Living on the edge - 5000 years by the sea

Volunteers working on an archaeological dig with Belle Tout lighthouse in the background

From Neolithic enclosures to Iron Age field systems and Second World War defences the archaeology of the Seven Sisters covers thousands of years, telling a complex story of continuous human occupation along this dramatic coastline. Many of these monuments are at risk from coastal erosion, so the Seven Sisters Archaeology Project was established to investigate and record the sites before they are lost. Funded through the National Trust’s Neptune campaign and as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, it worked with over 200 National Trust volunteers alongside professional archaeologists to get a better understanding of how this extraordinary landscape has evolved, and share the story with others. This exhibition tellsl the story of what we found...

We began by exploring four sites as part of the project to help us to understand and share the history of this extraordinary landscape. 

Belle Tout

The hilltop enclosure of Belle Tout, sited above Birling Gap, was a site of exceptional importance during the Late Neolithic, around 5,000 years ago. It was probably the largest prehistoric enclosure in the country and home to a powerful community, but many questions about its use remain unanswered. Through survey and analysis we unravelled some of the mysteries of this impressive monument.

Volunteers working on an archaeological dig
Volunteers working on an archaeological dig
Volunteers working on an archaeological dig

Baily's Hill

The dust has settled from our second set of SSAP excavations, digging on Baily's Hill. While the specialists are still busy analysing the pottery and other finds, the first impressions from the dig confirm activity on the hill over thousands of years.    Much of the ground appears to have been disturbed by the military training that was taking place here during the Second World War. The valleys were used as tank and artillery ranges, with moving targets mounted on trolleys, and there was even a range where machine-gunners could practice targeting dive-bombers.    The excavations encountered evidence of farming here in the period after the Norman Conquest, and though we weren’t able to confirm any additional Prehistoric burial monuments on the ridge, we did find plenty of evidence of other activity around this time. Interestingly we kept finding just one particular type of flint tool, known as a ‘scraper’, which would have been used for working animal hides. Perhaps the community living here was specialising in a particular form of craft, trading with neighbouring groups who were producing grains or flaked flint axes.    Our volunteers contributed altogether more than 1500 hours of their time to our excavations on Baily's Hill, a tremendous effort and we're incredibly proud of what they achieved working under the guidance of the Chris Greatorex archaeology team.

Volunteer sieving soil on an archaeological dig
Volunteer sieving soil on an archaeological dig
Volunteer sieving soil on an archaeological dig

Crowlink Gap

Since the Medieval period Crowlink Gap has been a favoured spot for smugglers to offload their cargo – London merchants would even proudly proclaim their smuggled spirits to be ‘Genuine Crowlink’.  The coastguard station built here to combat the smugglers was abandoned in the 1930s and now the site is gradually disappearing as the cliffs retreat. 

Although very little could be seen on the surface, the foundations of the building were very well preserved below the turf, and by the end of the excavation we could actually retrace the footsteps of the coastguards, one hundred years ago – walking through the front porch and down into the parlour, through to the kitchen and over to the hearth, the heart of any home during this period.   The excavations showed that to begin with at least the conditions were quite cramped, with each unit holding just 384 square feet of floor space. In modern terms this would not even meet the minimum floor space for a studio flat, and yet from the census records we know that one Coastguard stationed here lived in a single unit with this wife and no less than 10 children.    We recovered a huge number of artefacts relating to the Coastguards, but also found evidence for much earlier occupation – a 6,000 year old Neolithic flint axe, which was unexpected. This type of tool would have been used by the first farmers to clear the woodland which grew on these slopes after the last Ice Age – rather ironic, given that it was found buried in the eroded soils which this deforestation had caused.  

Buttons found at archaeological dig
Buttons found at archaeological dig
Buttons found at archaeological dig

Shipwrecked

All along our coastline, every day, the elements chip away at cliffs, sand dunes and inter-tidal areas, threatening archaeological sites in the process. CITiZAN (the Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network) is the first national response to this threat, and over the last few days the SSAP has been working with CITiZAN to record one such site, the wreck of the Coonatto. This square-rigged clipper, laden with a cargo of wool and copper, came ashore amid a heavy storm and thick fog on a Monday morning in 1876 - the ribs of the vessel can still be seen at low tide beneath the Crowlink Coastguard Station where we excavated in May. Working on the site can be difficult, as there is only a short window of time to work there before the tide sweeps back, but the team have now managed to make detailed plans of the remains of the vessel, and have managed to locate the keelson (the internal base of the ship). They even retrieved some felt still preserved between the outer planking of the vessel where it was used to prevent wear and tear on long voyages. It was a totally new type of archaeology for our volunteers, and we will continue working with the CITiZAN team over the coming year, at the Coonatto and other sites which are hidden each day by the tides at Birling Gap. 

Surveying the wreck of the Coonatto at low tide
Surveying the wreck of the Coonatto at low tide
Surveying the wreck of the Coonatto at low tide

RAF Friston

The site was initially a decoy airfield, but the Luftwaffe didn’t take the bait, so it became an emergency landing strip and by 1941 was designated as a forward satellite station. Hurricanes from Friston were involved in the disastrous Dieppe raid of 1942, and the airfield also played an important role in supporting the D-Day landings of June 1944 when the Operations Record Book notes that “Many emergency landings were made and the airfield began to look like a Bomber Station when almost every type of bomber and fighter could be identified…”.    But the site also has a deeper past. Airborne laser scanning, capable of producing a highly detailed model of the ground surface, has shown the remains of extensive systems of fields which almost certainly date to the Iron Age and Romano-British periods, around 2,000 years ago. In fact, this area has even produced flint tools which pre-date the last Ice Age, something we hope to investigate further.

A damaged plane (Imperial War Museum)
A damaged plane (Imperial War Museum)
A damaged plane (Imperial War Museum)