Mesolithic carpenters left stone tools, wood chippings and a partially constructed boat on a site that’s now 11m below the sea. What’s more, there’s evidence that they were using woodworking techniques not otherwise seen in Britain for another 2,500 years.
When someone says something was ahead of its time, you don’t usually assume they mean 2,500 years ahead of its time. But at Bouldnor Cliff, archaeologists are finding evidence that this was very much the case.
Eight thousand years ago, this stretch of now-submerged coastline off the Isle of Wight, was a rich, verdant landscape and an ideal home for Mesolithic families. But there was one small problem: rising sea levels.
Today, the site is 11m below the waves, but what’s down there is changing our understanding of the people who first settled island Britain, and of one of the most important technologies they had at their disposal: boats.
Surprisingly, archaeologists know very little about prehistoric boat-building. We know that people have been doing it for tens of thousands of years (how else did people get to places like Australia?) and yet solid evidence of what they looked like, and how they were constructed, is frustratingly rare.
In Europe, the oldest waterborne vessel ever discovered by archaeologists is a 10,000 year-old dugout canoe from the Netherlands, while the oldest plank-built vessels in the region are the Bronze Age boats found at Dover in Kent and North Ferriby in Yorkshire, which have been radiocarbon dated to between 3,500 and 4,000 years old.
That picture may be about to get a little bit clearer though. At Bouldnor Cliff, Garry Momber and his team of underwater archaeologists from the Maritime Archaeology Trust have found something up to twice that age, built using a woodworking technique that hasn’t otherwise been seen in Britain for another 2,500 years.
Garry’s first clue to the discovery came in 2005 when he was inspecting a ridge at the bottom of a 7m high underwater cliff, when he spotted something that made him do an underwater double-take.
“The current was pushing me along, but what I saw was enough to make me turn 180 degrees and come to a complete stop. Among the branches of an old tree was a collection of coloured flints, some of which had been superheated. They looked so out of place, I just had to know what they were doing there” Garry said.
What I saw was enough to make me turn 180 degrees and come to a complete stop
It was another two years before the Maritime Archaeology Trust had enough funds to go back and find out, but what they discovered next was definitely well worth the wait.
“We went back down to the same area of submerged forest and saw pieces of worked wood sticking out of the peat among the tangle of tree roots. They were flat and trimmed, and even though the surfaces were badly damaged by erosion and marine life you could see they had been shaped by human hands” Garry told us.
That in itself isn’t enough to prove you’ve got evidence of woodworking, let alone what kind of technique was in use or what they were building; for that you need all the surface detail you can get. So Garry’s team decided to excavate a 2x3m area to find wood that had been protected below the sea floor.
“We started finding charcoal and the occasional flint tool and, as we worked away, we uncovered wood chippings, well-crafted functional items and dozens of pieces of really well-preserved timber” says Garry.
We hadn’t really seen anything like this in the British archaeological record before
Some of the pieces had been shaped and trimmed with Mesolithic stone tools, while others had been charred. Together with the charcoal and superheated flints, it’s enough to suggest that people were heating the wood in order to make it easier to work with stone tools, but what they were trying to make still wasn’t clear.
“Most of the timbers were oak, and still inter-connected, laid out like they were still in position from they they had fallen over 8,000 years ago. At first, we didn’t know what it all meant; we hadn’t really seen anything like this in the British archaeological record before” Garry told us.
And then they found the piece of wood that gave it all away. It was just shy of one meter long, about 8,100 years old and had been tangentially split, lengthways as if to make planks. It might not sound that remarkable, but when you know that’s a technique which doesn’t otherwise appear in the British archaeological record for another 2,500 years, it’s enough to make your jaw drop.
“At that point, we were quite stunned. Until now, we’d not seen tangential splitting of large oaks in the UK until the Neolithic when archaeologists found it in use for the construction at Haddenham Long Barrow around 3,600 BC” said Garry.
It was also a method used to build deeper log boats during the Bronze Age, by removing the bottom quarter (rather than splitting it in half) and then hollowing out the remaining three quarters of the tree.
Taking the timber back for analysis, Garry’s team found that when it was felled, the tree would have been a couple of metres wide and several tens of metres high; meaning this was just a fraction from a much larger piece that could have measured up to 10 or 20m long.
What’s more, the team also found a scalloped out end-piece in line with the tangentially split oak, as well as timbers that would have been the end of the structure and string that would have been used to secure the various elements.
“Unfortunately, erosion of the seabed means that only a little bit of the original structure is left, but collectively the artefacts and their relationships look like a site that was used for constructing a log boat. And if that really was the case, then that makes Bouldnor Cliff the oldest boat-building site discovered so far, not just in Europe, but in the whole world. The trouble is we still need more evidence to be 100% certain” says Garry.
With the world’s oldest boat building site, wheat that arrived from the Middle East over 2,000 years earlier than previously thought and the oldest piece of string, it’s certainly starting to look like the people of Bouldnor Cliff had access to technology that could change our understanding of Mesolithic Britain.
Garry and his team will be heading back down to Bouldnor Cliff in June, where they’ll be aiming to recover more of this remarkable worked wood. Make sure you’re following on Facebook or Twitter to see what they find!
Read more about Bouldnor Cliff:
Dig with us at Lindisfarne in 2017
Join the search for the heart of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria