The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 94

Issue 94

May/June 2007



Unique decorated jet lozenge from Suffolk matches Stonehenge gold

Heritage white paper praised: but who will pay for it?

Classic jadeite axe may leave UK

What was Roman interest in Silbury Hill?

New dates

In Brief & Phase 2


Ringed with the wrecks of slave ships: The Atlantic slave trade
Buy, sell, trade, drown. Jane Webster asks what archaeology can bring to the story

Churches face East, don't they?
Church alignments. Do churches face sunrise on saints' days? Ian Hinton surveys

Excavating Dover's Medieval seasfarers
Keith Parfitt and Barry Corke discover a fishing community

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Adapting archaeology: Gill Chitty looks at climate change and archaeology in the UK


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Excavating Dover's Medieval seasfarers

A significant proportion of medieval Dover's men had to give time to sailing their ships for the king. The town received privileges in return, and developed a strong fishing community. Keith Parfitt and Barry Corke have found their houses – outside the town's historic core.

In south-east Kent, Dover is a very special place, strategically positioned at the shortest crossing point of the English Channel. The close proximity of the continent has ensured Dover's standing as a highly important sea port for centuries. The river Dour has been central to Dover's very existence, originally providing both a sheltered haven for shipping at its mouth and a constant supply of fresh water for its inhabitants. The town and port have been defended by a succession of Roman, medieval and post-medieval fortifications, the most impressive of which is the great Norman castle, which still stands above the eastern side of the valley on Castle Hill.

Excavations since the 1970s have demonstrated that there is a wealth of buried archaeology below the modern town. So in 1996 when bp decided to rebuild their petrol station by the side of Townwall Street, the busy main road leading to Dover's Eastern Docks, Canterbury Archaeological Trust was called in to investigate first. Now published after 10 years of study and research (see end note), the results of these excavations cast much new light upon the daily lives of Dover's previously little-known medieval seafarers and fisherfolk.

In the medieval period Britain had no Royal Navy; instead successive kings followed a long-standing arrangement with a group of ports along the south coast which provided the ships needed. Originally there were five – the Cinque Ports (pronounced sink ports, but of course from cinq, French for five). These were Sandwich, Dover, Romney, Hythe in Kent and Hastings in East Sussex, later joined by the two Sussex "ancient towns" of Rye and Winchelsea. The Cinque Ports Confederation reached the height of its power during the later 13th century. Each year the towns would provide the king with a certain number of ships for an agreed period. For Dover, the Domesday Book of 1086 records that 15 days service were required annually from 20 ships, each crewed by 21 men and boys – some 420 sailors in all, probably a significant proportion of the total male population of the town. Similar figures applied to the other ports. These requirements remained largely unchanged down the centuries.

In return for providing the king with ships, the portsmen were given various rights and privileges. Every year the Cinque Ports fleet made its own fishing trip to the southern North Sea in search of the great herring shoals that arrive there during the autumn. The portsmen had the right to land their catches on the beach at Great Yarmouth, Norfolk and to dry their nets there. From such early beginnings an internationally famous and very profitable annual herring fair developed, largely controlled by the portsmen. The loss of revenue to the region increasingly annoyed the Yarmouth inhabitants as their own town grew into an important port; but the men of the Cinque Ports jealously guarded their privileges and were quite prepared to do battle with the local townsmen over the issue of who was to control the herring fair.

Thus, history tells us a good deal about the exploits of those hardy seamen of the Cinque Ports when they were away from home. But where did they live and what did they do when they were not serving the king or fishing the North Sea? The Dover Townwall Street excavations have provided some answers.


The Townwall Street excavations lay beyond the centre of the historic town, below Dover Castle, about 150m inland from the present sea-shore. This was part of a larger suburb that lay on the eastern side of the River Dour, focused around the Norman parish church of St James the Apostle (a fisherman). The settlement was situated roughly midway between the two principal centres of medieval activity at Dover – the main town located on the west bank of the Dour and the royal castle on Castle Hill. The settlement must have been influenced by events at each centre but clearly stood apart from both.

A lack of the deep Victorian cellars that have destroyed the upper archaeological levels in other parts of the town led to the remarkable survival of thick medieval deposits starting at a depth of as little as half a metre below present ground level. This was the first of a number of unexpected discoveries for the excavation team. It was soon established that, contrary to local historical tradition and the suggestive street name, the medieval town wall had never crossed the site. Instead, the area had been occupied by small, simple medieval houses, which had been crowded onto a sandy beach ridge infilling the ancient estuary of the River Dour.

The main period of habitation was between cAD1175 and 1300, when the area was covered by a series of small building plots. These extended on either side of a lane which survived as a thoroughfare until the mid 20th century. The plots were occupied by the ephemeral remains of a complex succession of timber buildings, characterised by floors of rammed chalk. The floors were often associated with beam-slots, post-holes, stakeholes and sometimes external dwarf walls of chalk and flint rubble. They occasionally supported hearths or ovens and often showed evidence of surface burning. There was clear evidence that at least two buildings had been destroyed by fire on different occasions. Most, if not all, of the buildings identified seem to represent dwellings, although a few others could have been workshops and outhouses.

The insubstantial nature of the houses indicated that these were the homes of some of Dover's poorest townsfolk. The buildings were associated with large quantities of domestic rubbish, including broken pottery, animal bones and fish bones. The significant amounts of fish bone found, together with many fish-hooks and other fishing equipment, underlined the importance of fishing to the people who lived in this area. There seems no doubt that these were the homes of families of seafarers and fishermen – in short, the homes of some of Dover's medieval portsmen.

The sheer quantity of fish remains recovered strongly suggests that fish were processed and stored on the Townwall Street site, even if substantial amounts of fish were also being consumed there. Fish remains were spread throughout all the medieval buildings and their adjacent yards. Samples produced over 83,000 fish bones, representing one of the largest assemblages of fish remains from any British site.

There was a remarkable consistency in the types and sizes of fish represented. In almost every case, samples were dominated by herring, with cod, whiting, conger eel, thornback ray and mackerel also numerous. Plaice, scad, garfish, gurnards and sardine (or pilchard) were also present in many samples. However, it seems unlikely that many fish could have been brought back to Kent from the North Sea fishing grounds unless they had been cured. More probably, the bulk of the remains from Townwall Street represent a locally-based fishery, exploiting seasonally available fish stocks in waters in the English Channel. This channel fishery was traditionally worked during the winter months. Fishing was essentially a seasonal activity and other occupations would have been needed for slack times in the fishing year. Important among these must have been crewing the ships ferrying passengers to and from the continent, making long distance trading voyages and, of course, undertaking ship-service for the king. Sail, rope and net-making, together with boat building, are other likely activities. Iron clench nails recovered from the excavations might confirm boat building in the area, although such fixings were also used in some of the houses. Evidence for blacksmithing suggests that nails and other fittings could have been made on, or near the site. Fish hooks were probably an important product of local blacksmiths.


It seems probable that some of the occupants of medieval Townwall Street also farmed small-holdings, their activities on the land being carefully interwoven with the fishing seasons. The confined shoreline location and poor shingley soils of the site imply that any fields and gardens must have lain further inland. At least a proportion of the animal and cereal remains recovered from the excavations probably originated from such smallholdings. Live animals for food appear to have been brought in and slaughtered on the site. Cattle and sheep dominated the animal bone assemblage recovered, with pig also being quite common. The limited range of frequently old animals is consistent with a low status for the occupants of the site. Evidence for the presence of horse, goat, deer, dog and cat was also recorded but these animals are unlikely to have been eaten. Geese and chickens were kept for their meat and eggs and a range of local sea birds also seem to have been consumed. Some may have provided oil for lamps.

There is evidence for a whole range of small-scale craft industries being conducted on or near the Townwall Street site. A significant number of quernstone fragments from the excavations indicate that grain was being processed, probably to prepare malt for brewing, rather than flour for domestic baking. An oven found within one of the larger houses was associated with charred cereal grain. A significant amount of this had started to germinate, indicating that it was in the process of being malted for beer brewing. Although most ale was probably intended for home consumption, provisioning for longer sea journeys and cross-channel passengers must also have been important.

A series of implements, including a pair of iron shears, fibre processing teeth, spindle whorls, glass slickstones and "twisting bones" (lucets) are all related to different textile production processes. It is not impossible that some of the stakehole groups recorded within certain buildings relate to the frames of weaving looms. Occurring alongside standard textile production, the manufacture of thicker, plied yarns is indicated by the discovery of a significant number of large, heavy spindle whorls. These were perhaps used in the production of cordage for boats and fishing nets.

Although the evidence of the animal bone recovered suggests that butchery was regularly undertaken on the site, the horse, goat and deer remains are more probably derived from industrial processes, such as the preparation of hides, and the working of horn, antler and bone, rather than as food sources. Many of the cats present also seem to have been skinned. Dogs were presumably kept as companions/working animals.

Several pieces of unworked amber discovered on the site indicate that this material was being worked here on a small scale. There is no local source for amber but pieces are regularly washed up on the coast of East Anglia. The material found in Dover could thus have been acquired during the annual fishing trips made by the portsmen to the Norfolk coast, or at a Yarmouth herring fair, perhaps in exchange for fish. Other finds attest small-scale metal-working, including blacksmithing, lead and copper/bronze casting. Arange of implements indicate both the weaving of textiles on a twobeam vertical loom, and the manufacture of cordage. There is no doubt that fishermen's clothing would have been produced at Dover. The discovery of several coins and parts of two folding balances could suggest there was some commerce on the Townwall Street site. Perhaps some of the craft products noted above were sold direct from their place of manufacture.

Interestingly, all the evidence for the crafts discovered on the site can be related in some way to fishing and seafaring. The amber, for example, was shaped to form beads, and these would have formed part of rosaries; the importance of Christianity to medieval fishermen is well documented. The querns were used to crush grain in the production of beer, an important component of fishermen's daily life. There are as many hones as knives from the excavation and this may reflect the extent to which sharp knives were required in the gutting of fish. The small knives may have been used to gut herring, whilst the larger knives would have been preferred in the dismemberment of cod and other large fishes. Antler working on site may have been intended primarily to produce the handles for the knives.


Overall then, it would seem that the medieval inhabitants of the Townwall Street site formed part of a community made up of seamen and their families who would turn their hand to anything in order to support themselves. Activities including fishing, a little farming, bone- and metal-working, trading, piracy, salvaging, beach combing, net-making, sail-making and boat repairing can all be demonstrated or readily surmised.

At the end of the 13th century there was a marked decline in activity on the site. There were probably several reasons for this, perhaps including the documented French raid of 1295, a continual threat of marine erosion and the construction of the new town wall nearby. Some timber buildings, however, were replaced by new masonry ones and a number of the earlier plot boundaries were now marked by stone walls. Continuity of the same boundary lines over many centuries was a consistent feature on the site.

More intensive occupation resumed in the early post-medieval period and the area was extensively occupied during the 19th and earlier 20th century. However, large scale damage during the second world war, followed by post-war slum clearance programmes, led to the almost complete disappearance of the buildings and streets of this part of old Dover.

However, even as the Townwall Street report appeared, town planners have started to finalise details of a major redevelopment of this neglected part of the modern town. With archaeological excavation carefully built in to any future development programme, further important discoveries across this fascinating part of old Dover are anticipated.

See Townwall Street Dover, Excavations 1996, by K Parfitt, B Corke & J Cotter (The Archaeology of Canterbury nsiii, Heritage 2006), £25 pp460 HB, ISBN 9781870545051.

Keith Parfitt heads the Canterbury Archaeological Trust's Dover office, assisted by Barry Corke.

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