Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.
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One of the pleasures of my job is taking regular trips to the Isle of Wight to work at the National Trust’s sites there, a diverse array of places and landscapes running from high downland to low coastal cliffs, from prehistoric barrows to a rocket-testing site from the 1950s. For this latest column excavating the CA archive, I therefore decided to see where the magazine has visited on the island over the years.
Since my most-recent series of columns was on Roman villas, this seems an excellent place to start. The Isle of Wight has a well-preserved villa at Brading on the eastern end of the island that ought to be high on the to-do list of any visitor. Run as a charitable trust, the villa is open daily. CA first visited in issue 71 (April 1980), and since then the magazine has returned to this site more than anywhere else on the island. CA’s archive presents, consequently, a mini-chronology of the highs, and occasional lows, of this wonderful site and the enthusiastic team who care for it. The magazine explored the water damage to, and then restoration of, its mosaics in CA 71 and 144 (April 1980 and August/September 1995); the redevelopment of its visitor centre in CA 198 (July/August 2005); and new fieldwork in CA 219, 221, and 224 (June, August, and November 2008). The latter included the unexpected discovery of an ‘Olympic’-size hall, just under 50m long and 15m wide – similar in size to the hall of Fishbourne Roman Palace. A useful summary by Chris Catling of the site’s significance then came in CA 280 (July 2013), which is a great place to start.
THAT SINKING FEELING
From a luxury Roman villa with all (3rd- to 4th-century) mod cons, I dive into another site on the opposite side of the island that has featured repeatedly in the pages of CA: Bouldnor Cliff, home to some far earlier – in fact, prehistoric – inhabitants of the neighbourhood. As CA 241 (April 2010) explained, the site was originally discovered by chance off Yarmouth, on the north-west coast of the island, in the 1980s, and was the first stratified underwater Mesolithic site found in the UK. It comprises a peat-covered shelf near the base of a submerged cliff, 11m below the surface of the Solent, and research by the Maritime Archaeological Trust has identified worked flints, timbers, and organic remains in situ. CA returned to the site in issues 262 (January 2012), 314 (May 2016), and most recently 356 (November 2019). As this is a location of ongoing interest and international significance, I am certain CA will return to it again.
Given its geography, readers will not be surprised to learn that several other maritime sites on the island have featured in the pages of CA over the years. The aforementioned Maritime Archaeological Trust has been at the forefront of work at such sites, a dedicated commitment for which we all ought to be very grateful: undertaking fieldwork in the always cold and usually murky waters of the English Channel is not for the faint-hearted. In CA 198 (July/August 2005), the magazine paid a visit to another series of sites where the Maritime Archaeological Trust still works: Alum Bay, at the far western end of the island, where a number of shipwrecks survive. Further afield, off the southern coast of the island, lies the wreck of SS Mendi. CA visited (metaphorically speaking) the wreck-site in issues 269 (August 2012) and 332 (November 2017). Over 650 men – mainly from the South African Native Labour Corps – died when the Mendi sank in 1917, following a collision. Surveys by Wessex Archaeology in 2007 and 2008 led to the wreck receiving MoD recognition as a war grave, and an excellent and often heart-breaking book of the story of the loss was published in 2017. This was reviewed in CA 332.
A very different type of marine site is then mentioned in issue 295 (October 2014): Ryde pier, in the north-eastern corner of the island. While many may think of piers as later 19th- or early 20th-century structures, the one at Ryde opened on 26 July 1814, making it Britain’s first. CA took a stroll along piers great and small with Allan Brodie, Anthony Wills, Tim Phillips, and Tim Mickleburgh to explore these remarkable, if vulnerable, legacies of engineering skill, innovative architecture, and popular entertainment.
CA has always prided itself on keeping in touch with active fieldwork, both large and small, providing updates on recent finds as well as in-depth analyses of longer-term work. Such an approach sheds light on the constant flow of discoveries made by archaeologists across the country. Three separate discoveries from the Isle of Wight featured over the years have, for example, demonstrated the richness of the Saxon heritage of the island. CA 203 (May/June 2006) reported on the find of a skillet at Shalfleet, near Newtown in the north-west of the island. This object dates to the 7th or 8th century AD, and was possibly used in baptismal ceremonies. Identified by a local metal-detectorist, who wisely reported the discovery to the island’s Finds Liaison Officer, the site was subsequently excavated by archaeologists from the Isle of Wight Council, their work demonstrating that it came from a shallow linear ditch dug into the underlying limestone. No other significant finds were made during the excavation, but the skillet matches those discovered on other Saxon sites in mainland Britain and on the Continent.
CA 268 (July 2012) reported on an earlier Saxon find, made at Chessel Down in the south-west of the island back in 1855, and housed in the British Museum since 1867. It was a splendid 6th-century AD silver-gilt square-headed brooch, discovered in a Saxon woman’s grave. The brooch has scrolls down each side – a style derived from Late Roman metalwork, demonstrating the continuity of artistic designs from Roman Britain – but its designs also reflect the impact of southern Scandinavian styles of artwork. The closest parallels to the brooch come from burials of this same age made in Kent; this was clearly a high-status burial by a cosmopolitan, connected community who used the English Channel as a bridge not a barrier. CA’s Chris Catling placed the object in the context of other finds of this type and age in an article exploring Leslie Webster’s splendid book Anglo-Saxon Art: A New History. The book is well worth digging out of your local library, if you’ve not seen it before.
Finally, CA 349 and 354 (April and September 2019) reported on the discovery of an impressive 6th-century helmet from a burial site at Shorwell, only a few miles from Chessel Down. The site was found by members of a metal-detecting club and then excavated by a team of archaeologists from the Isle of Wight Council, who demonstrated that the grave was part of a larger Saxon cemetery. Painstaking reconstruction of over 400 individual fragments by a team from the British Museum shows the helmet to be a simple, sturdy ‘fighting’ helmet, a utilitarian piece of armour light-years from the famous Sutton Hoo helmet that most people visualise when thinking of this type of find. But appearances can be deceptive – helmets of any type were rare, high-status objects in this period, limited to the upper echelons of society.
These sites and finds demonstrate the breadth of archaeology on an island that may be small but packs a mighty heritage punch. I’d urge readers of CA to pay a visit to explore for themselves – see you on the ferry!
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The articles discussed in this post will be available for free for one month, from 6 February. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI360’.
About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.