Amazing archaeology at Seven Sisters

Flint arrowhead found at Belle Tout settlement

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 has been 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 will be working 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.  Find out more about the project so far.......

Our story

We will be exploring four sites as part of the project to help us to understand and share the history of this extraordinary landscape.    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 hope to unravel some of the mysteries of this impressive monument.   The prominent ridge at Bailys Hill seems to have been a focus of Bronze Age activity, with several burial mounds containing cremations and grave offerings as well as evidence of settlement and farming. Further work here may give us an insight into how people were living, working, worshipping and dying on this hilltop more than 4,000 years ago.

An etching of the shipwreck the 'Nympha Americana' on the beach at Birling Gap
An etching of the shipwreck the 'Nympha Americana' on the beach at Birling Gap
An etching of the shipwreck the 'Nympha Americana' on the beach at Birling 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. 

During the Second World War the tranquil area around Gayles Farm was transformed into RAF Friston, a fully operational airfield which was home to over 1,000 personnel as well as squadrons of Hurricanes and Spitfires. Documentary research and collecting oral histories will be particularly important to understand what life was like here during the war, when this coastline was braced for invasion.A damaged plane (Imperial War Museum)

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

Latest updates

16 Oct 16

Belle Tout - our discoveries

Belle Tout It’s a huge Neolithic enclosure, with an early Bronze Age settlement sited within a set of small earthworks at its centre. Or it was a temporary or seasonal camp in the early Bronze Age, with a huge Bronze Age enclosure added later. Or the smaller set of earthworks are actually a Medieval stock enclosure. And the big outer earthwork is actually Iron Age. And it was for defence. Or farming. Or trade… Belle Tout has confounded archaeologists for a long time. It is undoubtedly a hugely significant site, based on its enormous size and the quantity of artefacts which have previously been found there, but we haven’t really understood what it was. The end of our dig brings us one step closer. Over the course of two weeks our team of volunteers and professional archaeologists worked tirelessly to excavate a series of trenches and test-pits to investigate the different elements of the monument – as the cliffs continue to retreat, in some areas this may well be our last chance. It is a complicated site to examine. There has been much activity on the hilltop, and artefacts from different periods have been mixed and muddled, a combination of human action and natural processes like hillwash, burrowing animals and the roots of plants like gorse. Much of our interpretation will rest on the results of scientific dating. Optical Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) will be used to date the buried land surfaces which we identified through careful excavation. These were sealed when the banks were built up on top of them, and OSL can accurately date that moment, the last time they were exposed to sunlight hundreds or even thousands of years ago. But before those results come in we can still make some attempt to outline the history of human activity on the hill. Firstly, we can’t consider it as a coastal site – coastal erosion is not a recent phenomenon, and in Prehistory the sea would have been several kilometres away! The outer earthwork is certainly substantial, perhaps once the biggest such prehistoric enclosure in the country. But its irregular and insubstantial ditch makes it unlikely to have been a defensive feature. At the heart of this enclosure a smaller set of earthworks in a small dry valley had previously been thought to mark the extent of an early Bronze Age settlement. Those earthworks now look increasingly likely to be much later, perhaps even a medieval sheepfold. The early Bronze Age ‘Beaker’ activity, however, seems to be much more extensive than previously thought. What little we know of the Beaker period comes largely from burial sites. Evidence of settlement is exceptionally rare, but our excavation retrieved large numbers of artefacts which may date to this period and clearly show some kind of occupation. These artefacts did not just occur within the small earthworks, but were present over a wide area extending several hundred metres up the dry valley which now lies right at the cliff edge. We remain hesitant about confirming this as evidence of a permanent Beaker ‘settlement’ – perhaps because it would be the first site of this type identified in southern England. But there was clearly significant activity here, perhaps over a long period. The valley may have provided a favourable sheltered spot, and water may have been supplied by a shaft, now lost but documented in the 1970s cutting vertically for over 100 feet through the chalk. Whether it was a permanent settlement or just a long-lived seasonal camp (perhaps a place for herding animals from the coastal plains which once lay below it), our excavations have confirmed that it is a site of exceptional importance, and requiring further work before it is lost. Huge thanks are due to our team of volunteers who made this all possible. From excavating the trenches to recording the site, processing the artefacts and leading tours, they have given so much time (literally thousands of hours), and energy, and enthusiasm to the project. And this is only the beginning – environmental samples will now be processed, scientific dating will be undertaken, artefacts like pottery and flint tools will be carefully analysed. We will be holding an exhibition covering this excavation, and the Seven Sisters Archaeology project as a whole, from November at the Birling Gap Visitor Centre, so make sure to come along and find out more about the most recent findings from Belle Tout and the history of the wider Seven Sisters landscape!

06 Sep 16

Belle Tout dig starts...

Today is a very exciting day as it sees the start of the archaeology dig at Belle Tout. 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. Tom Dommett, National Trust archaeologist, explains the significance of the project: “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.” 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.

Team gathered at the start of the archaeology dig at Belle Tout

18 Nov 15

The Belle Tout shaft

The ramparts around the hill next to Birling Gap, known as Belle Tout, are believed to date from the Neolithic, as much as 6,000 years old. Originally it may have been the largest Prehistoric enclosure in England, and an incredibly important site. At the centre of this enclosure are the remains of a small settlement, and it was in this area that a possible shaft was first identified. In the 1970s as the shoreline at Birling Gap eroded back through this settlement the outline of the shaft was revealed running from the top of the cliffs down to the beach, over 30m deep. Hand and footholds carved into the rock show this was not just a natural fissure. By 1982 the shaft had been completely destroyed by coastal erosion. Somewhere on the foreshore, beneath the chalk boulders, the base of this shaft still survives with the tantalising prospect of preserved waterlogged deposits – under these conditions organic materials like wood and textiles, which would normally decay, can survive for thousands of years. Working with the CITiZAN team our volunteers will be searching for the shaft and hoping to unlock its incredible potential. To those on the team – happy hunting!

Historical shaft in the cliffs at Birling Gap