Monthly Archives: August 2014

VM_365 Day 63 Archaeology in a Landscape

Bronze-Age round barrow on hilltop overlooking Pegwell Bay
Bronze-Age round barrow on hilltop overlooking Pegwell Bay

How does an archaeological site reflect its landscape? This image for VM_365 Day 63 shows how important location within a landscape is for the choices that are made on where to live, work and celebrate.

Bronze Age round barrows like this one at Ramsgate were formed by digging a circular ditch into the hard chalk of the hillside to create a mound in the centre from the spoil from the ditch. Very frequently, but not in every case, the central mound covered the burial of an individual which was itself laid in a chamber created by cutting a rectangular pit into the chalk.

But what motivated the choice for the location of each round barrow? This image contains one answer to this question in the vista over Pegwell Bay which can be seen  beyond the section of the ditch revealed in the trench. From this position the land from Deal,  the  eastern mouth of the Stour and the mouth of the valley  of the Wantsum, sweeping through to the northern side of Pegwell Bay where the open sea was visible beyond the land.  On a clear day the cliffs on the coast of France can also be seen on the horizon from this location.

In general, similar Bronze Age funerary monuments in Thanet have been found in commanding locations on the convex slopes of hillsides and valleys which the undulating chalk downs of Thanet  possess in abundance. In each location the commanding view demonstrates that the position was carefully chosen and surveyed to assess the suitability of the site.

Before we interpret the motives behind such choices of position, we need to consider  that the landscape has changed from that of the Bronze Age through coastal erosion and sea level rises. The Bronze Age barrow burial rite also lasted some centuries and within the monuments recorded we need to consider what influence the  choices of earlier people had as time passed.

Many of the best sites may have been taken at an early stage, or perhaps the best locations were identified and rationed in some way that was determined by the culture and contemporary ideas of rights and status. To date there has been little evidence that barrows were partially overlapped to usurp the space taken by an earlier monument, although we do have evidence that the ditch of an earlier barrow was re-excavated and trimmed, possibly to accommodate a new burial. Perhaps it was acceptable to re-use a barrow, respecting and associating a new person with the personality and status of the earlier burial,  but it was not acceptable to damage an earlier barrow and erase the memory of the significance of the earlier burial.

The landscape seems to have had a deep resonance in the culture of Bronze Age Thanet, although we can only work out the ways these were turned into cultural forms by reasoning from our data on the location of features within the landscape and considering the logic of the placement of the sites within the space and land forms that were available. In short, archaeology loses an important dimension if context within its landscape does not form part of the archaeological investigation that is applied to it.

VM_365 Day 62 The shape of the land shapes the culture

Topographic map of the Isle of Thanet
The distinctive landforms that shape Thanet’s history

The map shown here for VM_365 Day 62 is of the underlying shape of the landcape of the Isle of Thanet, a factor which has shaped its history and culture over many centuries.

The shaded relief of the map was created using height data taken by the NASA space shuttle as it orbited the earth. Unlike yesterdays image which showed the locations of all the discoveries of archaeological remains from a particular  historical era, the Roman period, this map shows the enduring structures of the Isle of Thanet’s landscape.

Modern development has sometimes disguised the natural shapes of the chalky slopes and valleys that divide up the space that has been occupied in Thanet for over six thousand years, but with careful observation you can still recognise its major features, although less so as new housing estates and roads change the natural rhythms of the landscape each year.

If you are out and about on the Isle, look around and see how the land rises and falls and in places gives amazing views over the slopes and to the sea.  Observe how the various towns and areas occupy particular slopes or are separated by valleys.  Follow the routes of the Islands older roads over the ridges and up the slopes of the network of valleys that underpin the landscape.

The ancient inhabitants of Thanet were acutely aware of the shape of their landscape and chose the sites of their settlements, ceremonial sites and burial grounds with their location on specific landscape features in mind. Lines of sight between locations were important, as were vistas where large distances could be see all around. Access to resources or to the sea and the flat grounds at the top of the hill shaped the way the Island’s people moved around. Sometimes the relative effort of getting from one place to another dictated the way settlements grew up around the area.

To understand the distribution of sites in one particular period we need to understand that the one relatively constant factor in the development of  society over time was the influence of the physical shape of the land. Understanding the shape of the land can explain the choices made when settling the landscape as well as the changes that happened over time.


VM_365 Day 61 A map is more than a sum of its parts

Reconstructed map of Roman Thanet
A map of Roman Thanet imagined

Today’s image for Day 61 of the VM_365 project shows a map of Roman Thanet that was produced to accompany an exhibition called Roman Thanet Revealed, which was curated by volunteers and was on display at the Powell-Cotton Museum in Birchington from April to October 2011.

The map showed an up to date list of major Roman sites that have been identified on Thanet, including the new buildings that had recently been discovered at Upton, Stone Road and Fort House, Broadstairs (shown as Bleak House on the map), as well as the villa at Minster. The map was created to illustrate the locations of the various items on show and to place the discoveries into the context of the networks of roads, towns and forts that would have formed the central places in the Romano-British community.

A map like this serves a number of purposes. It records the location of the discoveries that have been made by archaeologists in specific locations, but it also allows connections to made between the sites and the landscape that they stand in which helps to create a narrative of similarities and differences within the period and to suggest interactions between types of sites and locations .

Recent research has shown in detail the changes that must have taken place in the coastline of Thanet since the Roman period and this map suggests where the Roman coast line might have been. Archaeological evidence in the form of recently rediscovered records and finds from a Roman cremation burial and structure from Boxlees Hill within the channel, show clearly that the  Wantsum Channel which separated the Isle of Thanet from the mainland of Kent was not as open and navigable as was once thought.  It is shown in the map with a wide margin of tidal silts with only the central channel open to the passage of ships.

Several recently published histories of Roman Britain have underestimated the density of settlement in Thanet in the Late Iron Age and Roman period, perhaps because some sites have remained unpublished and also because there is no permanent place to show and promote Thanet’s archaeological remains. As the Roman Thanet Revealed exhibition ended, our Roman history went once more into relative obscurity.

Further reading:

The ancient landscape of Thanet from the Ice Age to the Anglo-Saxon period is explored through a series of revealing historic maps of Thanet and new reconstructions based on geological and archaeological detective work in the book St. Augustine’s First Footfall which is published by the Trust for Thanet Archaeology.

The story of Thanet’s Archaeology from Prehistory to the Norman Conquest was explored by the Ges Moody of the Trust, using a series of maps and archaeological evidence. The Isle of Thanet from Prehistory to the Norman Conquest is available from all high street bookshops and online  book-sellers.

Download a higher resolution version of the map here

VM_365 Day 60 Iron plates and industrial agriculture

Circular iron plate with a story to tell
Circular iron plate with a story to tell

Thanet’s industrial heritage has been a relatively neglected subject, although it is increasingly obvious that more attention should be paid to the sites and artefacts associated with the industrialised agriculture of the 19th century.

A common site in many of the villages and towns of the area would have been a blacksmith, who would have been involved in manufacturing and repairing farm equipment as well as shoeing the many horses that provided transport and power.

We came across this round iron plate, nearly 1.5m in diameter on the site of an old blacksmith’s forge in St.Peters, Broadstairs. As it was not in our usual experience of archaeological artefacts we had to do some research to find out what it was.

The flat iron disc with a central hole turned out to be a hooping plate, used to fit iron hoops to the outside of wooden wagon wheels. The hub of the wheel would sit in the central hole and the hoop, which was expanded by heating it in the furnace, would be placed over the wooden rim and hammered into position against the hooping plate, which kept the wheel flat and firm. When the hoop was cooled it would tighten up around the wheel creating an iron tyre that would keep any heavily laden farm wagon going on the country lanes for another season.

VM_365 Day 59 Roman millers make finer flour

3rd century Roman millstone fragment from Upton, Broadstairs

Todays VM_365 image comes from the excavation of a Roman period cellar at Upton, near Broadstairs, one of the three areas where the Trust has established the presence of Roman building remains in Broadstairs in the last decade. Like the sites at Stone Road and Fort Hill, nothing remained of the structures that would have been above ground level at the Upton site.

To undertand what the cellared buildings we have located might have been we need to look closely at the finds that are associated with them, to gain some context and to be able interpret the uses they were put to. In both the building at Upton and at Stone Road large pieces of finely dressed millstones were found. The one in the image above was around 50mm thick, the upper surface had been dressed with an even pecking all over, the lower face had a series of teeth cut into the surface radiating from the 100mm diameter central hole. The whole millstone had a diameter of approximately 0.83m.  Stones like this would have been large and heavy and while it is possible they were worked by hand, it would have taken considerable effort and perhaps animal power might have been used to drive them.

In the future perhaps research and observation of communities that still use similar millstone as well as experimental archaeological methods could give a greater insight into the quantity and quality of the flour that could be produced and perhaps the food that could be made with it.

VM_365 Day 58 Grave assemblage from Grange Road, Ramsgate

VM 58

Following on from Day 56’s image of one of the Roman graves excavated at Grange Road, Ramsgate, today’s image shows one of the grave assemblages from the same site.

This assemblage was found in the grave of an adult female who was buried wearing a copper alloy twisted wire bracelet and was wearing foot wear with hobnails.  The assemblage you can see in this picture was found at the foot end of the grave and included a second copper alloy bracelet, a pottery dish, a flagon stoppered with a flint and a beaker. If you look carefully, you can also see a length of copper alloy wire, near the dish that may have been twisted around a fabric bag.

It was items like this that Hicks was recovering in the new developments in this area of the town in the 19th century.

VM_365 Day 57 Ramsgate’s lost artefacts, where are they now?

Photograph of artefacts from the Ramsgate area published by Robert Hicks MRCS in 1878
Photograph of artefacts found in or near the Ramsgate area published by Robert Hicks MRCS in 1878

Following on from the image of a Roman burial at Ramsgate from VM_365 Day 56, today’s picture shows a collection of archaeological artefacts from private collections that were discovered in Ramsgate before the photograph was published in an article for Archaeologia Cantiana, the journal of the Kent Archaeological Society, in 1878.

Ramsgate was lucky to have one of Thanet’s most diligent and learned pioneering archaeologists in Robert Hicks, a surgeon who joined Ramsgate’s Seaman’s Infirmary & General Hospital in the middle of the 19th century and maintained a keen interest in the local archaeological discoveries that were being made as the town expanded. Hicks deserves to better known in the story of Ramsgate’s cultural heritage and it would serve the town well if more biographical details could be added to his own story by some local researcher.

Robert Hicks oversaw the collection and photographing of the artefacts and and wrote the article that it illustrated. To accompany the picture in the published article, reproduced in the image above, Hicks listed the location where each of these finds was made, giving a brief description and dates for each of them as current archaeological knowledge stood.

While his focus in the article was predominantly in the abundant finds of the Roman period, several of the artefacts shown in the picture published in the 1878 article are certainly from earlier periods in prehistory, including Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age axes and what seems to be a finely made Early Bronze Age flint dagger. Two Iron Age fibula brooches are present, along with several late Iron Age ‘Belgic’ pottery vessels.

Sadly none of these artefacts can be located today and Ramsgate’s heritage is poorer for the loss of a collection of artefacts that would grace any local museum and would contribute to telling a longer and more complex story of the area than is generally known to the town’s residents. Now only Hicks’s published photograph exists to help us understand what we have lost.


Hicks R. 1878.  Roman Remains from Ramsgate. Archaeologia Cantiana Vol.12, p.14 – 18.

VM_365 Day 56 Ramsgate and the Romans

Roman burial found on Ramsgate's West Cliff
Roman burial found on Ramsgate’s West Cliff

Our Image for VM_365 today is of a Roman burial found in Ramsgate, which gave us important evidence confirming the records of early archaeological discoveries in the town.

For much of the 19th century Ramsgate was spreading out from its early limits, clustered along the High Street and around the harbour.  Suburbs with bungalows, large houses, terraces and squares began to spread out on the upper reaches of the East and West Cliffs, the town expanding into what had been open fields and  parade grounds and camps during the Napoleonic Wars.

In the course of the development that took place, many archaeological sites were disturbed and important evidence of the long occupation of the area was revealed. Luckily Ramsgate in the 19th century was home to a lively community of local historians and pioneering archaeologists and many documentary and even photographic records were made and published.

Several Roman burials had been reported on the West Cliff, in the area of the southern end of Grange Road, London Road and West Cliff Road, suggesting that the West Cliffs were the site of groups of Roman burials if not a more extensive cemetery.

Unfortunately few of the artefacts or sites could be re-examined using modern archaeological methods and the interpretation and dating given by the early researchers could not be tested. Much of the evidence could only be regarded as ‘background’ information which could not be taken at face value until more data could be gathered. What was needed was archaeological evidence that could be analysed using modern methods and allow a more accurate assessment to be made of the early records.

In 2007 an excavation at a site in Grange Road provided the archaeological confirmation that was needed when a group of  five intact graves were discovered, surviving remarkably  just beneath the foundations of a  demolished building that had been cleared from the site.

The five graves could be excavated using modern methods and the accompanying finds analysed in detail and accurately dated, showing that the group dated to the late 3rd or early 4th century. Without doubt more remains to be found of Roman Ramsgate. Records suggest that a Roman building once stood near the harbour and archaeological confirmation of the settlement where these Roman people lived would put Ramsgate firmly on the map of Roman Britain.

VM_365 Day 55 Making Time for Ramsgate’s Historic Buildings

Ramsgate Harbour Clock House
Ramsgate Harbour Clock House

The image for Day 55 of VM_365 celebrates Ramsgate’s rich architectural heritage.

In Britain many buildings are listed by English Heritage for their outstanding historical or architectural merit and Ramsgate has one of the highest densities of listed buildings in the country.

The Clock House at Ramsgate Harbour, currently housing the Ramsgate Maritime Museum, is one of the 5.5% of buildings that enjoy a II* listing, regarded as particularly important buildings of more than special interest.

The early work to construct Ramsgate Harbour was undertaken by John Smeaton between 1774 and his death in 1792. In 1794, after a trial period following Smeaton’s death, Benjamin Wyatt took over as engineer for the Ramsgate Harbour Trust.  Although Smeaton had completed the basic structure of the harbour, Wyatt was responsible for maintenance and the construction of  additional harbour buildings and he produced designs for several improvements and new structures.

On Wyatt’s death on 7th February 1807, he was succeeded as engineer for the Ramsgate Harbour Trust by the Scottish civil engineer John Rennie who had carried out many architectural projects for the Admiralty and had consulted with Wyatt on his plans for Ramsgate Harbour. The Clock House building was originally designed by Wyatt and George Louch, his deputy engineer who had been appointed in 1801, as a single storey store house and offices. The building was constructed by Rennie in 1817 from their design.

John Rennie’s second son, also called John, succeeded his father in his civil engineering business in 1820 and also as the engineer for Ramsgate Harbour. Rennie junior continued the maintenance and construction works in the harbour, which included the additions that were made to add the upper storeys and tower to the harbour building turning it into the Clock House that we see today.

The operation of a clock and a unique solar meridian established for Ramsgate, 5 minutes and 41 seconds ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, was described by a naval officer in 1837:

‘In the dome is an astronomical clock, and a meridian line, fixed, by means of a wire, which is used to ascertain its error, for the purpose of rating the chronometers of vessels entering the port…’

The original clock was built by John Moore and Sons of Clerkenwell under the supervision of physicist Henry Kater who had made advances in the design of astronomical clocks. A brass  transit line marking the Ramsgate meridian was set in the first floor of the Clock House building until it was stolen in 1975.

Accurate time pieces were essential to navigation in the early 19th century and their calibration to the fundamental Greenwich Mean Time datum was equally important. Many harbours had prominent clocks that could be observed and used to calibrate on-board navigational clocks by ships that entered the ports.

In 1846 the clock in the tower was replaced with a new clock mechanism made by London clock maker Edward John Dent.  With four, 5ft diameter gas lit dials, operated by rods to keep the mechanism away from the gas lights, the mechanism was housed in the dome along with the meridian apparatus. At Dent’s suggestion, from the 1st of November 1848, the new clock at Ramsgate showed Greenwich Mean Time, bringing an end to Ramsgate’s idiosyncratic time zone.


Anon. 1837. A brief history of Dover and Ramsgate Harbours; with a description of the Coast, between Dungeness, and the Isle of Thanet, and remarks on the probable construction of a Harbour, between the South Foreland and Sandwich Haven. By a Naval Officer. London.

Matkin R.V. 1976. The Construction of Ramsgate Harbour. Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 48(1), pp. 53–72

Robinson J. M.  1973. Samuel Wyatt at Ramsgate. Architectural History Vol. 16, (1973), pp. 54-59+95-96

VM_365 Day 54 TICI makes a mark in history

Personal name scratched into the surface of a Central Gaulish Samian dish from Broadstairs
Personal name scratched into the surface of a Central Gaulish Samian dish from Broadstairs

Who were the people that lived in Thanet in ancient times?

We can never know anything about a large number of them, who have left neither written records or are represented by their remains. Occasionally some small remnant of their identity is asserted in some way through an archaeological find.

Our Image for VM_365 today shows one of those tiny echoes of a person who may have lived near Broadstairs in the Roman period in the 2nd century AD.

This fragment of a dish  in Central Gaulish samian fabric (Drag. 18/31 R), dating from the early to Mid 2nd century, is marked with scratched letters reading TICI, probably part of the owners name. The sherd was found in the remains of a Roman building on the cliffs above Viking Bay in Broadstairs. Samian vessels could be large and these fine tablewares were probably expensive to replace and  were often marked with names, scratched by hand into the glossy surface of the vessel.

Although we are lucky to have increasing numbers of written fragments dating from the Roman period in Britain, even sets of letters and accounts from one site, this small body of writing can only hint at the many ways that the skill of literacy might have been used in the Roman period.

In this case the writer used his skill to identify an object as his own and this act is preserved in a remarkable and rare survival into our own age.