Spanning over 800 miles of coastline across the vast beaches of Norfolk, the shimmering mud flats of Essex and the mighty Thames Estuary to the iconic and crumbling White Cliffs of Kent and Sussex, CITiZAN South East covers some of the most picturesque and dramatically eroding coastline in England. The dynamic and shifting nature of this fragile and varied geology coupled with the wind, waves, tides and storm surges of recent years have left a wealth of archaeology exposed and at severe risk of being washed away without a trace.
The region has already provided several important archaeological discoveries of recent times including Seahenge in Norfolk and, more recently, the submerged medieval settlement of Dunwich on the Suffolk coast. Both subject to severe erosion, these sites lend their weight importance to CITiZAN's drive to shift the standard approach from a reactive and rescue based archaeological approach to a more proactive one centred on active monitoring and recording.
The region is covered by five Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Surveys (RCZA) completed between 2000 and 2011, each describing a wide range of archaeological features covering all periods of our islands’ past. Coverage is not complete however with some sections of the south coast dangerously inaccessible to survey (although these stretches are relatively limited in size).
The South East of England is awash with military defensive sites and installations, the most common being those built in defence of our island during the Second World War. Cliffs, islands, estuaries and beaches all are home to defensive structures designed to stop and slow enemy attacks from the sea. Pillboxes, such as those at Walton on the Naze and East Mersea, have been particularly susceptible to erosion and many can now be found resting broken on the foreshore. Larger installations have also suffered heavily from erosion, fortifications on the Isle of Sheppey provide a graphic example of the challenges facing the CITiZAN project.
There are also a number of more intriguing defensive structures in the region. The Fan Bay Battery, within the White Cliffs National Trust property, houses a recently rediscovered deep tunnel network, personally ordered by Churchill in 1940 when he was infuriated to find enemy shipping moving freely through the channel (Cohen 2014). The site housed gun emplacements, experimental radar systems and searchlights, the latter of which now rest precariously at the base of an eroding cliff line. The tunnels and rooms have been found to contain numerous graffito by the 184 soldiers that manned the station revealing a fascinating human perspective to life within our coastal defensive network. Fan Bay formed part of the Hell Fire Corner network of bunkers along the Dover coast that was used as the Headquarters for operation ‘Dynamo’ which saw the evacuation of 338,000 troops from Dunkerque in 1940. Recently reopened to the general public to explore after a 3 year restoration project by the National Trust, Fan Bay is one of the best preserved deep tunnel networks in the country.
Several sound mirrors dating from 1917 onwards can also be found in Kent, both at the White Cliffs and the Isle of Sheppey. Built of concrete with diametres of 15-20ft these convex discs were set into the hillside to listen for the approaching engines of enemy aircraft. Whilst the mirrors in Dover have been subject to restoration those on the Isle of Sheppey now lie broken on the rapidly eroding foreshore where the CITiZAN team will soon take a group of volunteers to record these rare innovations of the early 20th century.
Defensive of the Thames also comes in many forms from the great Napoleonic forts of Coalhouse and Tilbury to the unique Brennen wire guided torpedo launch at Cliffe Fort in Kent. Built in 1891 as part of 7 installations around the country the CITiZAN team hope to find and map the remains of each site before they are lost.
Cohen, N. 2014 Exploring the heritage of Hellfire Corner: archaeological investigations at Fan Bay Battery
WWII defensive site now being eroded on the foreshore on the Isle of Sheppey
An acoustic mirror lies crumbling on the beach having fallen from the cliffs above on the Isle of Sheppey
Ships and Shipping
The South Eastern coastline and estuaries are peppered with visible shipwrecks, slowly eroding with the wash of the waves. The Amsterdam, an 18th century Dutch East Indiaman that ran aground on her maiden voyage in 1749, rests on the beach at Hastings is perhaps one of England’s most famous and best preserved wrecks. It lies resting as if it were afloat, having sunk keel first into the soft mud and provides a classic example of how many may imagine a wrecked ship to look. The Amsterdam is currently monitored by the Shipwreck Museum who work to preserve its remains for all to enjoy. Yet the romantic form of its wrecked remains are not unique, indeed they are replicated across several sites and periods that the CITiZAN team will be taking our volunteers to explore , record and monitor.
Work has already begun to record wrecks at Birling Gap in Sussex. The Coonatto lies beneath the cliffs it ran aground in 1876 on her return voyage from Adelaide. The foreshore here is also home to several other wrecks including a First World War German U Boat and several steam ships and cargo vessels. Further east towards Dover lies the wreck of the SS Falcon, a cargo ship that ran aground after bursting into flames in the channel in 1926 when its unlikely cargo pairing of hemp and matches caught fire. The film below ends with a shot of the Falcon burnt out and at rest on the foreshore where it still lies. Nearby lies the wreck of the Preussen which, until the construction of the Royal Clipper in 2000, remained the world’s only five-masted full-rigged ship. Built in 1902 and sunk in 1910 it was carrying a cargo of pianos that, reports suggest, were dragged from the wrecked vessel up the winding chalk cliffs nearby.
Yet it is not only ocean going vessels for CITiZAN to record and monitor. Each of the estuaries in the South East is home to a multitude of hulked barges, boats, lighters and more. The Barge Graveyard in Maldon, Essex is home to over 20 vessels intentionally beached on the mud flat for salvage purposes and provides a fascinating insight into construction methods through the ages.
With ships and shipping must come seamen and traces of their lives exist across the region in the form of graffiti. At St Margaret’s Church in Cliffe, Kent, restoration work in the 19th century revealed graffito of ships etched into the main columns of the church. Similar works exist in Winchelsea as well as in Blakeney in Norfolk and provide an opportunity for greater study under the CITiZAN project banner.
The Coonatto at port in Austrailia. Image: trove.nla.gov.au
CITiZAN volunteers working on the wreck of the Coonatto, Birling Gap
Fishtraps, salterns, oyster beds and wharfs have all played a part in the development of coastal industries around England. CITiZAN South East will be exploring the history of these industries in locations such as Brightlingsea in Essex where oyster beds line the banks of the Colne estuary and the small uninhabited island of Cinderey. At nearby Ray Island on the confluence of the Colne and Blackwater estuaries there are also a number of oyster beds in an area with multi-period archaeology stretching back to the Roman period. The production of salt in salterns is evident in Kent on the banks of the Thames with ‘red hills’ there again dating to the Roman period. In Suffolk the team will be examining barge beds on the banks of the Stour at Shotely Gate that were possibly used to transport local agricultural produce. The remnants of fish traps can also be seen around the region. A 300m long trap at Holbrook Bay, Suffolk lies only a kilometre away from a 100m long series of posts in the Stour estuary identified in the Suffolk RCZA as a potential fish trap indicating a sizeable fishing industry in the area.
A sluice gate for oyster beds at Brightlingsea, Essex
The Mesolithic submerged forest of Pett Level is a striking example of past landscapes in the South East of England some 7000 years ago. With over 1000 trees covering the beaches at Pett Level CITiZAN will be working alongside Historic England to photograph and locate each tree to increase our knowledge of what the woodland would have looked like and how people at the time interacted with this environment (Timpany 2014). Further south in the Lower Thames estuary (from central London east to the Isle of Sheppey) sites such as All Hallows in Kent and Worlds End in Essex have helped to shape our understanding of the early history of the area. Happisburgh in Norfolk has demonstrated that hominids inhabited the upper estuarine part of the Thames within a wider habitat of boreal forest of pine and spruce (Murphy 2014). The site lies on rapidly eroding foreshore meaning constant monitoring through the CITiZAN programme will help to ensure that new material and evidence is captured before it is lost adding vital information to further our knowledge of this period.
Murphy, P 2014 England’s coastal heritage: A review