Mesolithic maritime discovery at Bouldnor Cliff

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A rare wooden platform has been found at Bouldnor Cliff – a Mesolithic site that lies 11m underwater in the Solent, just east of the Isle of Wight (see CA 241 and 262). With around 60 pieces making up the structure, this discovery – along with other pieces of timber from the site – more than doubles the amount of worked wood recovered from this period in Britain.

Garry Momber from the Maritime Archaeology Trust tagging parts of the platform for excavation.
Garry Momber from the Maritime Archaeology Trust tagging parts of the platform for excavation. [Image: Maritime Archaeology Trust]

The Mesolithic past of Bouldnor Cliff was first discovered over 20 years ago, when a lobster was seen throwing prehistoric worked flint from its burrow. Since then, the site has continued to yield amazingly well-preserved Mesolithic finds as the tide exposes it. This is both a boon and a bane, as at the same time that the erosion is revealing archaeology, it also begins to destroy it. With this find, for example, the platform was not visible last year but, by next year, had it not been recovered, much of it would have been lost. Even as the team from the Maritime Archaeological Trust was excavating the site, the structure was seen to degrade between visits.

Luckily, the Trust continuously monitors the site and was able to recover the platform before it was too late, albeit at a price. Other archaeological evidence from the Mesolithic was present both to the east and west of the platform; however, due to both the challenges of excavating in the Solent and financial constraints, the team had to prioritise the platform because of its significance.

And it is indeed a significant discovery. The platform shows a high level of advanced woodworking techniques. The timbers have been split tangentially (or across the growth rings), instead of radially (along them). Previously, the earliest known example of sizeable tangentially split timber dated to the Neolithic, but this discovery has shown that the technique was developed at least 2,000 earlier than previously thought.

While its exact purpose is uncertain, the platform probably provided a stable surface to work on in what would have been at the time a wetland landscape. It could also possibly be linked to the boatbuilding activity that has previously been identified 20m to the west.

The platform after it was recovered and reconstructed in the lab
The platform after it was recovered and reconstructed in the lab. [Maritime Archaeology Trust]

Now that the platform has been fully recovered, it is being kept in cold storage at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, in order to preserve it as best as possible before it undergoes more extensive conservation work. It is hoped that, with future funding, the platform will be laser-scanned, radiocarbon-dated, analysed for tool-marks, and the type of wood identified. It is also hoped that the platform will be put on display at the Shipwreck Centre and Maritime Museum on the Isle of Wight next year.

To read more about Bouldnor Cliff or the Maritime Archaeology Trust, please visit the website www.maritime

This news article appears in issue 356 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to CA magazine, click here.

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