The Eastbourne and Willingdon Prehistoric Lagoon

A Report on our Symposium – 25th July 2015

Following brief introductory words from Olive Woodall, the Society’s President, and Doctor Elizabeth Somerville, who acted as chair for the day, LAWRENCE STEVENS was introduced to explain what was meant by the Eastbourne and Willingdon lagoon, and its significance to the archaeological record of the two parishes.

Lawrence explained that what he called the lagoon ran both sides of the railway line running into Eastbourne, bounded roughly along the line of King’s Drive to the West, through Hampden Park as far as Mornings Mill in Lower Willingdon, South Eastwards along the Gault ridge to Stone Cross, and South to Langney, where the Cluniac Priory at Lewes had a Grange, which is now a private dwelling, Holly Grange, and a medieval tide mill, now lost. The area covered was illustrated by a map he had drawn showing the tide-line at the 4 metre contour, with the locations of various finds marked. The sites of Hydneye in Hampden Park, and Horseye, where the Borough recycling centre is now on St Philip’s Avenue, were shown as islands. The “”eye” in the names being a corruption over time of isle, or island. As late as the medieval period, Willingdon and Langney did have a tidal coastline, and it used to be more Willingdon that Eastbourne, but Eastbourne absorbed chunks of Willingdon in 1880 and 1937, in order to gain recognition as a borough.

Lawrence then briefly explained what had been found before 1985 during the town’s development around the fringes of, and within the lagoon. A Paleolithic Flint at Lott’s Bridge; Neolithic stone axes in Terminus Road; a 10th or 11th century, 30 metre boat found in 1963, most of which is still beneath the Tesco roundabout in Lottbridge Drove; the Roman walls, baths and pavement near the pier head, first found in 1712 and drawn in 1849 when the promenade was proposed and constructed as a sea defence. Other sites included Bedfordwell.

In 1985, Eastbourne Borough Council proposed a so called Park to develop the watery levels. Lawrence was aware that a survey had revealed much evidence of ancient activity around Chichester harbour and surmised that the same activity would have existed around our own tidal inlet. A survey did reveal potential sites of interest. The Shinewater site, of which more from the next speaker, with its marvellously preserved reed hook; a pot at Holly Grange; more Paleolithic flints and stone axes; rumours from an anonymous informant of ancient cinerary urns being smashed at the Abbey Fields development; scatterings of medieval material at another development; a Saxon cemetery on the North brow of Upperton ridge; another early Saxon cemetery at St Anne’s Road; with a pile of Roman pottery finds, a rare Iron Age Potin coin, ancient barns and possible salt workings at Poplin Marsh. Lawrence had also surmised that Pococks field may possibly be the last unploughed medieval field in the parish of Bourne, it is crossed by a double lynchet trackway, and this was investigated by the society and dated to the 11th – 14th century, with Robin Reffell supervising the dig of an intriguing stone tank of some sort, with unexplored attached wall near to the water table further North in the field. The survey had indeed revealed a great deal.

CHRIS GREATORIX was then introduced to explain what was discovered 20 years ago in 1995 at SHINEWATER. He told us that when a lake was being excavated for the new Eastbourne Park, over 350 oak timbers were revealed sticking out of the muddy ground, Lawrence identified them as being of archaeological significance and alerted the County Archaeologist. It had previously been thought that there could be nothing in the ground at that location, so there was no provision in the planning for archaeological investigation of the site, and the contractor wishes to get on with the work. However Chris was allowed 10 days to evaluate the site, and set to work, finding the edge of the excavated lake void slumped, with much disturbance of evidence. He decided to clean a 50 metre section. Stratigraphy was clear, with dirty blue marine clay at the base 8,000 years old, covered by a horizon of brackish and freshwater peats from 2,800-2,500 BC, normal swamp or marsh deposits at the mouth of a valley estuary. The late Bronze Age timbers, (900-800 BC), and other deposits were on top of this peat layer, made up of a platform surface, extending back beyond the newly excavated lake for at least 500 square metres, on top of which was a 20 cm deep layer of occupational material. The top had a sharp edge, covered with marine silts and clays again, sealing the peat layer in perfect anaerobic conditions for preservation of organic materials. The marine invasion was reversed again by 1100 AD when the area was once again fresh water, most probably following the reformation of the sand dunes or shingle bank.

The platform deposits were not uniform, but had areas of gravelly clay with associated charcoal, that were obviously hearths, surrounded by reed matting and occupational debris. The larger elements of the platform structure were of oak, with smaller elements of coppiced hazel, indicating woodland management, and thus a well-developed social organization. Found in the small area of excavation were 1500 pot shards, bones, worked stone, an antler bridle bit, bronze socketed axes, an end ring axe, and another axe from Holland or NW Germany. Below the platform surface, ie below water level, and lying horizontal in the peat was a marvellously preserved reed hook, mistakenly called a sickle, with its wooden handle preserved in place, made of bird’s eye field maple, a beautiful and remarkably rare survival. This may have been a ritual deposit. There were 50 broken and disarticulated human hones, one of a 10-12 year old child, broken quern stones, a tanged chisel with raw bronze blobs, amber beads, possibly from the Baltic, bronze bracelets, lead pendants, and a shale bracelet. One 2.6 metre long pointed stake showed adze marks that looked almost fresh cut.

During the 10 days evaluation a SW to NE alignment of posts was discovered leading away from the platform, 5 metres wide and 200 metres long, preserved in the same marine transgression stratigraphy, leading from high to lower ground. Three rows of vertical oak stakes, 1.5 metres apart, covered with oak, poplar, willow and alder timbers placed horizontally over a layer of sand. One of the timbers had a mortice hole, possibly being re-used. Artefacts from the surface of the track included bone and pottery, with a bronze skinning knife found below the timbers. 30 dendrochronology readings indicated all timbers were from the same year of felling.

2 kilometres NW of the site at Dittons Lane, two further tracks were discovered that were earlier than the Shinewater platform. Dittons 1 track was made up of two rows of paired posts, 1 metre wide, and dated to 1510-1260 BC, with an associated but isolated 4 post structure dated 1420-1130 BC. Dittons 2 was older, 2400-1955 BC, late Neolithic to early Bronze Age, with worked stakes of oak and wild cherry. The 45 metre meandering alignment ran NE-SW. These earlier timbers were not as organized as the later platform at Shinewater, and it was estimated that the work could have been done by a couple of chaps in a single season. Two further tracks were identified at the site of the David Lloyd Club.

All work undertaken was below the water table, the seepage had to be pumped out very early each morning, and as it was January, ice also often had to be carefully lifted out before the day’s work could begin. Conditions were rigorous and very cold, laying on boards above the exposed timbers, with permanently wet hands. Not to be envied. Work had to stop when the developers broke through the retaining bank, permanently flooding the sites. It is remarkable how much was discovered and recorded in the very short time allowed. The land containing remains of the rest of the platform was wrapped at the edges with a polythene sheet to retain the wet conditions, and awaits further work, whether the preservation will be as good as n 1995 or not, is a matter of speculation.

MIKE ALLEN then took over the theme of wetland archaeology from the point of view of an environmentalist. Chris and his team had been remarkably lucky to have a site of, not only local, not national, but of such international importance to investigate, albeit for such a short time. Much had undoubtedly been lost, but much also gained. Such wet sites are rare and full of important information that is lost in the usual dry archaeology. Waterlogged sites have wood, peats, pollens, leather, and even fabrics surviving, from which we are able to reconstruct social and domestic activities, as well as the environment and climatic conditions relating to the site. For instance, wooden finds from trackways in the Somerset levels included a pierced butter churn lid and a wooden idol of human form revealing domestic and possibly ritual activity.

The South East has very few wetlands, nothing remotely like the Somerset Levels, or Flag Fenn, and in 1987 English Heritage considered the South East to have been a blank as far as wetlands were concerned, consequently there had been no provision for wetland investigation in planning, and there were no major strategic research schemes in place for our area. Shinewater proved this not to be the case, its discovery had been a shock to the establishment, and planning conditions are now different. Wetland pockets do exist in the South East, but they are small, mainly along the coast, or river valleys, as at Barcombe in Sussex. They are now being investigated and are a rich source of information. At Monk’s Farm in Cambridge a similar stratigraphy survives, where there is fantastic preservation of a collapsed platform that continued its occupation after collapse, revealing burning or scorching, human & animal bones, lots of pots, wooden bowls and spoons, even a piece of scorched fabric, and another reed hook, though without its handle. At Barcombe in Sussex, near the site of the Roman villa, along the ancient river route, augered samples were taken to record pollens and stratigraphy, and a single I metre square test pit dug, out of which popped an oak stake, adzed and pointed with very sharp edges, as though done yesterday, and dated to 1500 BC, just like Dittons 1! There must be much, much more.

From augered samples we know our lagoon has the same stratigraphy throughout, from Wilingdon, to Hampden Park and Arkwright Road where the new Morrisons stands, with peat trapped between layers of marine clays, and must contain much more material, but it is now under threat from a drop in the water table of 40 cm in the last 50 years. It is rich in information, but very fragile and subject to destruction and loss simply by drying out. Landscapes are a dynamic thing, a constantly changing continuum, and are different today that the past. We have a National treasure on our doorstep, a small, but very important part of the story of the past.

Chris and Mike then asked for questions, and invited the audience to gather and handle the artefacts laid out, after which we dispersed for lunch.

After lunch, JO SEAMAN was introduced to explain the community dig of Pococks Cottages, demolished within living memory in 1964, and possibly the lost manor house of Rodmeld Beverington. In 1962, photographs reveal that the surroundings were a semi-rural environment, to the west of a lonely Kings Drive. There had been a suggestion that the old building should be converted to become the estate pub, but it was stripped and demolished in just a few weeks, and there was no sign of it at all by 1966 when the Rodmel estate was built. Checking the maps, Jo discovered that fortuitously much of the building lay in one of the green spaces between the houses, though the excavation window was restricted by tree roots.

Photographs taken by Budgeon, and others at the time just before demolition, showed a complex building with a substantial porch, of at least three phases of construction or alteration. The earliest phase seemed to be a 14th century hall house, with the roof construction suggesting possible smoke louvres at each end of the roof for an open fire. The basic form was altered in the 15th C by the addition of a substantial chimney, and added to in the 16th C, with flint and stone chequered walls. Finally a 17th C extension was built to the rear.

Demolition rubble was found 40 cm below the surface, and it looked as though it was going to be easy, but the rubble, containing medieval tile and Tudor brick as well as later stuff including a bicycle, continued down. Discrete tip lines were visible as the fill was removed, until eventually at 3.5 metres, (11 ft 8 ins), an earth floor of a cellar was revealed, with substantial stone foundations. Everything was recorded in great detail, and the trench sides had to be shored up. Details of the early material showed that the building was of relatively high status at time of first build, but that the complex had become relatively low status by the end if its life.

Pococks Cottages just before demolition.

Pococks Cottages just before demolition.

One in-sittu piece of earth-fast timber was found, though no evidence of the above ground timber elements of the building; a piece of fine moulded stonework which matched the fireplace lintel photographed by Budgeon; and lots of personal items of the sort that probably slipped through the floorboards, including an ABC cinema button, which could be linked to an occupant who had been a commissionaire at the ABC cinema in Eastbourne.

The whole project was a good example of community archaeology, with many of the local population involved. Some of the visitors to the dig had known or lived at the building and gave their recollections, though one denied that there had been a cellar at all, and was surprised to see one revealed.

The collar microphone was quickly transferred, and GILES DAWKES introduced to give an update to the work done recently at Pocock’s Field, by Kings Drive. This had been a fascinating multi-period site that has yielded 80,000 finds from 6,000 contexts. The complete, 3 hectare, strip excavation, prior to housing development surpassed all expectations.

The earliest evidence was of a Bronze Age enclosure ditch, with pits containing burnt mound material and a Neolithic flint. All periods of the iron Age were represented in a settlement complex on the ground rising from the tidal lagoon, with a ditched drove road running alongside. A round house, and many pits were found inside an enclosure ditch, some with domestic material, and many containing masses of salt-making briquetage, a lot of them possibly dug by one person. Salt making would have been done close to the marsh, but no hearths were found. An Iron Age bread oven, a crouched inhumation, a late Iron Age grave with an adult and juvenile, and pits with burnt daub suggesting a catastrophic fire to a dwelling at one time. Animals were represented by food items, plus a horse head and pelvis, and a dog in pits. One of the last things to be found at the South end of the site, was a peninsular set in surrounding marsh that the team named the “Isle of the Dead”, because of the burials discovered there. It was isolated by a ditch across the peninsular, and must have been a special place.

There was a rectangular Roman enclosure ditch similar in shape, and respecting, that of the Iron Age, Roman pottery and a decorated box flue similar to the one found at the sea-front villa, suggesting a high status bath site nearby. A Roman cemetery and possible shrine in its own enclosure tucked into the corner of the larger one. There was a ”T” shaped Roman corn drier, with lots of rake-out material, cobbled post-pads suggested an adjacent granary, and nearby the floor of a Roman building, placed on top of the turf line. Other buildings were suggested by cobbled floor areas surrounded by sill beam slots for wooden walls. This site would have been at the periphery of the sea front villa estate.

Saxon settlement was represented by post-holes at the corner of several grubenhaus, classic weaving huts of a type common from Romania to Ireland, with associated weaving weights and combs. A “short house”, and intriguing four post structures were also present, dated by loom weights to 6th – 7th century ad.

Overlaying all was a medieval hamlet, set within a landscape of ditches and drove roads, with the double lynchet trackway mentioned earlier. Just below the turf were lots of medieval material, with a fairly substantial building terraced, or dug into the slope, with associated partially butchered pig, and a dog thrown into a ditch. A substantial Tudor building of professional status, dated to the 1560s was found, comprising a large hall, courtyard and associated buildings, it was next to the intriguing tank discovered by Robin’s ENHAS dig, which post-dated the first build, and there were extensions, one a brew-house built of reused, fire damaged monumental stonework. This complex rapidly lost its status, being used for farming or industrial purposes, probably after the first phase of Pococks Cottages were built, and was gone by the 1630s. It had originally been a handsome regular farmhouse, dated by bridle bits and a Tudor candle stick, but it had been built too close to the lagoon and was too damp, it soon went out of use as a main dwelling.

The final find was a cache of phosphorous grenade bombs left behind by the Home Guard during the last war, just the latest use of a fascinating multi period site.

The final talk of the day was given by GARY WEBSTER, Eastbourne born and bred, and now part of Archaeology South East’s survey team. His subject was Drones, and what they can offer an archaeologist. Gary started by thanking us for not leaving during the tea break, and explained that drones are unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. There were originally fixed wing military variants with no vertical take-off facility, needing to be launched from a catapult or runway. Technology has rapidly advanced and now rotary or helicopter variants with up to 8 rotors can be home-built for as little as £100, with semi-professional models costing £1,000, and professional models up to £8,000. Improved battery life gives flight times of over an hour, the professional models carrying cameras of £4,000 value!

Drones with cameras have been very useful in identifying new archaeological sites all over the world, as at Caister in Norfolk, Tannis in Egypt, where it has identified 1000 new tombs and 17 new pyramids, and Chateau canyon in the US, identifying “new” ancient Native American dwellings. One variant is used by the farming industry, when data from the colour of crops can be sent direct to a tractor which varies an application of fertilizer where appropriate. These cameras have very high definition and can be used for thermal imaging and LIDAR images, though they are not yet capable of ground penetrating radar.

Photography is the best medium for drones. Gary showed a satellite image of Pococks Field from Google Earth, good for an overview, but with poor resolution. He explained how the site is studded with small blue and red discs as control points, and the drone flies a grid pattern over the site, taking a photo every 3 seconds, recording 1.2 terabytes of images in a single flight, a mind-blowingly massive amount of information. These masses of images are fed into a computer which builds a patchwork by using the control points with an 8% overlap, to produce a three-dimensional image of the site that can be rotated through 360 degrees, which he demonstrated on his computer. By combining images taken at successive levels of the dig, a virtual image of a complete excavation can be viewed from a warm office, seeing details down to a few millimetres in size, a truly breath-taking development in site recording, and a massive help in interpretation.

Gary then introduced us to the model he uses, a light, hand held, 4 rotor model, which he proceeded to fly around the Birley Centre before our eyes, to our great delight. It is ignored by seagulls, and sounded like a swarm of angry insects, but he had full control, and after a few circuits it was landed, to the enthusiastic applause of all.

County archaeologist CASPAR JOHNSON then summed up our fantastic day, reviewing the talks with great clarity. He commented on the cutting edge technology, from reed hook to drone, and stressed the need for an active local interest as demonstrated by Lawrence and Jo, coupled with rigorous discipline and academic recording. The diaspora of the Shinewater dig is slowly coming back to Eastbourne, and will be on show soon in a dedicated display. Society Chairman Greg Chuter then thanked all speakers, and drew a close on a fascinating day.

Report by John Warren