The Archaeology of the Bexhill and Hasting Link Road

Report on Caspar Johnson’s talk on the Bexhill-Hastings Link Road 12 sept. 2014

A full room of 44 visitors and members assembled to hear the County Archaeologist, Caspar Johnson, working entirely without notes, reveal and explain the findings discovered during the construction of the Bexhill to Hastings link road, which apparently must not be called a by-pass. With the help of an RAF LIDOR map we saw the full extent of the area excavated, from Upper Coombe Haven, or Bulverhythe in Bexhill, through the Coombe Valley following the line of the Bexhill to Crowhurst railway, and on through Crowhurst itself and Powdermills, to link with the Battle-Hastings road.

Casper was insistent that they have NOT found a camp for William the Conqueror, nor a site of the Battle of Hastings, nor anything associated with 1066, but what they had found was much more interesting.

The total area of the scheme is a crescent, six miles long, in places up to half a mile wide, and six to eight metres deep where the valleys are filled with alluvium and colluvium, and traverses a series of streams and rivers running off the Weald clays into Coombe Valley. The whole excavation scheme is truly vast. The plan was to set the road down into the landscape to make as little visual impact as possible, which would mean cutting off the tops of ridges and filling in the valleys. Ponds for three purposes had to be planned for. i: to capture potentially toxic waste from the road surface; ii: to allow for flood compensations; & iii: to preserve bio-diversity and ecology. The area contained potential paleo-wetland sites, with associated islands now buried under flat reclaimed marshland, as well as the ridges of higher dry land, and the whole area was surveyed using many different techniques including geo-electrical, magnetometry and ground penetrating radar, as well as the more traditional geo-technical test pits and boreholes.

Models were constructed showing the conditions at different periods and showed the relative rate of sea level change since the last ice-age approx. 10,000 years BC, ie the end of the Pleistocene Era, and the beginning of the Holocene. Through the beginning of this period the sea level rise was very rapid as the vast ice sheets melted, becoming more stable at the beginning of the Neolithic some 4,000 years ago. We were shown a spiral wheel diagram illustrating the relative lengths of each period, which unfortunately I cannot reproduce, but the date details were as follows:

Mesolithic 10,000 – 4,000 years BC

Neolithic 4,000 – 2,300 BC

Bronze Age 2,300 – 700 BC

Iron Age 700 – 43 AD

Roman 43 – 450 AD

Saxon/early Medieval 450 – 1066 AD

Medieval to 1543 AD

Post Medieval to 1914 AD

The valleys show the sequence with marine clays overlaying the natural post glacial surface during the paleo-Mesolithic period reflecting the rapid sea level rise, itself covered by fresh water organic alluvium and peat, covered again by thick ochre soils from alluvial and colluvial hill wash from human activity formed between 800BC and the 4th/5th Century AD.

The planning application had to include a scheme to survey and record all the archaeological details before their necessary destruction, including the details of railway architecture, farm buildings, track ways and field boundaries, as well as the older material. Oxford Archaeology won the contract, and their work runs ahead of the road construction. First metal detector’s swept the whole area, and remarkably found no metal artefacts before 1840 over the whole scheme! This may be explained by the fact that the soil is very acidic and aggressively corrodes small metal objects and bone and other organic material.

A great surprise has been the very large number of Mesolithic flint scatters, over 300 individual events, in several concentrations through the length of the scheme, amounting to many hundreds of thousands of individual flakes of flint. All flakes over 10mm are 3D plotted by GPS coordinates, and bagged for later study and analysis. The uniquely large number allows subtle evidence of early human activity, revealing good and bad craftsmanship and possible child work for the very small flakes, and development of different tool kits to match changing environmental circumstances, with larger tools in the earlier periods for larger animals, aurochs, horse, moose, and smaller hunting points, arrow heads and micro-liths being found for later periods as woodlands develop and prey animals become smaller. They also subtly reveal different activities, hunting tools being produced at lower slopes which would have been at the edge of the marsh and woodland, and different, processing tools, ie burins, borers, scrapers and adzes being produced on higher ground, which would have been settlement sites. The quality of these flints is extraordinary, and it is possible to identify different flint types and their sources. There are no flints found naturally on any of the sites, and as the sea was a considerable distance out from the present coast at the beginning of the Mesolithic, their presence represents a considerable investment in time and effort fetching them in to what was then a relatively inland, and upland location. Pits with hazelnuts and charcoal have also been found, a good dating source, and a series of early Mesolithic postholes have been discovered. Casper would not say it was a house, but that it could be a hide, that it was probably multi-phase, and was associated with burnt flints, suggesting occupation.

The levels of data coming from this complex and very important site comes from maintaining a high level of data recording throughout the scheme, and is very largely due to the scrupulous and enthusiastic direction of the site. The work has generated a lot of paperwork, archaeology is truly now become a real science. Several radio-metric methods of dating are used. Carbon 14 is the most common, but thermo-luminescence and OSL optical techniques are also employed.

Environmental sampling is undertaken from about 50% of the soils, using a mechanised sieving system to gather small flakes missed by excavators, and flotation tanks to retrieve seeds, plant material and pollen. These show a range of vegetation; reeds, trees of various sorts, scrub and grasses. A very recent find on one of the islands in the deep paleo-wetland areas is the first good evidence of worked timber with oak tree trunks laid parallel, and numbers of cross pieces, looking much like a track way. Not all of the wood shows tool marks, so it may be natural, but it is an intriguing discovery. It points from the island towards a track way on higher ground and associated burnt mounds. C14 dating reveals a potential Neolithic date of 2200 BC.

There is a late Neolithic ring ditch with a gap, (penanular). This could be a henge or a barrow. In fact there is the same range of monuments through the landscape as is found on the Downs, which has been a welcome surprise.

At the wetland edge of the Bronze Age landscape several burnt mounds have been found, with associated charcoal, pottery, barbed and tanged arrowheads, and part of a wristband. These are usually found in high status sites such as the Amesbury Archer buried at Stonehenge. The mounds invariably have a round and a square pit, sluice channels and post holes, suggesting a covering. Their use is unknown, but there has been speculation and theory from a site for brewing beer to a sweat lodge for Shamanic use.

Near Upper Wilting Farm the footprint of Roman buildings and enclosures have been found, in association with a large number of iron smelting bloomery furnaces and slag. The slag exists as a huge bank falling into the valley, and covers a succession of furnaces of several different types and sizes on terraces set into the slope. The earliest iron working may have been late Iron Age, but it was the Romans who turned its production into a massive industrial undertaking. The sheer number, variety and scale of the furnaces, together with their repair and re-use are evidence of a very important aspect of the Roman occupation of Sussex. Dating has been from pottery finds, Gaulish Samian ware of about 150 AD, black burnished ware and several other types.

Upper Wilting was a Saxon Manor, and corn-drying ovens have been found with charred cereal grains, giving a date of 7th or 8th century, revealing a glimpse of grain production in the landscape.

There are blanks or voids of activity within the scheme, as is normal in any landscape, but it is the sheer scale of the link road scheme that allows these blank areas, interspersed with areas of intense activity, to be identified where they may otherwise have been invisible.

There was a lively question and answer session, and Chairman Robin Reffell gave the society’s sincere vote of thanks for this detailed and fascinating talk about a complex multi-period site. The audience gave their acclamation by enthusiastic applause.

Report from John Warren

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