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When the Isle of Wight was just Wight

Underwater archaeology with historical New Forest detectives beneath the waves 

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"This may sound incredible but just eight thousand years ago there was no Solent and there was no English Channel. Both were as dry as the mid-summer New Forest heathland. If you wanted to pop across to Calais for some cheap wine and fags you could grab a rucksack, pull on your best boots and walk there. If the local shop in Lymington was out of milk then all you had to do was stroll over to the shop in Yarmouth. At that time, England, the Isle of Wight (then just a chalk outcrop) and Europe were as one.

When I was a sailing chap, my boat was moored at Ocean Village which happens to be the base for the Royal Southampton Yacht Club. Friends, who are members, invited us there one evening to hear a talk given by the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology, a charity now known as the Marine Archaeology Trust or MAT. It was fascinating and informative. Did you know that there are fossilised trees in the Solent? Did you know about the submerged village twelve metres beneath the surface at Bouldnor Cliff? This Atlantis of Hampshire is situated just to the east of Yarmouth. Fishermen working the western Solent have reported finding flint tools in their dredges since the sixties but only relatively recently have experts started to catalogue finds.

Lobsters, surprisingly useful to an archaeologist.

Bouldnor was discovered because a sharp-eyed diver happened to notice that a burrowing lobster was ejecting pieces of flint from its tiny excavation. On closer investigation these pieces were found to be tools, a sure sign of human occupation. To date, divers have found all manner of objects from the past including worked timbers suggesting large buildings or perhaps boats. The Trust believes that the main reason we know so little about this period, the Mesolithic, is because most of the sites are now underwater.

The Mary Rose, a world-famous wreck just a short drive away

Now we take a short trip from the Western Solent to the mouth of Portsmouth harbour.

The wreck of the Mary Rose was discovered in the Solent outside Portsmouth in just twelve metres of water. As a result of the sheer determination and persistence of just one man, the late Alexander McKee, the wreck was eventually raised and thousands of artefacts were recovered. Initially he fought the tides, he struggled with officialdom and a lack of faith from almost all he tried to involve. In the very beginning he wasn’t even allowed to put a buoy on the site. Each time he re-visited the wreck at slack water he had to use careful navigation to be sure of his position. Fortunately, Prince Charles became involved with the project and the rest is history. In my opinion the brand-new Mary Rose museum is an utter treat well worth a visit. The care and commitment that has been put into the display of the various exhibits is a testament to first class marine archaeology. You’re probably aware of the dozens of bows and arrows that were found but did you know about the backgammon set? Did you know about the incredibly intricate combs that the sailors used to combat lice? How these combs were created using hand tools is beyond me.

Global Warming, this time, the real deal and certainly not due to our industrial activity.

Most of northern Europe was once covered with an ice cap and when this melted, water levels rose. We’re not talking about today’s random estimates of a foot or two. No, this was real warming. We are talking about the creation of the English Channel and our Isle of Wight. (The creation of seas, for which, all ferry companies ought to be extremely grateful). In terms of time, let’s look at how recent these events really were. The Mary Rose foundered just five hundred years ago. Stonehenge was created three thousand years ago. The Mesolithic village at Bouldnor? Eight thousand years ago. In terms of the age of our globe these events are very recent indeed. In the eighties we were told that due to man-made global warming the Maldives would end up underwater, submerged, disappeared. As far as I am aware these pretty islands still exist and scare stories of this nature are divisive and unhelpful. Perhaps we ought to look at the massive climate changes that have occurred in the recent past and compare them to what is happening today. I’m not sure that things are really that bad, are you? I wonder what today’s febrile media would make of the frost fair that took place on the Thames just two-hundred years ago?

The Needles. A world-famous landmark, and hazard.

Should you take the ferry from Lymington to Yarmouth, take a look to the west where you will easily see the Needles. Just beyond the lighthouse is the wreck of the Varvassi. At low tides parts of her are still visible and a hazard to those who choose to sail too close. She was carrying a cargo of wine, much of which ended up on the shore. The year 1947 must have been a good year for wine loving beachcombers. MAT has found other wrecks which they survey meticulously, fighting the ravages of time and tide in order to record what evidence remains while there is still time to do so.

The work of these dedicated people, many of whom are volunteers, gives us all a peep into the past, a hint of what life must have been like for people who lived in a world without electricity, running water or Tesco. In the case of a wreck, we can only imagine the terror of the poor sailors as their home crunched and splintered on the rocks before sinking. If you want to get some idea of how dangerous these waters can be just look on-line where you can see the wrecks in our area. There are many.

But in the meantime, enjoy the fruits of the labours of some extremely skilled and dedicated divers who have carefully recorded some of our underwater past and indeed continue to do so."

Underwater archaeologists by Hugh Lohan

More tales and cartoons from Mark and Hugh

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Meanwhile if you'd like to read previous articles on diverse subjects written by Mark and illustrated by Hugh's cartoons here they are, click the links embedded in the titles:

Bucklers Hard
Salisbury Cathedral 
Pond Life in our Forests 
Bombs Away 
Baileys Hard 
Rufus Stone and Sir Walter Tyrrell
Graffiti through the ages
Freedom of the roads
Heath fires
Lymington Lido
Watch the birdie
Unstoppable momentum of nature
Socially distanced socialising
Calshot Spit, a curse for mariners...

 

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