Huge waves, high winds expose remains of pre-historic forest
You may remember a couple of weeks ago I talked about the devastating storms that have been lashing Britain for most of this year. Thousands of acres of farmland are under water, villages are flooded, London is threatened and damages already run into many millions of pounds. Despite this, the news is not all bad. For those interested in archaeology, the huge waves and high winds of these past weeks have provided many golden opportunities.
On Valentine's Day, the south coast of Cornwell, Britain's most southwesterly county, was subjected to a huge Atlantic storm that caused cliff falls, land slips and most importantly, scoured millions of tons of sand from the beaches in a place called Mount's Bay near the town of Penzance. This has exposed the remains of a pre-historic forest that stretched from the villages of Wherry Town to Chyandour.
Several oak and pine tree trunks up to 16 feet long have been washed clear and streams of water running across the remaining beach have revealed acorns, hazel thickets and cob nuts. Radio carbon dating of these remains show the entire bay was a rich and verdant forest some 4,000 to 6,000 years ago. This was the time where our early ancestors were changing from a hunter-gatherer way of life to farming and perhaps, if the weather permits, some traces of these early people may also be found before the sands cover them again.
If we move round the coast to the east side of England, however, we find that the seas have already revealed signs of what could be our earliest ancestors.
Near the coastal town of Happisburgh in Norfolk, the eroding shore line revealed some 50 footprints left by what appears to have been a family group of our forebears. Most of these were erased by the sea before they could be preserved, but a team from the British Museum was on hand to extensively photograph and document them. Why are they significant? Previously the oldest footprints found in Britain were around 7,500 years old, but the Happisburgh prints have been dated at around 900,000 years and are the oldest human foot prints ever found anywhere outside Africa.
It seems that almost every storm that pounded Britain's coast line this winter has washed ancient artifacts out of the cliffs and sands. On the River Thames flowing through London, jetties, docks and boat moorings dating back 1500 years to Anglo Saxon times have been revealed, at the Tower of London remains older than the 1,000-year-old tower itself are being eroded whilst the washing away of the beach sand at places like Dymchurch in Kent and Newquay in Cornwall have revealed the remains of wrecked ships that no one previously knew about.
All around the coastline, artifacts ranging from stone-age axes and cooking pots to medieval burials have been revealed, and this is all treasure to archaeologists. There is a down side to this plethora of archaeology, however. Storms scouring the sand away and exposing sites mean they are now vulnerable to the worst the weather can do. Sea levels are also rising and that means that Roman remains, medieval ports and more prehistoric forests are in danger of disappearing under the waves. Places like Meols in northwest England, where there are the remains of a port used centuries before the birth of Christ, an iron age salt mine in the harbor at Chichester and the port of Fishbourne, built by the Romans, are in danger and may be lost forever.
Some are already beyond saving. One such is Dunwich in Suffolk. Today it has a population of 84 people and consists of just a few cottages, a pub and little else, but go back 1,500 years and it was a walled town, capital city of the Kingdom of East Anglia and seat from which early Christian Bishops sent out missionaries to convert the barbarians. All the experts can do now is to record what has been exposed and then reluctantly watch as the sea swallows it up again. As Taryn Nixon, the chief executive of the Museum of London Archaeology, says, "We cannot hope to halt the erosion or destruction of some of these sites, but we can ensure that the information about the remains is not lost."
In order to do that, the museum is recruiting an army of volunteers from the public who will be reporting and recording anything and everything they see in the wake of the storms. If they find something that is deemed to be of national importance and is considered to be in danger of being lost forever, then the archaeologists will do what they can to preserve it. Let us hope for the sake of posterity that they are in time.
Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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