Storm Archaeology

I had an urgent phone call at Tisbury the other day.

Looking west. Where the river meets the sea at Seatown. Golden Cap in the background.

A few years ago, Humphrey had found the fragments of a granite rotary quern (for grinding grain into flour) washing out of the cliff. He had picked this up below the Seatown Iron Age site we excavated in 2015.

Now he had spotted something else.

A recent storm had scoured the gravel from the river mouth at Seatown.. a hamlet flanked by parts of the National Trust’s Golden Cap Estate in Dorset. The sea had exposed what he thought was the site of an ancient fire…charcoal surrounded by hazelnut shells.

Another storm threatened over the weekend and he thought that the site might be covered again or washed away. I agreed to drive down on the Friday afternoon and have a look.

At Chideock, I took the narrow road down to the beach. The car park was scattered with seaweed and huge rolling breakers smashed against the beach. I opened the boot and put on water-proofs and boots and filled my backpack with sample bags, trowel, notebook and camera. The river had swelled with months of rain and I followed it a few metres towards the sea.

The grey clay exposure at Seatown Beach with black fragments of preserved wood jutting out of it

I then saw what Humphrey had spotted. Black worn timbers jutting out of a grey sticky clay. The sort of clay that excludes all oxygen and enables wood to survive for 1000s of years. The waves were pounding the gravel beach but the tide was far enough out to enable me to crouch down and look at the exposure.

There were footprints and dog paw marks across it… as it was everyone’s riverside route to the shoreline. I quickly cleaned the site up. The area visible was only about 5m long and 2m wide. it seemed to continue under the beach gravel…although it could not be seen, the site was probably much more extensive.

A close up of the clay with a black fragment of wood sticking out top right and around this little black blobs which are the hazelnut shells.

There was a jagged tree stump half a metre in diameter jutting out of the clay and nearby part of a fallen tree trunk of similar size. Around them were many hazelnut shells. I collected a wood fragment and some of the shells and looked for anything that might date the site. This clay was deep down at the river level with the sand and clay lias cliffs rising up on either side. The land had been cut sheer by the wave action that wears away this soft geology year. One of many National Trust coastal sites effected by coastal erosion. I thought of Brownsea in Poole Harbour and Gunwalloe and Godrevy in Cornwall where new archaeology is revealed each winter.

But at Seatown….was this archaeology at all?.or a buried Jurassic forest many millions of years old… but would the hazelnuts survive for so long? I drove away with my samples, drawings and photos ready for some background research.

The next storm blew a field maple over in front of Kingston Lacy House in south-east Dorset. Back in 1990, a storm blew a tree over close to the mansion and revealed the site of the 12th-15th century Kingston medieval manor. .

The field maple on the north side of Kingston Lacy House tearing up remains of the demolished medieval manor house where kings once held banquets for their important guests.

I asked Dave and Gill to have a look and they reported large lumps of stone and mortar exposed in the roots. On closer inspection they saw a medieval clay roof tile and an oyster shell. A leftover from a banquet held in the house …perhaps for John of Gaunt or his son Henry IV.

Close up of the tree roots which have disturbed mortar and building rubble from the old manor house.

A few days later, Mark (National Trust Ranger), drove me out to High Wood. This lies on a hill east of Badbury Rings on the Kingston Lacy Estate. A huge beech tree, over 250 years old, had crashed to the ground.

The fallen beech tree in High Wood

As we drove across the fields, we talked again about the High Wood skeleton revealed by an earlier uprooted beech tree… that fell in the great storm of 1987.

The rain pelted down as we wrapped our coats around us, got out of the car and walked a few yards into the wood. I was awed by this huge fallen tree. We stood under the wide root plate. No bones this time..just a lot of roots mixed with earth and chalk ripped from the ground…but near the centre, something different, the dark soil gave way to burnt orange-red clay that formed a circular area about 1-2m across. I knelt down and picked over the fallen debris. Chunks of light grey flint crackled with many fine lines. These flints had been heated in a fire. This appeared to be a hearth of some kind.

We were getting wet and had other places to see… but Dave and Gill investigated a few days later and recovered struck flakes of flint.

High Wood has been there at least since the 14th century and lies at the heart of the medieval Kingston Lacy deer park. This land has not been ploughed for many hundreds of years so a hearth might survive from the prehistoric period. I’m looking forward to seeing the finds and reading Dave’s report….

3 thoughts on “Storm Archaeology

  1. I wonder if the Seatown site is similar to the ‘submerged forest’ at Charmouth? This has been interpreted as a mass of vegitation that built up at the mouth of the river and was subsequently buried. A wooden bowl found in the material has been dated to, I think, the 12th century.

    • Dear Gordon do you have a reference for the Charmouth preserved wood you mention. I wondered whether the Seatown example was geological but what you say makes sense because I don’t think hazelnuts would survive in such a state for millions of years. Do you have any ideas about who I might contact for the Seatown preserved wood?

      With best wishes


      • The bowl was published in the DNHAS Proceedings for 1984 (Vol 106) p160 “A Twelfth Century Wooden Bowl from the Submerged Forest at Charmouth”.
        There are a few references to the ‘Submerged forest’ in the Dorset Proceedings, the most recent being in 2000,(Vol 122) p125-7 “Hitherto unnoticed tree remains from the submerged forests at Bournemouth and Charmouth”, J. B. Delair
        A few years ago I was shown, in the Charmouth Heritage Centre, some pieces of antler with cut marks on them, very plausibly of medieval date.
        Incidentally the bowl which is the trophy of the Dorset Archaeolgical Awards is based on the Charmouth Bowl, which I beleve is in the County Museum.
        Hope this helps

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s