Amazing archaeology at Birling Gap

A family group walks over Lookout Hill with Belle Tout lighthouse in the background

The hilltop enclosure of Belle Tout, on top of the Seven Sisters cliffs above Birling Gap, is an archaeological mystery and could be one of the UK’s most important Prehistoric monuments. A dig this September aims to uncover these secrets before they erode into the sea.

What's it all about?

Our archaeologists and volunteers will be excavating trenches across this remarkable coastal site, on top of the white chalk cliffs opposite the Belle Tout lighthouse. They hope to find evidence of an early Bronze Age settlement. It is already known that there is a huge outer earthwork, 1.2km long, but archaeologists have yet to arrive at a date for when the hilltop enclosure was built. Previous finds are from different eras including prehistoric flintwork and early Bronze Age Beaker pottery.

A drawing showing a reconstruction of part of the old Belle tout settlement
A drawing showing a reconstruction of part of the old Belle tout settlement
A drawing showing a reconstruction of part of the old Belle tout settlement

How is it different?

What sets this project apart from previous excavations is the application of new scientific techniques such as LiDAR laser scanning, environmental sampling, Optical Stimulated Luminescence (which measures the last time an object was exposed to light) and even analysing microscopic snails, which only exist in certain habitats and give clues as to the ancient landscape.

25 volunteers from the local community will be working on the dig every day alongside experts and professional archaeologists. The team will be taking care not to work any closer than 10 metres from the edge, as the cliffs can be unstable in places with hidden undercuts. 

An image of the laser scanning of the cliffs for the Seven Sisters Archaeology Project
An image of the laser scanning of the Seven Sisters
An image of the laser scanning of the cliffs for the Seven Sisters Archaeology Project

A coastal jewel

This is one of the most ancient and fascinating archaeological sites in Sussex. The site at Belle Tout is already a scheduled ancient monument – a site of national importance. It has been the subject of archaeological work for the last 100 years, but despite this it remains a mystery.   We don’t know for sure how much we’ve lost over the last 6000 years due to coastal erosion, but there is a good case for saying it was the largest prehistoric enclosure in the country. We will be investigating the heart of the settlement, likely to be Bronze Age.

Birling Gap, East Sussex
Visitors playing in the sea at Birling Gap
Birling Gap, East Sussex

How can I get involved?

The public are invited to visit and take part in tours, which are open daily. People can see the archaeologists in action, take a tour of the trenches with volunteers, examine the finds and learn more about this special, historic landscape.

The Seven Sisters Archaeology project will be in process from 6 to 21 September with weekday tours for the public at 11am and weekend tours at 11am & 2pm. From 11 September the finds processing area will be open at the Birling Gap Visitor Centre.

" This is the gold standard in terms of archaeology research - and rightly so - as conceivably it will be the last chance to undertake this work before the areas are gone due to coastal erosion. We have worked closely with Historic England and with Natural England to enable this important project to take place in such a sensitive area and are hugely grateful to our team of volunteers. "
- Tom Dommett, National Trust Archaeologist

Thank you for your support

This dig is really exciting in helping us to learn more about this amazing place, so that we can help bring it life even more in future events and activities at Birling Gap. The project has been a great example of how our volunteers are so essential to the work we do every day.  The Seven Sisters Archaeology Project has been enabled by a £165,000 investment from National Trust through its Neptune project, thanks to the generous support of private donors.