Archaeologists dive to save the disappearing story of how people first occupied Britain

| 13 June 2016

Archaeologists are returning to a prehistoric settlement beneath the sea off the Isle of Wight this week. Gary Momber, of DigVentures, says the race is on to save evidence of the skilled craftspeople who first occupied Britain

“The current was pushing me along, but what I saw was enough to make me turn 180 degrees and come to a complete stop. Among the branches of an old tree was a collection of coloured flints, some of which had been superheated. They looked so out of place, I just had to know what they were doing there.

We went back down to the same area of submerged forest and saw pieces of worked wood sticking out of the peat among the tangle of tree roots. They were flat and trimmed, and even though the surfaces were badly damaged by erosion and marine life you could see they had been shaped by human hands.

We started finding charcoal and the occasional flint tool and, as we worked away, we uncovered wood chippings, well-crafted functional items and dozens of pieces of really well-preserved timber.

A photo of underwater archaeologists searching at Bouldnor Cliff off the Isle of Wight
The team of archaeologists are continuing an investigation at the site which began in 1999© Maritime Archaeology Trust
Some of the pieces had been shaped and trimmed with Mesolithic stone tools, while others had been charred. Together with the charcoal and superheated flints, it’s enough to suggest that people were heating the wood in order to make it easier to work with stone tools, but what they were trying to make still wasn’t clear.

Most of the timbers were oak, and still inter-connected, laid out like they were still in the position they had fallen over 8,000 years ago. At first, we didn’t know what it all meant; we hadn’t really seen anything like this in the British archaeological record before.

And then they found the piece of wood that gave it all away. It was just shy of one meter long, about 8,100 years old and had been tangentially split, lengthways as if to make planks.

A photo of underwater archaeologists searching at Bouldnor Cliff off the Isle of Wight
The 8,000-year-old village is a capsule of Mesolithic times© Maritime Archaeology Trust
It might not sound that remarkable, but when you know that’s a technique which doesn’t otherwise appear in the British archaeological record for another 2,500 years, it’s enough to make your jaw drop.

At that point, we were quite stunned. Until now, we’d not seen tangential splitting of large oaks in the UK until the Neolithic when archaeologists found it in use for the construction at Haddenham Long Barrow around 3,600 BC.

Unfortunately, erosion of the seabed means that only a little bit of the original structure is left, but collectively the artefacts and their relationships look like a site that was used for constructing a log boat.

A photo of underwater archaeologists searching at Bouldnor Cliff off the Isle of Wight
A lobster under a fallen oak tree alerted the team to the archaeology© Maritime Archaeology Trust
And if that really was the case, then that makes Bouldnor Cliff the oldest boat-building site discovered so far, not just in Europe, but in the whole world. The trouble is we still need more evidence to be 100% certain.

Little by little, we’ve uncovered evidence that shows these people were, in a manner of speaking, 2,000 years ahead of their time. We’ve found the oldest boat-building site in the UK, the oldest piece of string, and evidence that wheat from the Middle East arrived in Britain 2,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Bouldnor Cliff is completely unique – it’s the only submerged Mesolithic settlement that we know of. If we really want to understand the Mesolithic, how people coped with this radically changing world and what technology they had, then this is the site with the highest potential we know of to do that.

A photo of underwater archaeologists searching at Bouldnor Cliff off the Isle of Wight
The two small drilled holes in this piece of wood were probably used to check the thickness of the bottom of the boat© Maritime Archaeology Trust
The problem is that increased storminess, stronger tides and more fishing are making it erode fast. The evidence will soon be lost, but because it’s underwater and people can’t see it, we’re not getting the funding we need to give this site the attention it deserves.

We simply can’t bear to let the story of how people first occupied island Britain, and how they made the shift to farming, disappear like that. That’s why we’ll be diving this summer, to bring back what remains of these people’s lives before it’s too late.

It will greatly increase our understanding of the wood-working technology people used to build things like canoes, huts and tools in a period that spans 5,000 years, at a time when the outline of the UK as we know it was being formed, and which sowed the seeds for permanent settlement in the UK.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of underwater archaeologists searching at Bouldnor Cliff off the Isle of Wight
The logboat was found within a sunken forest© Maritime Archaeology Trust
Three places to see underwater archaeology in

The Scottish Crannog Centre, Perthshire
The Scottish Crannog Centre features a unique reconstruction of an early Iron Age loch-dwelling, built by the Scottish Trust for Underwater Archaeology. This authentic recreation is based on the excavation evidence from the 2,600 year old site of 'Oakbank Crannog', one of the 18 crannogs preserved in Loch Tay, Scotland.

Tower Museum, Derry
An Armada shipwreck – La Trinidad Valencera narrates the story of La Trinidad Valencera, one of the largest ships in the Armada Fleet. In 1588 it foundered in Kinnagoe Bay in Co. Donegal during a violent storm and was discovered nearly 400 years later by divers from the City of Derry Sub Aqua Club.

, Oxford
Storms, War and Shipwrecks: Treasures from the Sicilian Seas tells the extraordinary story of the island at the crossroads of the Mediterranean through the discoveries made by underwater archaeologists.
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