On a rainy day in the winter you might not think that there was much of archaeological significance to see on Thanet’s coast. However, the wind and high seas of January and February are causing one of the most important phenomena of the coast of the Isle of Thanet. the raging seas are driving thousands of flints up the beach, battering at the feet of the chalk cliffs.
If you’ve ever wondered why cliff falls happen so often along Thanet’s coast in stormy weather, you don’t need to look any further than the relentless pounding these little grey hammers give to the chalk with each wave that rushes to the shore. Eventually the lower reaches of the cliff face are hollowed out by the rolling cobbles, the chalk above isn’t supported at the base any more and something has to give and down comes another stretch of the coast in a spectacular fall.
The process has a proper name – ‘Corrasion‘ and has been going on for a many centuries. John Lewis, the great 18th century historian of Thanet, wrote of ‘the rage of the sea and the falling of the land’ and recounts that in his time a Roman wall had fallen into the sea near the cliffs at Dumpton. Even now pits, ditches and graves of our ancient past are occasionally exposed at the cliff faces around the coastline, soon falling to the beach below.
The waves and tides have another effect, collecting great banks and drifts of flint shingle in the shallows where the chalk has been cut to form a flat platform. One bank lies off the coast at Ramsgate, to the east of the harbour, growing and shrinking over time and occasionally, when the tide is unusually low, it is possible to walk far out along its length.
Some of the flints bound up in the depths of bank are irregular nodules of huge dimensions, pitted with undulating depressions and pierced with holes. Before the stone harbour was built Ramsgate’s haven was shielded by a similar deep bank of shingle braced with timber breakwaters. Some timber piles that were destroyed when the slipway in Ramsgate Harbour was built were thought by one observer, a former Harbour Master at Ramsgate, to have have dated to the Roman period. Perhaps the great Stonar Bank, which once stretched across Pegwell Bay and was once firm enough to support a medieval village, looked something like this .
In Thanet the record of the power of the sea to shape our landscape is all around us and has been present since the earliest times in our history.
An interesting collection of studies has been added to the Anglo-Saxon section of the Trust’s archaeological library.
Edited by professor Martin Carver, Alex Sanmark and Sarah Semple, Signalsof Belief explores the history and character of ‘pagan’ Anglo-Saxon belief before and after Christian ideas began to spread after Augustine’s mission to covert the English arrived in 597 AD, The subject is significant to the archaeology of Thanet because of the number of important Anglo-Saxon cemeteries located on our chalk downland landscape. The Island would have been an important cultural community, linking the ideas of the people of north Germany and Scandinavia with what remained of the Roman world in Britain and on the continent.
Of course, Augustine’s mission sent by Pope Gregory the Great to convert the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was one of the most significant events in the story of ideas and beliefs in the Anglo-Saxon period and, the 8th century historian Bede tells us, the first connections between the two cultures took place somewhere in Thanet.
Although Bede gives us a general account of the progress of Christian ideas through the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms based on contemporary accounts, starting with the great King of Kent Aethelbert, we know little more than hints and glimpses of the beliefs held by the Anglo-Saxon people Augustine met.
What were their beliefs about life and death and what lay beyond the material world that held before the ideas of Christianity entered the culture so strongly? It is hard to discover because little pre-Christian written evidence survives that allows us to enter the minds of the people, and we can only examine the possible answers from the records left by observers from the outside.
In eight essays, Signals of Belief examines the hints given by contemporary Christian observers of the culture they met with in England and the clues that can be extracted from archaeological evidence and contemporary artistic representation. The essays look at the light that can be cast by poetry and other literary works and later documentation that discusses the beliefs of people of the German and Scandinavian lands where the Saxon English drew part of their ancestry. However most of this literary evidence all comes from a later period and has to be distilled by the writers into themes that they try to recognise in the early Saxon culture that are revealed by archaeological studies of the art and artefacts of the Anglo-Saxons.
There are attempts in some essays to take the hints and fit them with anthropological understandings of Shamanism and magical practise of some of the people of Scandinavia and Siberia. The book contains a useful discussion of how the ideas of Historians and archaeologists about the date and nature of Anglo-Saxons has developed over time, from the 16th to the 20th century, as they realised that the period after the Roman Empire and before the better known history of the later Medieval period had to be examined and researched using new ideas on the lifestyles and beliefs of the period.
Some of these attempts at projection, and conjectural reconstruction, are more convincing than others. A few pieces use a complicated style of language to say some fairly simple things; the Saxons used Horse imagery extensively; their halls may have had a religious as well as political role; they believed that all the things around them had some form of spiritual character. However some of the signals are louder than others, it is striking and important to Thanet’s archaeological and historical record that the ancient burial mounds of prehistory remained significant places to the Anglo-Saxons. However, a later writer warns that some of the anthropological ideas applied to the problem are spread so thinly as to have lost their significance.
In an afterword, the well-known historian of cultural beliefs Ronald Hutton warns that while the essays point the way to undertstanding the beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons, without new evidence we can never really know the internal world of their ideas. Using a telling analogy he compares the search to trying to find out the contents of a tin with no label. The discussions in the book are edging closer to a better description of the size and shape of the container, which could tell us something about the contents, but we do not have the tools to open the tin and really get to the inner contents. A lesson that applies to many historical periods that are known only through archaeological remains.
This book is not an easy read, the academic style of some of the pieces is quite dense, but it is an essential work for anyone who wants to explore in depth the inner life of the one of the population of one of the most important periods represented in Thanet’s archaeological record. Despite the dense texture the content is though provoking and stimulating and worth working through.
In the foreword Professor Martin Carver provides a coherent summary of the problems of understanding Anglo-Saxon mentalities from archaeological data and a good overview of the ideas that might lead to solutions, as well as adding insightful comments of his own. Ronald Hutton’s afterword brackets the essays with his warning on the potential limits of our knowledge and the potential of the research which is a sobering round off to the wide ranging content of the book.
Carver, M., Sanmark A., Semple S. (eds), 2010. Signals of Belief in Early England, Anglo-Saxon Paganism Revisited. Oxbow Books. Oxford.
Reading more about Anglo-Saxon Thanet
There’s a useful overview of Thanet’s Anglo-Saxon archaeology on our Virtual Museum website and wider overview in Ges Moody’s book The Isle of Thanet from Prehistory to the Norman Conquest. The landing of Augustine in Thanet and the effect on the contemporary Anglo-Saxon culture of Thanet is dealt with in depth in St Augustine’s First Footfall, also by Ges Moody and published by the Trust for Thanet Archaeology.
Why have so many holes and voids opened up all over Thanet in the recent rainy weather?
That’s the question people keep asking us and we’ve seen plenty of evidence recently that Thanet’s rich underground world has surprises to reveal.
But, should we find it so unusual. Thanet’s chalk geology was a source of lime for Brick making and spreading on fields, tunnels and mines were cut through the solid chalk and air raid shelters, stores and drains were dug all over the Isle. The ground beneath us holds many subterranean secrets.
Many of these were forgotten when their entrances were lost or covered over. Some underground sites have stayed hidden for many decades until finally the wet weather washing away the crumbling chalk has brought these hidden sites to our attention.
Underground Thanet by Rod LeGear, a small book published by the Trust, gives a great round up of the hidden world of caves, tunnels and other voids in the chalk that lies beneath our feet.
A few copies of the first edition of this book are still available to order from our website. If you really want to know about Thanet’s Underground heritage its a great place to start finding out.
Underground Thanet is available for £8.00 +£2.00 post and can be ordered now with secure online PayPal payment, no PayPal account needed.
To order by post use our mail order form which you can get from here: Order form