Bouldnor Cliff

Bouldnor Cliff

Introduction

The submerged Mesolithic landscape at Bouldnor Cliff lies on the edge of the drowned palaeo-valley and is now 11m underwater, 1km east of Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight. It stretches for a further kilometre west to east and contains five known loci containing archaeological evidence. It lies within the Solent Maritime Special Area of Conservation and is in the Yarmouth to Cowes candidate Marine Conservation Zone.    

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 recovered has demonstrated that the technology of the era was 2,000 years ahead of what archaeologists previously believed. Furthermore, Bouldnor Cliff has the earliest record of wheat in the UK, and potentially also the earliest boat building site in the world.

Two of the sites are particularly archaeologically productive and have been dated to c.6,200 to 6,000 cal BC. One has been the source of almost 1,000 worked flints, flakes and tools while the other, with close to 100 pieces of worked wood, has practically doubled the amount of Mesolithic worked wood in the UK. The site has also been the source of the oldest piece of prepared string in the country, probably the oldest boat building site in the world, and sedimentary ancient DNA that has revealed a habitat of oak forest and herbaceous plants, including Einkorn that provides evidence that wheat arrived in Great Britain over two millennia earlier than previously recorded. This material, coupled with tangentially split timbers and finely crafted tools suggests an advanced Neolithic influence. It also contains an arrangement of trimmed and split timbers that could be a platform, walkway or collapsed structure.

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).

Significance

Bouldnor Cliff is the only archaeological site in a submerged Mesolithic landscape currently known in the UK. The waterlogged anaerobic conditions have created an excellent environment for preservation for organic material. Consequently, the site has the highest potential for the best-preserved discoveries of Mesolithic artefacts and palaeo-environmental evidence in the UK, as has been demonstrated with the unique DNA, boat building and string finds mentioned above.

Internationally, the findings suggest a sophisticated Mesolithic site with social networks linked the Neolithic front in southern Europe or the north European plain. These were some of the last people to cross from the continental landmass to Great Britain before the formation of the North Sea. Interpretation of the results would help us understand the potential and character of international connections and help us locate comparable sites within the submerged palaeo-landscapes that are being discovered across the British and European Continental shelf. Unfortunately, the evidence has been located because the seabed is eroding. Monitoring over a ten-year period has recorded lateral erosion of up to 4m in the most vulnerable parts of the archaeological sites.

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 (now the Maritime Archaeology Trust) began investigating the site as part of the European 'LIFE' Project that research began again. During a routine survey dive volunteers spotted interesting worked flints in a lobster burrow. Excitement grew as more worked flints were found over the duration of the fieldwork season in 1998 and 1999. During the 1999 season a full profile of the cliff showing the multiple layers of peat and alluvial silts was compiled.

Since then work has been ongoing throughout numerous fieldwork seasons, during which more fascinating discoveries have included worked and burnt flints, hearths, wooden 'platform' structures and a worked wooden artefact that could be part of a log boat or trough. Excavation and rescue recovery have been completmented with palaeoenvironmental analysis and radio carbon dating. This data has provided additional context for the site and erosion studies, which have demonstrated how fast it is disappearing.

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.

The site sedimentological characteristics suggests that the habitat was once located next to a semi-stable river bar. Based on the evidence we have found so far, we believe that the sites were used as seasonal camps or more semi-permanent habitats during the Mesolithic. We also know that this was an extensive settlement area, as we have found archaeological material stretching across the coastline for several hundred metres. The dating of the artefacts also concludes that the whole area was occupied (consistently or repeatedly) concurrently around 8000 to 8200 years ago.

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

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 also have signs of re-use. 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.

Under Risk

After monitoring the Bouldnor Cliff site since 1999, it has become apparent that the site is seriously affected by coastal erosion. Every year more of the site becomes exposed. This puts the archaeological material under the threat of being washed away before it can be recorded, and thus important clues could soon be lost. Where the organic material (e.g. wood) has been well-preserved in the silts on the seabed, the exposure to oxygen will quickly cause the material to degrade. Losing the submerged forest and root system will also accelerate the speed of erosion, as it allows for the sediments to be simply washed away.

The threat of erosion at Bouldnor Cliff was recently highlighted in a blog post by Historic England. The Mesolithic site is listed as one of 7 key archaeological sites that are currently under threat of eroding fast. The Trust is currently only able to conduct a rescue mission of the material that has already been exposed. In order to be able to continue rescuing archaeological material and conduct further excavations before the site is lost, we are appealing to the public for help. Please donate here to help save Bouldnor Cliff. Thank you for your support!

Further Information

Living in the fascinating age of modern technology has meant that we have been able to produce 3D interactive models of wood samples from the site, along with the site itself! More information about our 3D models can be found here and on our Sketchfab account.

Over the years we have also produced many videos about Bouldnor Cliff, all of which can be found on our YouTube account. Be sure to subscribe to our channel to keep up-to-date with our latest videos. We also continue to post fieldwork updates on our blog, which can be found here.

For more in-depth information we have compiled a research report (2011): "Mesolithic Occupation at Bouldnor Cliff and the Submerged Prehistoric Landscapes of the Solent". More information on the book, and where to purchase it, can be found here

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