VM_365 Day 65 When is a coast not a coast? Beware of the changing landscape.

Bronze Age pit lined with woven timbers
Bronze Age pit lined with woven timbers

For Day 65 of VM_365 the image shows one of the most important sites in Thanet for understanding how the changing landscape can throw up problems for archaeologists when they are interpreting features and finds in the landscape.

In the centre of the picture is a pit under excavation on the foreshore at St. Mildred’s Bay on the north coast of Thanet. Against the back edge  of the pit can be seen the thin  horizontal and vertical timber rods that form a woven lining to the pit, similar to a woven basket closely fitting the size of the pit.

In the dry chalk landscape of Thanet, pits and other features of this age are generally filled with sequences of chalky soils or clay and silt deposits, with no hint that any organic deposits ever existed. In other parts of the country where archaeological features have been found in waterlogged conditions, many examples of the use of organic materials and even complicated carpentry from sites of the same date have been recovered. Because the conditions in Thanet are not good for preserving organic material, all trace of this part of the record has been erased.

If recording is carried out with care and attention, archaeologists can deduce that such material may once have been present, lining pits and forming structures that are now undetectable apart from the holes that were dug for them or the material that eventually replaced the organic deposits. The positive aspect of the discovery of sites on the foreshore in waterlogged conditions has demonstrated that the absence of this material elsewhere is due to the conditions of preservation not the absence of this material in the period.

The negative aspect is the interpretation of the location of these sites at the time they were created. Thanet’s land mass has been diminishing year after year as rising sea levels have covered land and the sea  has eaten away the chalk to form the cliff line and the flat platforms of the foreshore. Sites like the one in today’s image were not on the coast when they were created, they may even have been some distance away from the coast and we must be careful not to give an undue significance to the present coastal location of the sites when they had no bearing on the settlement at the time.

It was a matter of good luck that some archaeological features were preserved  in the platform cut by the waves around the coast, leaving remnants behind in waterlogged conditions to give us an idea of what life was like on dry land four or five thousand years ago. It is clear from evidence like this that the study of the dynamic landscape and attempts to understand and represent the changes on maps are an important part of the archaeologists tools for interpreting past societies.



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