Stone Age Settlement Found Under English Channel
Special to LiveScience
LiveScience.comFri Aug 10, 10:05 AM ET
Erosion on the floor of the English Channel is revealing the remains
of a busy Stone Age settlement, from a time when Europe and Britain
were still linked by land, a team of archaeologists says.
The site, just off the Isle of Wight, dates back 8,000 years, not long
before melting glaciers filled in the Channel and likely drove the
settlement's last occupants north to higher ground.
"This is the only site of its kind in the United Kingdom," said Garry
Momber, director of the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime
Archaeology, which led the recent excavations. "It is important
because this is the period when modern people were blossoming, just
coming out of the end of the Ice Age, living more like we do today in
the valleys and lowlands."
End of Ice Age caused channel flood
Lobsters mucking around the seabed at the site about 10 years ago
revealed a cache of Mesolithic flints, prompting further excavations
that uncovered two hearths (ancient ovens) dangling precariously from
the edge of an underwater cliff.
Burnt wood fragments gouged with cut marks and a layer of wood
chippings were found lying under 35 feet of water during the latest
dig. Divers brought the material to the surface still embedded in
slabs of the sea floor that were carried up in specially-designed
boxes, which were then pieced back together and examined and dated in
"We now have unequivocal evidence of human activity at the site,"
Momber told LiveScience. "There were people here actively making stuff
and being quite industrious."
At 8,000-years-old, the settlement is the only underwater Mesolithic
site in Britain, though it is probably part of a much larger area of
occupation yet to be uncovered, Momber said.
As the climate began to warm up near the end of the Ice Age about
10,000 years ago, people were moving into Northern Europe and settling
down in the many river valleys left behind by melting glaciers, Momber
explained. Many of the valleys, such as the ones now beneath the
English Channel, were eventually inundated completely when
temperatures returned to normal.
"A good chunk of the material left behind from this cultural period is
eventually going to be found underwater," Momber said.
Underwater sites better preserved
Despite the logistical problems of underwater archaeology, the Isle of
Wight site and others like it are usually better preserved than their
counterparts on land, Momber said.
When the floodwater rose slowly in the English Channel, it deposited
layers of silt atop the settlement, encasing it in an oxygen-free
environment that preserves even organic materials such as wood and food.
"With underwater sites, all the trappings of a society are going to
remain, not just the stone," Momber said. The trade-off is an
environment that can carry away the precious remains at any timea
real concern at the Isle of Wight settlement.
"The erosion of this site would be a loss of information to humanity,
not just the washing away of a bit of material," he said. "There is
the potential to find so much more there; there is so much to learn."