|12 August 2007
Fight on to save ancient settlement found underwater
A race against time is under way to try to save a Stone Age settlement found buried at the bottom of the sea in the Solent, off the coast of the Isle of Wight. Eight thousand years ago the area would have been dry land, a valley and woodland criss-crossed by rivers. A swamped prehistoric forest was identified off the northern Isle of Wight coast in the 1980s, but Bouldnor Cliff's buried Stone Age village was only found - by chance - a few years ago. Divers taking part in a routine survey spotted a lobster cleaning out its burrow on the seabed and to their surprise the animal was throwing out dozens of pieces of worked flint.
Maritime archaeologists from the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology have carried out a number of underwater excavations at the 8,000-year-old site. For the first time they are bringing up sections of the Mesolithic village from the seabed and going through the sediments. But they have to work fast, as the site is literally being washed away by tidal currents, which eat away at the submerged cliff at a rate of 12in (30cm) a year. Garry Momber, director of the charity - which is supported by English Heritage - said; "This is the only site of its kind in Britain and reveals a time before the English Channel existed when Europe and Britain were linked. The people who lived on this site could have walked over to Calais without too much trouble."
Despite the logistical problems of underwater archaeology, the Isle of Wight site and others like it are usually better preserved than their counterparts on land, Momber said. When the floodwater rose slowly in the English Channel, it deposited layers of silt atop the settlement, encasing it in an oxygen-free environment that preserves even organic materials such as wood and food.
Among the discoveries at the site are wooden poles and structures believed to have been used to build houses and canoes. Divers brought the material to the surface still embedded in slabs of the sea floor that were carried up in specially-designed boxes, which were then pieced back together and examined and dated in the lab.
"The reason so little is known about the lives of the Mesolithic people, is because most of the sites where they settled are now on the seabed," Mr Momber added. "The whole of the North Sea could be covered in sites like this one. If we want to understand the Mesolithic people - how they went from hunter-gatherers to farming - we need to look under the water."
In 2004, the team carried out another excavation on a less intact site 300yds (275m) away. This showed signs of having been by a river and Mr Momber believes the two sites were linked. He said it was likely the larger one was where the people lived and the other where they went to catch fish. However, there is still a lot more work to be done until it is known what Bouldnor Cliff looked like and how the site was used. Mr Momber added they hoped to secure more funding so they could continue their work before the artefacts were lost forever, as the Bouldnor Cliff area was being washed away fast.
Sources: BBC News (8 August 2007), LiveScience (10 August 2007)
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