During the 2007 fieldwork season, Mesolithic wooden artefacts, flint tools, reused burnt flint, worked wood chippings, charcoal, and timbers covered in tool marks were some of the items recorded and recovered from the site. Evaluation trenches revealed an area rich in evidence of Mesolithic life that suggested industrial activity, with evidence of woodworking and burning. The discoveries not only revealed the stone tools used by prehistoric people to fashion items necessary for daily living, but also the organic articles they crafted.
Attention was first drawn to this specific site following discoveries in the autumn of 2004 when a burnt-flint filled pit was spotted eroding from the edge of the cliff. The pit, believed at first to be a deep hearth or oven, lay adjacent to a timber built platform-like feature. The discoveries were sampled and dated as part of an English Heritage project.
Monitoring the features over the last three years indicated the cliff and seabed were steadily retreating, removing anything archaeological with it. Exposed timbers that were recovered from the surface of the seabed for examination proved to be too degraded for interpretation. Biological erosion, ably assisted by a two-knot tide, quickly removed detail, leaving items peppered with pitted surfaces and impregnated by holes an inch in diameter.
It was clear that an evaluation excavation would be necessary in order to identify the potential of the site and to recover information before it degraded. A project was therefore developed to investigate the archaeological landscape and was funded by the Leverhulme Trust via the Department of Archaeology, University of York and by the Royal Archaeological Institute.
Preparation for the excavation began in May when the site grid was set up. The greatest challenge presented to the HWTMA excavation team was the recovery of delicate archaeological and palaeo-environmental material from the seabed, whilst minimising the impact on its integrity. To achieve this and to assess the broad distribution of material, the area first needed to be defined, so a grid was established on the seabed as a framework for recording. Markers were placed at set intervals within the grid along the cliff to act as reference and monitoring points to inform future changes. The next step was to identify sections within the grid for detailed survey. A uni-strut frame, courtesy of Analytical Engineering, was fixed over the test pits before layers were removed to record stratigraphic horizons.
June saw the first tranche of augering, which helped characterise the stratigraphic layers. This was led by the Defence Diving School from their tender with help from Andy Williams with his RIB Dingle. In July and August, two busy weeks of diving activity saw the extensive survey and recovery of samples from the boats Wight Spirit, Oberon, the Ro Ro Sailing Project catamaran Scot Bader, and Rob Heaton's RIB. For these two weeks a shore base was established in Keyhaven Scout Hut, which hosted a total of 29 volunteers who came from as far away as Canada, Australia, France, Newcastle and York. While the work was hectic and lasted from dawn till dusk, the volunteer and professional divers were supported by the shore crew who provided excellent catering, as well as excavating, sieving and sorting through the many samples retrieved.
An alternative method used to maintain contextual integrity was to sub-divide areas and retrieve cohesive samples sequentially. The sample boxes had been designed in-house with the aid of construction specialist Bob Bailey. In total 43 samples were recovered from the seabed; the holes left behind were subsequently back filled. Excavation and sieving of the material in the sample tins recovered from the site uncovered numerous artefacts, including worked wood, worked flints, burnt flints, charcoal, wood chippings, hair-like fibres and a wide range of immaculately preserved macrofossils.
In addition to the samples raised within the tins, larger pieces of timber were excavated to the south of the site and recovered in lifting baskets. These included posts, stakes and plank-like timbers.
Overall, the project preparation, fieldwork and post processing (which was conducted at the National Oceanography Centre) covered a period of over nine months. A total of 18 diving days involving six boats and 45 people helped to recover the material from the site. The project owed its success to the great number of people involved. This included professional archaeologists, the Defence Diving School, students of archaeology, avocational divers, volunteers (above and below water) and of course the many people who support the work of the HWTMA. Finally, this ground-breaking work would have proved very difficult without the amazing dedication of all the volunteers.
Initial interpretation of the findings suggested industrial activity, where flints and pebbles were used to prepare timber by burning it before it was cut. The flints were repeatedly heated to a high temperature and appear to have been stored in at least one pit before being reused. Amongst the finds was a pointed stake, a large piece of round-wood with cut marks and a timber 60cm wide and over 1m long. These large pieces of timber have yet to be fully analysed, but appear to be intrinsically linked by the nature of their immediate relationship. Any structure that requires such large components demonstrates a considerable amount of investment of time, which in turn implies a degree of local settlement.
The largest timbers appeared to have been hollowed out in the same way that a log boat or trough might be made. The evidence for burning, flint heating and wood working would also be what was expected from a site where such artefacts were made; the hot flints would be used to carbonise the wood which could then be more readily removed from the centre of the tree trunk with stone tools.
Other timber raised from the seabed in October 2007 appeared to be the remains of a single piece of wood that had deteriorated prior to becoming protected by fine fresh water silts, an event that occurred prior to the rise in sea level.
The largest of the timber fragments was 94cm long by 40cm at its widest point and its maximum thickness was 3cm. It was found protruding horizontally from a small cliff. Sediment had covered and protected it but its original length remains unknown as it had been truncated by recent erosion. Initial inspection suggested the wood was hollowed out along the grain.
Directly beneath the timber was a layer of twigs and small branches; these did not show evidence of burning. Amongst this layer were the remains of hazelnuts, one of which appeared to have been sprouting shoots. This provided further evidence of stabilisation before the area became inundated and submerged. Below the twigs was a dense deposit of charcoal 2 to 3cm thick with a scattering of burnt flints, followed by further layers of twigs and charcoal. These multiple phases of burning activity suggest it was an area that was occupied for a period of time rather than a one off encampment. It also infers there could be much more material to be found which deems it important to recover this before it is lost.