more worked flints were found over the rest of the season and in 1999.

One of the main objectives for the 1999 season was to produce a cross section of cliff deposits. This was not as straightforward as it sounds and various coring methods were employed. Ultimately the task was completed and a full profile showing a multi-layered sandwich of peat and alluvial silts was compiled.

Throughout 2009 and 2010, the work from the 2003 English Heritage funded excavation was assessed. Over one hundred worked and burnt flints were discovered in and around the excavation site. This was complemented by fascinating information from palaeontological investigation of the sediments.

Between 2010 and 2012,  a series of erosion surveys were conducted along a 500 metre stretch of submerged cliff. Further evidence of human activity was discovered at both BCII and BCV. The finds provide tangible evidence of human occupation on a site that was to be lost to coastal change as the sea rose over 8 millennia ago. At BCV more worked Mesolithic timbers have become exposed. 

Bouldnor Site Locations (Looking from land out across the Solent)

Assessment & Analysis

Environmental specialists have been analysing pollen, plant and insect remains. Their work has revealed a changing environment which saw pine replaced by an oak/hazel woodland, with alder probably fringing the rivers and streams.

Hazel nuts, which had been nibbled by rodents and terrestrial insects, were amongst the remains, and the deposit also contained carbonised hazel nut fragments and oak charcoal. This is significant as waterlogged hazel nuts are the food waste of rodents, whereas carbonised nutshell fragments relate to human occupation activity. This discovery is quite exciting as Mesolithic food remains in southern England are rare. There is no evidence of marine inundation at this stage, and the on-site sedimentological characteristics suggest that the habitat may have been a semi-stable river bar, allowing possible summer seasonal Mesolithic encampments to take advantage of the local resource.

Of the flint pieces (lithics) discovered, more that 40 are struck flakes in a remarkably fresh and sharp condition. The knapping process shows evidence that it was carried out with the aid of an antler or bone hammer, a technique confirmed by Phil Harding's (Time Team) experiments in replicating the flint industry at this site. The sharp edge blades have signs of re-use and to learn more, examination by photomicrophotography at high levels of magnification is to take place during the analysis phase of the project. A surprising discovery was that of the tip of a flint axe displaying a uniform and bifacially prepared cutting edge similar to axes of Neolithic type (2000 years later); this is an unusual occurrence in a British Mesolithic context.

Analysis of the sediments' characteristics represent changing vegetation with conditions becoming wetter. The diatom assemblage show brackish water, salt marsh or mudflat habitat before complete marine inundation occurred.