Excavating Kent

In his latest column, Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports on archaeology in Kent.

In my last three columns I have explored Surrey, and then West and East Sussex. I will conclude my tour of south-east England in this column by visiting Kent. This is a county that has it all in terms of archaeology: urban and rural; prehistoric and modern; well-known and little-known. An excellent summary of activity in the county comes in CA 377 (August 2021), celebrating 50 years of the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit. Readers may also be interested in CA 196 (April 2005), which interviewed the legendary Kent-based archaeologist Brian Philp on his own 50th anniversary of work there. Meanwhile, CA 168 (May 2000) was a feature-length Kentish special focused around the discoveries made along the route of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.

Secret histories

A series of lesser-known sites are an excellent entry-point into the county’s archaeology. Faversham was the first ever site in Kent to feature in the magazine, with CA 2 (May 1967) covering the industrial archaeology of its gunpowder mills. Later returns to the town included an exploration of its abbey in CA 19 (March 1970), and a visit to the remarkable Roman villa at Bax Farm in CA 262 (January 2012). The coverage of Kent’s archaeology in CA down the years is full of such surprises. For example, Deal, a town which might be expected to be mentioned in relation to its medieval archaeology, first featured in CA 101 (August 1986) due to its Romano-British shrine, and again in CA 125 (July 1991) when a series of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries were uncovered there. Similarly, Ramsgate’s great mention comes in CA 168 (May 2000), not in relation to its medieval or maritime archaeology, but because of the discovery of the first known prehistoric causewayed enclosures in Kent.

Other Kentish sites became well known because of unexpected discoveries: a notable example is the Ringlemere Bronze Age cup of c.1900-1700 BC that starred on the cover of CA 179 (May 2002) after its discovery at a farm near Sandwich. CA returned to this find in issue 208 (March 2007), exploring the archaeology of the find- site. Other remarkable prehistoric finds were reported on in issue 193 (August 2004), when construction work on Ebbsfleet Station revealed a 400,000-year-old Early Stone Age site, including the skeleton of an elephant surrounded by flint tools that lay undisturbed where they were originally discarded. CA returned to this extraordinary site in issue 284 (November 2013).

Prehistoric sites in Kent have frequently featured in Current Archaeology, including on the cover of CA 179, which highlighted the Ringlemere Bronze Age cup (c.1900-1700 BC), found on a farm near Sandwich, as well as the cover of CA 284, which depicted life in the Thames Estuary over 400,000 years ago.

Time and tide

As mentioned above, archaeological discoveries along the route of what is now known as High Speed 1, and which was then referred to as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, were the subject of a feature-length special in CA 168 (May 2000). Large infrastructure projects have led to some remarkable discoveries down the years, and such coordinated projects are now commonplace – think of Heathrow Terminal 5 (see CA 256, July 2011), as well as the more recent work along the route of High Speed 2 from London to Birmingham (see CA 362, May 2020). But back then the Channel Tunnel Rail Link was the biggest name in the game, employing hundreds of archaeologists at its peak. Another major transport project has also featured repeatedly in the pages of Current Archaeology: the East Kent Access Road on the south side of the Isle of Thanet. CA 266 (May 2012) featured work here by a joint venture from Oxford and Wessex Archaeology – the largest single excavation in the UK in 2010 – revealing finds from the Palaeolithic to the Second World War.

A very different ‘landscape’ first featured in CA 217 (April 2008), and repeatedly since that time: the Goodwin Sands off the Kent coast, near Deal, which have caused countless shipwrecks over the years. These include that of the Rooswijk (lost in 1740), which featured in CA 217 (April 2008)and CA 331 (October 2017), of the Stirling Castle (lost in 1703) in CA 377 (August 2021), and the very different loss (in 1940) and then recovery (in 2014) of a Dornier Do 17 aircraft in CA 288 (March 2014). Meanwhile, other aspects of Kent’s rich maritime heritage featured in CA 273 (December 2012), when timbers identified within Chatham historic dockyard were identified as coming from HMS Namur (originally constructed in the mid-1750s and broken up in 1833).

CA 168 was a special issue dedicated to exploring the many sites uncovered during excavations in advance of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, while CA 273 investigated the discovery of timbers from the HMS Namur, found within the Chatham historic dockyard.

Great sites

Finally, a series of ‘great’ Kentish sites have featured in CA over the years. Most recently, the mighty Dover Castle starred on the cover of CA 377 (August 2021), but the town was the star of the show on repeated occasions across the early years of the magazine, when it was a celebrity of ‘rescue’ archaeology due to some dramatic finds made in challenging circumstances, including its famous Roman ‘painted house’ – see CA 25 (March 1971), CA 38 (May 1973), and CA 57 (July 1977). Later on, substantial sections of a Bronze Age boat were recovered under similarly challenging circumstances deep below the modern-day town, as reported in CA 133 (March 1993). The remains of the vessel, alongside some excellent interpretation, are on display in the local museum.

A series of other Kentish sites of international fame and acclaim have featured down the years – chronologically, these include Roman Richborough in CA 257 (August 2011), Saxon Lyminge in CA 284 (November 2013) and CA 355 (October 2019), and medieval Sandwich in CA 243 (June 2010). The work at Lyminge, in particular, led by Gabor Thomas, has provided a wealth of understanding about life in the 7th century at an extraordinary royal and religious estate, including the remains of a church and a huge feasting hall, 21m long by 8.5m wide.

Many ‘great’ sites of Kent have made the pages of CA, including a Bronze Age boat discovered deep underneath the centre of Dover.

Ecclesiastical research of a different kind, led by my colleague Nathalie Cohen, who works as an archaeologist for both the National Trust (NT) and Canterbury Cathedral, is rightly celebrated in CA 364 (July 2020), which examined recent analyses of changes to the cathedral’s structure over the centuries. In Nathalie’s other job at the National Trust, meanwhile, she has led a stunning piece of collaborative research that I want to end this column on – at Knole near Sevenoaks. This work first featured in CA 297 (December 2014), and more recently again in CA 358 (January 2020) and CA 367 (October 2020). There, over the past decade, the NT undertook a massive conservation project (supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund) to conserve the collections housed at the property, including major work to the house’s fabric that saw in-depth archaeological analyses of its structure and of finds made within it. The project involved partnership between NT, commercial, and voluntary archaeologists to produce results of huge value, concluding in a wonderful book, published in 2019, that I urge all readers to seek out: Knole Revealed: archaeology and discovery at a great country house.

Discover old issues
Read a selection of articles discussed by Joe for free online at www.archaeology.co.uk/archive379. They will be available for one month, from 2 September. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI379’.