The area of Bouldnor Cliff lies just offshore from the Isle of Wight in the English Channel. Now it has immense archaeological interest, given the amount of Stone Age artifacts found submerged in the seabed over the years. However, in 2019 researchers made one of their most exciting discoveries to date.
So the stretch around Bouldnor Cliff was in fact once dry land. However, as sea levels rose in the wake of the Ice Age, the site was submerged underwater. And luckily, the mud and silt that came with the rising tide served to preserve much of the Stone Age settlement.
With that in mind, researchers have explored around Bouldnor for decades. But it wasn’t until 2019 that they uncovered the remains of what they believed to be an ancient shipyard. Unlike anything they’d seen, the site revealed in detail what life may have been like for our Stone Age ancestors.
Now, the journey to the discovery of the historic shipyard began back in 1999. For it was then that divers stumbled upon a lobster digging a burrow in the seabed of The Solent. This is the pool of water between the English mainland and the Isle of White itself. And as the crustacean made way for its new home, it disturbed some curious artifacts.
Indeed, experts from the Maritime Archaeology Trust (MAT) discovered that among the items the lobster had moved were Stone Age relics. To some extent, the historic finds were no surprise. For local fishermen had been finding stone tools in the area for decades.
Furthermore, in 1987 an ancient forest was found submerged around the same area off Bouldnor. As technology improved, radiocarbon dating on the pollen found showed that the woodland was around 8,000 years old. As a result, the area became a hotspot for archeological diving with more discoveries being made.
Yes, discoveries came in regularly, many of them also dated to around the same era as the ancient forest. However, it wasn’t until the MAT stepped in that specific zones of interest were identified for further investigation. And this was all thanks to the archeological efforts in the area where the lobster was spotted in 1999.
So the artifacts that the lobster uncovered were distinctive rocks that were used as flints by our Stone Age ancestors. But it also appeared the crustacean had dug through deposits into an ancient cliffside that existed before The Solent became submerged. What was to happen next would show that this was actually something quite significant.
As a result of the lobster’s efforts, and the subsequent discoveries, archeologists have returned to Bouldnor every year. And further excavations established this was a historical coastal site encompassing structures and five important zones. And thus it was named Bouldnor Cliff. In fact, the entire site is two thirds of a mile long, but diving there is not for the faint-hearted.
That’s right, because The Solent’s fast-flowing waters create dangerous conditions for divers. As a result, archaeological investigations there are perilous, causing scientists to search for new technologies and methods of investigation. What’s more, any technique used would have to be good enough to gain access to the seabed. So let’s find out more.
Well, one such technique is known as “box sampling.” And this involves collecting large swathes of the seafloor in metal containers. Once that’s done, archeologists can then analyze their contents more closely on dry land. Furthermore, when it came to the excavations in The Solent, their work was incredibly fruitful.
Yes, as archaeologists sifted through the area, they found artifacts spread out between the five important zones. And among the most notable finds were the oldest length of string, and oldest wheat ever found in the U.K. Sensationally, it meant the history of agriculture in the U.K. was 2,000 years older than previously thought. And it didn’t end there.
No, for under one pile of wood, archaeologists found burnt flint, clay, and charcoal. As a result, they concluded that the area was likely some kind of Stone Age home. Meanwhile, discovered worked-on timbers revealed that the site’s Stone Age ancestors possessed technological skills well beyond their years. In fact, they had these skills 2,000 years earlier than the Neolithic era.
Then, more discovered timber looked as though it might have been used as a channel or pipe for transporting liquids. Now these kinds of conduits had never been associated with Mesolithic archaeology previously. But there were yet more amazing discoveries to be found in between mainland U.K. and The Isle of Wight.
For in 2005, archeologists first found a load of submerged timbers. Now it was thought that these may have been a walkway, platform or even a collapsed structure. However, it was hard for experts to interpret the find, though they believed it may have been connected with shipbuilding. We’ll come back to this shortly, but for now let’s explore what Bouldnor Cliff was like back in its prehistoric heyday.
So back then, the area in which the Bouldnor Cliff settlement sat was a river valley. What’s more, along with the rest of Great Britain, the Isle of Wight was linked to mainland Europe by the Doggerland. And it’s believed that this causeway was an ancient migration route, via which people moved to the British Isles.
And there’s physical evidence to suggest how close Britain’s relationship to mainland Europe was back then. According to research from 2015, wheat DNA was identified at Bouldnor Cliff. However, this species of wheat was not native to the U.K. As a result, there is a possibility that Britain started trading with Europe much earlier than archaeologists once believed.
However, as the Ice Age subsided, the Doggerland eventually disappeared approximately 8,200 years ago. And as their world became more watery, it seems that Stone Age people turned their hand to shipbuilding. Or at least that’s what archeologists came to believe following a major discovery at Bouldnor Cliff. On that note, let’s get back to more contemporary times.
So as we know, the discovery in 2005 of a pile of timbers appeared to capture the curiosity of archeologists. But the artifacts were difficult to place for a while and their significance couldn’t really be ascertained. As a result, what happened next would use technology to make researchers’ lives easier. To add to that, a nice little coincidence would emerge some 15 years later.
That’s right, to start with the MAT employed up-to-the-minute photogrammetry techniques to eventually map the 2005 timber remains. And then came a major breakthrough in the spring of 2019, when erosion revealed another structure within the submerged forest. As such, the trust was eager to learn more about the site.
Therefore, researchers firstly created a 3D digital model of the underwater landscape. That way, it could be explored fully without diving. After that, a team from the MAT excavated the site to reveal the important discovery in all its glory. And it would certainly challenge any previously held conceptions about what our ancestors of the time were capable of.
Astonishingly, the find was another wooden structure, revealing a platform constructed from split timbers. These were many layers in thickness and laid on wooden foundations. And the director of the MAT, Garry Momber, later explained the importance of the discovery in an interview with BBC News.
Speaking in August 2019, Momber said, “This new discovery is particularly important as the wooden platform is part of a site that doubles the amount of worked wood found in the U.K. from a period that lasted 5,500 years. The site contains a wealth of evidence for technological skills that were not thought to have been developed for a further couple of thousand years, such as advanced woodworking.”
What’s more, experts believed that the platform was used to build boats. And if that’s true, at 8,000 years old, Bouldnor Cliff would be the oldest ship-building site in the world. Clearly excited by the find, Momber told Gizmodo, “As a feature by itself it’s quite incredible. “This is the most cohesive, intact structure from the Middle Stone Age ever recovered in the United Kingdom.”
As Momber continued to explain to Gizmodo, “It opens doors into something we know so little about – how these people arrived and how these societies slowly developed and changed.” And given the significance of recent finds at Bouldnor Cliff, there’s a good chance that more ancient history lies underwater. Taking that into consideration, researchers decided to widen their remit.
Yes, archaeologists are exploring whether there are submerged landscapes in the nearby English Channel, and further afield in the North Sea. In 2017 Dr. Rachel Bynoe told The Guardian, “Many people may not realise that much of the North Sea was once dry land… These now-drowned landscapes contain important information about the lives of our ancestors from the Palaeolithic all the way through until the Neolithic period.”
However, not everyone seemed to agree that the ancient platform would have been used for ship building. For example, one expert who remains skeptical is Dr. Helen Farr, an archaeologist from the University of Southampton in England. And she made her doubts known in an interview with Gizmodo, claiming similar sites had thrown up such finds.
As Dr. Farr went on to explain, “Whilst I love the idea that this is the oldest boat-building site in the world (which chimes so well with the maritime heritage of the Isle of Wight), I would be tentative of making this claim from the wooden timbers discovered… However, a platform or walkway would fit with what I would expect from other known sites of this age.”
In spite of this, given the wealth of archeological finds made around Bouldnor Cliff, it has been nicknamed “Britain’s Atlantis.” And over the years, the discoveries made in the location have redefined the island nation’s ancient history. However, the future of the historically significant site is under threat. Ironically, it’s from the same thing that helped researchers make their latest discovery.
Over millennia, the landscape of The Solent has changed as a result of varying sea levels. And the rising tide brought with it deposits of silt and mud, which buried the ancient landscape around Bouldnor Cliff. In turn, these materials preserved it for thousands of years. However, as time has passed, coastal erosion has uncovered the site bit by bit, leaving it vulnerable to the elements.
Indeed, the 2019 artifact for example, had to be dealt with swiftly due to the ongoing dangers of erosion. A post on the MAT website, explained, “[The] Inspection in May 2019 revealed that this feature had only recently become exposed as it was not seen in 2018. The ongoing erosion meant we had to record and recover it or lose this unique piece of our past forever.”
What’s more, the erosion hasn’t gone unnoticed by some of the best-known historians in the business. For example, Dan Snow is a British historian and television presenter, who hosts History Hit, an incredibly popular history podcast. And when he went diving at Bouldnor Cliff he was impressed with the remains he saw. But he was also shocked by the ongoing erosion. And furthermore, with the site being underwater, there are other complications.
As MAT’s Garry Momber went on to explain, after the find in August 2019, “This site shows the value of marine archaeology for understanding the development of civilization. Yet, being underwater, there are no regulations that can protect it. Therefore, it is down to our charity, with the help of our donors, to save it before it is lost forever.”
With that in mind, elements of the wooden platform from the reported shipbuilding site have been removed from the seabed. In fact, they have been sent to the National Oceanography Centre’s British Ocean Sediment Core Research facility for treatment. However, preserving the historic artifacts will be no easy feat, as we’ll find out.
Yes for the ancient wood will be vulnerable to rotting if it is not stored in cold and wet conditions. Now, The National Oceanography Centre can provide such conditions. But to preserve the timbers further, they will undergo a process to remove the salt from the cells of the wood.
And only when the timbers have been desalinated will they be ready for scientists to analyze. As part of their research, the National Oceanography Centre will search for engravings and cut marks made by our ancestors. But immediately, experts will work against the clock as there’s a danger such markings could be lost forever.
As Dr. Suzanne Maclachlan, curator at the British Ocean Sediment Core Research facility (BOSCORF) explained, “It has been really exciting for us to assist the [MAT] Trust’s work with such unique and historically important artifacts. This is a great example of how the BOSCORF repository is able to support the delivery of a wide range of marine science.”
Meanwhile, an archeology project is set to carry out a separate investigation in response to the discovery of the “ancient shipyard”. Indeed, The Bouldnor-Butser Mesolithic Woodworking Project is attempting to build boats from logs and other natural materials. What’s more, the boats will be based on the ones they believe were constructed on the site at the time.
So for the time being at least, Bouldnor Cliff remains Britain’s Atlantis. However, the treasured site appears under threat as a result of erosion and a lack of statutory protections. As a result, Dr. Farr told Gizmodo, “It is really important to now think about how we can protect these important sites that can tell us so much about activity in the deep past.”
And in September 2019 a tweet from the Maritime Archaeology Trust reiterated how essential it was to save Bouldor Cliff. It read, “It is a race against time for this site being eroded from the #Solent sediments. This year a unique timber platform feature was recovered. We are #fundraising to conserve this.”