British Archaeology, no 22, March 1997: News

Medieval fisherman's quarter found in Dover

Archaeologists have found what seems to be the fishermen's quarter of medieval Dover - a shanty town of flimsy timber buildings on the opposite side of the River Dour from the main medieval settlement.

The shanty town was found to be thick with fishbones - particularly herring - and iron fish-hooks, giving the impression that the town's inhabitants spent their lives wading `knee-deep in fish guts', according to the excavator, Keith Parfitt of the Canterbury Archaeological Trust.

Many of the fish skeletons were remarkably well-preserved, with one retaining its scales. `Others look just like cartoon fish, with head, backbone, ribcage and tail, ' Mr Parfitt said.

The main settlement at Dover had been founded on the west bank of the river in the 1st century AD, but there was no settlement on the east bank until the `fishing quarter' was founded in about 1150. The settlement disappeared again a century later, leaving the east bank apparently uninhabited until around 1650. It is thought the area may have been uninhabitable before the medieval period, and even then that the river was wider than today and difficult to cross.

During the century of the quarter's existence, most of its timber buildings, built on rammed chalk floors, were demolished and rebuilt up to eight times, although the boundaries of each building plot seem to have remained constant. The small rectangular buildings were jammed together shoulder-to-shoulder around the Norman Church of St James, which still survives. For many years the church has been associated with Dover's fishermen's quarter in local folklore.

Two of the buildings, of different dates, contained infant burials under their floors -despite the presence of the medieval churchyard, fully visible from both houses, less than 100 yards away. It is unclear whether the infants were stillborn, victims of infanticide, or for some other reason unwelcome on consecrated ground.

Dover Castle also lies east of the river but uphill from the fishing settlement, and the settlement's existence coincided broadly with the period when the castle was being built, from the mid-12th to the mid-13th century. According to Mr Parfitt, part of the reason for the settlement may have been to sell goods and services to construction workers at the castle.

Although the buildings in the fishing quarter were frail, with shallow foundations or none at all, evidence from other Norman sites in towns and villages suggest they were no less substantial than usual. Buildings of the same date on the west bank of the river at Dover are identical. `This is simply how poor folk in the Norman period built their homes, ' Mr Parfitt said.

The excavations at Dover were funded by BP.

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Erosion places coastal sites in danger

Several archaeological sites have been uncovered by coastal erosion over recent months on England's east coast, including part of a Bronze Age boat, a number of later shipwrecks and other material. Meanwhile, several known archaeological sites are rapidly eroding into the sea.

The erosion consists largely of the loss of sand from beaches where once there was dry land, either as a result of storms or through natural sand-slippage. The slippage is believed to be growing worse as a result of offshore dredging for building aggregates. However, many sites and finds remain unrecorded, as most are still unprotected by law and some lie outside the jurisdiction of any local or national authority.

Part of the keel plank of a Bronze Age boat was found earlier this year on a beach in Holderness in East Yorkshire. It was identified by its distinctive form of cleated joint shared by other Bronze Age boats such as those from Dover and North Ferriby upstream on the Humber. More of the boat is expected to emerge as erosion of the beach continues.

At Easington, also in Holderness, a Bronze Age barrow is disappearing into the sea, and is expected to be gone altogether within a year. Recent excavations by the East Riding Archaeological Society found Neolithic structural remains sealed underneath the barrow, together with radiocarbon-dated pottery and flint. Also at Easington is a midden dating from the Bronze Age through to the Roman period. It, too, is eroding into the sea.

To the south, between Sutton on Sea and Mablethorpe in Lincolnshire, two new wrecks have recently been completely uncovered by shifting sands. One is an ice-ship - thought to be The Acorn wrecked in 1901 - which sailed between Grimsby and Norway collecting ice for the fishing industry; the other is a locally-built fishing boat from the late 19th century. A mid-Saxon hurdle has also been found nearby, either part of a fish-trap or a piece of fencing intended for dry land.

The Lincolnshire coast is well-known for producing archaeological finds, as sea levels have risen over the centuries and covered formerly dry land. In recent years, submerged forests, medieval and possibly Roman saltworkings and medieval fields have all been exposed and covered again through coastal action. However, according to Steve Catney, Lincolnshire's Principal Archaeologist, lack of time and money has meant that few coastal sites have been properly recorded, and much of the information they contain remains hidden. Neither of the two new shipwrecks has been fully investigated.

The shoreline is not strictly the county council's responsibility, Mr Catney pointed out. `All of our time is taken up by development control work. Sites usually appear and disappear quickly, and we rarely have the time or resources to do anything about them, ' he said.

Three new shipwrecks have also been uncovered in Cleveland, one intact early 19th century collier's brig at Seaton Carew - which is about to be designated as an officially-protected wreck - and two brig fragments at Redcar.

The lack of funding available for coastal archaeology over recent years may be changing. Following last year's publication by English Heritage and the English Royal Commission of a policy statement, Coastal Heritage, English Heritage has announced its intention to channel more research funds into coastal archaeology. In addition, the Government's recent heritage green paper, Protecting our heritage, proposed extending English Heritage's remit to cover the inter-tidal zone, bringing the agency into line with Historic Scotland and Cadw, its sister agencies in Scotland and Wales.

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Watt's steam engine factory discovered

Parts of one the most important factories of the Industrial Revolution have been found, still standing, in the West Midlands.

Boulton and Watt's Soho Factory in Smethwick is where James Watt, inventor of the condensing steam engine, built beam engines from 1796 into the early 19th century. It was known that the site had been taken over by Avery Ltd - makers of scales - in 1895, but it was not known whether any of the original factory survived. Now, however, archaeologists from the English Royal Commission have found the southern and eastern walls of the factory's original foundry, together with the casting pit and passages leading to the boring mill, which had been buried under slag. The foundry was designed to provide the company with a highly productive factory before Watt's beam engine patent ran out in 1800.

The Commission survey was prompted by an application from Avery to redevelop the site, which had become derelict. The site has now been spot-listed by English Heritage.

The discovery is unlikely to advance knowledge of industrial history as the layout and workings of Boulton and Watt's factory are well documented. `It is simply surprising that so much still survives,' said Alan Stoyel, the Commission's investigator in charge of the survey.

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In brief

Looting research

A RESEARCH centre to study the looting and destruction of archaeological sites abroad will be set up at Cambridge University later this year, in the wake of allegations last month that Sotheby's has been involved in the sale of smuggled art and antiquities in Britain. The allegations have led to increased fears that London may now be a major clearing centre for looted antiquities from around the world. The research centre, founded by the Cambridge archaeologists Lord Renfrew and Prof Nicholas Postgate, will attempt to gather information about looting and will initially focus on sites in the Near East.


Roman lioness

A ROMAN sculpture said to be one of the finest ever found in Scotland was recovered from the River Almond on the outskirts of Edinburgh earlier this year. The sculpture, spotted by a local ferryman, is of a lioness devouring the head of a bearded man, and is thought to date from the 2nd or 3rd century AD. Archaeologists in Edinburgh believe the lioness may have formed part of the tomb of a high-ranking official, possibly the commanding officer of the Roman fort at Cramond. Two snakes, often associated with Roman mortuary sculpture, were found on the base of the plinth. The finely-carved sculpture is now undergoing conservation at the National Museums of Scotland.

Archaeology in soil

THE GOVERNMENT has recognised the importance of archaeological remains in soil, in a policy document, Sustainable Use of Soil, published in January. The document, co-ordinated by the DoE, is the Government's response to the 19th report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which recommended that `soil protection policy include detailed attention to the requirements for archaeological conservation'. Among the possible consequences are that archaeology is allowed greater importance in schemes of reclamation, peat extraction, landfill, mining and agriculture.

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1997