Day One – St Mary’s

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‘It’s really, really exciting’

Great day looking at sites on St Mary’s.  The inaugral event of the Isles of Scilly Shorewatch group took a small group off to record a number of already known eroding sites.  To get ourselves in the mood we started by looking at the excavated site of Halangy Down, which dates to the early first century AD.  This is a small settlement of a series of courtyard houses excavated in the ‘70’s by the late, great Paul Ashbee (reported on in Cornish Archaeology (CA) 1996).  It is beautifully presented by English Heritage and proved to be a good starting point for discussions on what is archaeology and how is it identified, recorded and interpreted?

Halangy Porth lies about 100m upslope from the coastally eroding, earlier site of Halangy Down.  This is another settlment site, also investigated by Paul Ashbee (CA 1998) with  radiocarbon dates that place occupation in early to middle Iron Age (about half a century earlier than Halangy Down).  This site is visible in the cliff section as the sea erodes the archaeology.  It was first noticed by Bonsall in 1899 and its’ continued erosion has been a source of interest and concern since that time, with minor works by Gibson and Gray in 1920s, followed by Henken in1932 with a major excavation on the landward side in ‘75-‘76 by Ashbee.

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So how do you spot an eroding archaeological site?  Well as we discussed and demonstrated to the group there are a few clues.  Firstly as you walk along the coast the archaeological stands out as different.  Rather than sand/soil with few rocks, the sites tend to be stone rich.  Also many of the stones are in strange positions, standing on their ends or one on top of the other, not places that stone would end up if moved by natural processes. Secondly the soil tends to be a different colour. Humans alter where they live and material produced as a result of cooking, fire, food processing, tool production and general rubbish changes the colour, texture and content of the sediment at the site.  Then thirdly you get the material humans leave behind, most commonly pottery, bone, flint and charred material.  Halangy Porth showed all these charecteristics, with clearly visible walls, darker soils and finds.

Coastal monitoring gets folk involved in identifying and recording eroding sites. To do this we need to first find the sites (see above) then record their condition today and monitor their condition over time.  We used the SCAPE Shorewatch forms to record the sites – where they where (using grid references – along the corridor and up the stairs),  the condition of the archaeology, it’s vulnerability to erosion and what is the recommended action for the site.  At Halangy Porth we were lucky enough to have earlier records of what the site looked like over time, and it was obvious that active erosion is still on-going. To the extent that we found large pieces of recently eroded Iron Age pottery lying on the ground at the bottom of the section.  We also found two small flint flakes, a small bladelet and a broken serrated blade, these are of particular interest as Iron Age sites are not thought to continue to use flint.  The team also (re)found a number of large quern (grinding stone) fragments lying on the beach in front of the site that have obviously been eroded out of the site.   The finds were a good focus for a chat on how to identify pot, flint, worked stone etc.  The vulnerability of the site and the quality of the archaeology led us to recommend its’ excavation.

From Halangy we moved around the coast to the cairn at Pendrathon. We tasked the team with finding the site based on their new found skills.  They easily spotted it and this enigmatic monument (i.e. we don’t really know what it is) looks like a cairn and when previously recorded has been interpreted as a burial cairn.  There are lots of stones visible in the section but very few finds.  Today it was apparent that the site has suffered over the past few years, with many newly fallen stone and sections of the coast undercut.   The erosion had also revealed a new area of stone with thick chunks of what looks like Late Bronze Age (or Early Iron Age?) pottery falling out of the section.   We recorded and photographed this site as well.  Along the shore was evidence of the power of the sea in the form of a WWII pillbox now lay on the beach but previously had been up on the cliff.  Recommendation? Excavate?

The weather was kind, the archaeology interesting and the team leaders enjoyed having the time to share their knowledge.  Often when we are over here we are on tight schedules and whilst happy to chat have many calls on our time dealing with students and research agendas.   Today we had all the time in the world to ask people what they wanted to know and how they would like the project to evolve.

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