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A couple of gems … bouldnor cliff and Kents cavern

8 December 2011

In the latest issue of Current Archaeology 262 Dec/Jan 2011/12 there are a couple of gems. The first of them concerns Kents cavern in the holiday resort of Torquay. New research here began in 2009 and the cave still contains a large amount of untouched sediment, and hopefully, Pleistocene archaeology and palaeontology. So far it has yielded over 80,000 fossils and bits and pieces and caused ripples in the 19th century. For example, the Reverand John MacEnery, in the 1820s, left extensive records of his excavations, and he found flint tools below the stalagmite on the cavefloor – which challenged Biblical chronology and his own beliefs. He was loathe to publish what he had found, and was in fact encouraged not to do so as it would be upsetting, and as a result it is Sir John Evans who has gone down in history as the 'father' of prehistory – when in fact MacEnery was way out in front of him. 

In the UK hyenas appear to have become extinct by 30,000 years ago – they are certainly in the cave some 40,000 years ago (as a denning animal leaving behind traces of their mouth juices). Interestingly, Chris Proctor, a cave sedimentologist, identified pockets of sediment wedged into unusual spaces that were the inescapable evidence of high energy events, such as flooding – more reasonably, tsunamis waves. This implies that flooding events have washed older material into parts of the cave making interpretation more difficult – and we have to rely on the fairness of the researchers in that respect. It is unreasonable to think all the bones of Ice Age animals were driven there by floods of water – but it is feasible to think in terms of cave dwellers and their remains being redistributed by the occasional wave of water. This implies some deposits were unaffected by the waves of water – but did it involve tsunamis or the occasional high tide?

Kents cavern is now located on the south Devon coast, on Linscombe Hill, a cliff close to the sea. It has good views overlooking a valley that now links the two bays of Torquay, a valley that in the Pleistocene would have sloped down to a large plain on what is now the English Channel, cut through by a major river and its various tributaries (the Seine for example, and the Dart).

There is another interesting article on Bouldnor Cliff, on the Isle of Wight. We have read about Bouldnor Cliff in SIS as Steve Mitchell has written about it so not much is required as regards explanation – it dates back to the Mesolithic period, and in particular, the period just before the 6000BC event. An excavation report was however not produced until September of 2011, 'Mesolithic occupation at Bouldnor Cliff and the submerged landscape of the Solent' (CBA Research Dept 164, ISBN 978190277 1847) which will set you back £25. Apparently, only a tiny fraction of an extensive Mesolithic landscape has actually been excavated so far – a few square metres. There is a lot more down there – now 36 feet below sea level. The sea did not stop rising, or sea levels did not stop changing, until around 2000BC, it would seem, and the seabed of what is now the Solent was then a sheltered basin with rivers and streams leading out to the Channel river several miles out to sea beyond the boundaries of the Isle of Wight as it now exists. At some stage in the Holocene the basin developed into a series of brackish lagoons and salt marsh with mud flats – somewhat akin to the landscape between modern Portsmouth and Chichester (rather muddy at low tide). The assumption, always, is that sea levels rose gradually, and that silt from successive tides built up layers of mud and soft clays that sealed in the past, including stumps of trees from what had formerly been a thriving woodland habitat. It is also thought that until 2000BC the Isle of Wight remained connected to the mainland in its western hithermost parts but that the sea then breached the spit of land and altered the tidal pattern. Whether this was in 2000BC or later, we don't know but the sea sweeping around the island would have caused a certain amount of scouring, simply by tidal action. What had been a lagoon with gentle tidal behaviour had allowed the mud and silt to accumulate, it is thought, but the sudden opening of the western side of the Solent has since allowed that silt and clay to dissipate into the wider ocean. We know, or the archaeologists have established, that since the 1960s oyster fishermen, and others, with trawl nets, have been bringing up lots of flint tools with their catches. The big question we might ask, why is human activity in the British waters before 6000BC well below sea level now but in South America, Lake Titicaca, once a coastal lagoon somewhat akin to the former status of the Solent, now high in the Andes. Why has sea level risen in one part of the world but fallen in another?   

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