Arriving on Sark for the first time on a day visit in 2003, Barry Cunliffe must have felt a little like one of the island’s pioneer visitors from the prehistoric past: Neolithic farmers prospecting for land suitable for husbandry or unusual stone to fashion into polished axe heads, or Beaker people looking for metal deposits to mine and smelt. In Barry’s case, he was seeking archaeology that nobody else had yet studied. All three found an island full of potential. We don’t know how our prehistoric ancestors celebrated their discoveries, but Barry tells us that he ‘bought a map of Sark from the Little Shop to begin a plan of campaign and a bottle of champagne from the Bel Air [one of Sark’s two pubs] to celebrate the birth of a new project.’
Previous archaeological work on Sark could be summarised in a short paragraph. A rich hoard of 1st-century BC silver coins and metalwork had been found in 1719. Axes had been collected locally as finds from ploughing in the 19th century. Systematic archaeological work began as recently as 1980 with David Johnstone’s investigations of two ‘megalithic’ cists. In 1992, T D Cawood carried out some trial excavations in pursuit of evidence for medieval settlement on Sark, and he surveyed one of two French forts on the island. Thereafter nothing.
In the first of his two volumes of Sark : a Sacred Island? (see ‘Further Information’ on p.28), reporting on his subsequent campaign of fieldwork and excavation, Barry tells us that he set up the Archaeological Survey of Sark in 2004 as a partnership between the Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford; the Museum of Guernsey; and La Société Sercquaise, the island’s history and natural history society. The first two-week field programme was intended to assemble information on artefacts in museums and private collections and to do some preliminary fieldwalking to identify potential sites for excavation.
There are no cars on Sark – only tractors, bicycles, mobility scooters, and horse-drawn carriages are allowed. It is a small island measuring just 4.8km from north to south and 2.4km from east to west. The population is 492. Everyone travels slowly and everyone knows everyone else. Barry set out on the first morning in July 2004 to introduce himself to the island’s Seigneur, the head of the government of Sark under a feudal constitution that underwent some reforms in 2008 but that has changed little since the reign of Elizabeth I.
On his way to the Seigneurie, the Seigneur’s 17th-century residence, Barry walked across a ploughed field and found a dense scatter of Neolithic/Bronze Age flints. He passed a building site and saw a near-complete prehistoric pot in the side of a trench – when the workmen were informed, they showed Barry a Neolithic perforated stone ring that they had also found. At the Seigneurie, Barry spotted a Neolithic flint axe on the mantlepiece and was then shown a crateful of stone artefacts in the basement, amassed by the Seigneur’s predecessors.
The omens were remarkably positive – not a wicker man in sight – and so Barry and his team of volunteers have been back every year since 2004 for a two-week field season, supplemented by autumn and spring campaigns of work on the finds and environmental samples.
Settlers on Sark
It hasn’t been possible to reach Sark other than by boat since the two east-west promontories jutting out from the European mainland were turned into today’s Channel Island archipelago around 5500 BC, by when the post-glacial sea level had risen by some 50m. By wading across from the Cotentin peninsula of modern France (now some 35km distant) Mesolithic hunter-gatherers could still have reached the large landmass incorporating the future islands of Guernsey, Herm, and Sark up to about 7300 BC. The surrounding shallow rocky seas provided a rich harvest of fish and shellfish (as it does today: mussels, oysters, scallops, crab, and lobster, and the much-prized ormer, or abalone, are plentiful in the seas around here). Throughout the early Mesolithic period, Sark and the other Channel Islands shared the culture of the adjacent French mainland.
Neolithic farming on Sark shares more in common with the Neolithic in adjacent Normandy than it does with the later Neolithic of Britain. Two Neolithic sites on Guernsey have produced carbon dates as early as 5270–5060 BC and 5370–5200 BC. If these dates truly represent Neolithic settlement (and not older charcoal), Guernsey was receiving some of the very earliest of the settlers to sweep through northern France with their farming practices and Neolithic lifestyles, including longhouses and pottery.
The earliest evidence that Barry’s team have so far found for Neolithic farmers on Sark comes from Little Sark, the peninsula to the south of Great Sark, which is linked to it by a narrow isthmus of rock, some 80m high and only 3m wide at the top. The finds from this settlement include cereal grains and pottery of a type dating from the early 5th millennium BC. Two mud bricks were found, similar to examples from Lillemer, near Mont Dol in northern Brittany, where they had been used to build houses dated to the mid-5th millennium BC. Burnt material from a hearth at the Sark site yielded a carbon date of 4800-4700 BC.
Flint-working debris has been found in many parts of the island during fieldwalking, mainly from the working of local stone, some of which might indicate the nearby presence of settlements; and three locations have produced dense scatters of flint with polished stone rings of late 5th to early 4th millennium date. Two of the rings are made from chloratite from Brittany and one is made of schist from Normandy, showing that links were maintained with the mainland, as does the presence of two axes of jadeite, quarried in the high Alps, and of distinctive black flint from northern France.
More than 100 unprovenanced stone axes and adzes have been collected from plough soil over the last 200 years, made from locally occurring dark grey to black dolerite. The finds represent various stages in the manufacturing process, including roughed-out blanks ready for grinding and polishing, and examples that broke during the process of boring used to create a shaft hole. All this testifies to a local stone-manufacturing industry and one that continued into the Chalcolithic and Bronze Ages, judging by examples that were found in a stratified context at Tanquerel Field, dated to the second half of the 2nd millennium BC.
Belief systems and Beaker burials
Belief systems were also shared with the mainland: of ten ‘cromlechs’ recorded on the island by the Reverend Cachemaille in 1874, the project has located two that have survived intact – both of them simple structures with a large capstone mounted on smaller boulders, located in sites visible from the sea but not from the landward approach. Megalithic boulders that might also have come from tombs have been found built into 16th-century and later field boundaries. Seven stone mound sites have also been identified, of a type known in Brittany as tertres tumulaire. Barry’s team has sampled two of them: one yielded sherds of Neolithic pottery.
The other mound, at Gaudinerie Field, had been erected over an earlier site of ritual activity. The land had been deliberately levelled, after which pits had been dug, perhaps to hold timbers. Later, a rectangle of four standing stones was set up, grouped in pairs: two of quartzite with a reddish hue, two of greenish-grey stone. One elongated pit was found to contain tools and flakes of black flint from northern France, while another was of the size and shape to serve as a grave but no bone survived. Additional standing stones were added later, and then a low mound was constructed, today measuring 27m by 17m and standing to a height of 0.7m. Other finds included pottery of middle Neolithic date, stone axes, discs, beads, perforated pebbles, mauls and pounders, querns, whetstones and rubbing stones, and cores and debitage. Clearly, says Barry, this was a site of complex ritual activity, and the closest parallel comes from the small stones, referred to as miniliths, found on the moorlands of Exmoor, thought to be ‘place or event markers’ serving to perpetuate the memory of significant individuals or activities.
The acidic soil of Sark does not allow the survival of bone, whether from feasting or from human interment, but excavations in 2005-2007 at the site of a standing stone and cist first noted by the antiquary F C Lukis in 1864 contained a stone bracer of Beaker type. Of the same period is a flat bronze axe, found in the 19th century and said to have come from Little Sark, and an unprovenanced find of a barbed-and-tanged arrowhead. Stone bracers, a distinctive feature of Beaker burials, have been interpreted as guards to protect the inner wrist of an archer, or the outer wrist of a falconer, but they might also have served simply as badges to indicate membership of the Beaker culture, like the distinctively shaped drinking cups from which the name of the phenomenon is derived.
The presence of Beaker material on Sark shows that the island was part of the culture emanating from the Lisbon region, whose prospectors journeyed northwards up the Atlantic coast, looking for metal ores from around 2400 BC. Despite the presence of a mineral lode rich in copper crossing Little Sark, and the copper salts staining the cliffs at Le Pot, there is no direct evidence for prehistoric copper-working on the island in this period. But 1,000 years later, beginning in the mid-14th century BC, settlement on the island increased dramatically, part of that expansion of land clearance and agriculture that occured in many parts of Europe in the Middle Bronze Age. The new settlement in the middle of the island, at Tanquerel Field, was to last for 450 years, until about 900 BC.
Trade and travel
Though largely self-sufficient, finds of amber and non-local pottery, metalwork, and whetstones show that this community was able to acquire luxury goods as part of the Atlantic maritime network in operation at the time, trading with neighbours elsewhere in the Channel Islands, and with Normandy, Brittany, and Britain. What Sark traded in return is difficult to say: possibly the amulets, discs, and beads of serpentine that were being worked at the Tanquerel Field settlement; perhaps fish-based foods; or perhaps Sark became a safe and convenient port for ships to visit for water and supplies as they travelled the Atlantic seaways.
In any event, evidence for extensive seaborne trade proves to be elusive after 900 BC; on Sark, the period from then until 50 BC is currently a complete blank in the archaeological record and it is possible that the island was abandoned for much of the 1st millennium BC, a relatively isolated place but one with a reputation for being sacred, perhaps because of a folk memory that ancestors had lived here many generations before. This could account for the Sark hoard, discovered in 1719, at Tanquerel Field, the site of the Bronze Age settlement. Placed inside a pot, the hoard consisted of 18 silver coins, an amber pendant, a silver repoussé fitting decorated with a fish, and 13 silver or silver-gilt discs, decorated with a variety of fabulous animals, all dating from the mid 1st century BC.
Votive offerings dating from the late Iron Age are common enough in France and Britain but this one is distinctive because the closest parallels to the embossed discs come from Thrace, now in Bulgaria. The coins too are exotic, rather than local tribal issues. There is, says Barry, ‘much scope here for imaginative narratives’ to explain how they got to Sark, but when the metal detectorists of the Sussex Historical Search Society were invited to check the plough soil in the spring of 2005, they recovered an additional 21 Iron Age and 20 Roman coins, mainly of silver. Subsequent excavation produced a further 24 stratified silver and bronze coins, ranging in date from the 1st century BC to the 4th century AD, together with a brooch, a glass bead, pottery sherds, and iron objects.
No structures were identified – just an irregularly shaped hollow, probably created by trampling and human activity. The simplest explanation is that this was a ritual space, a natural rather than a constructed site, perhaps marked by a tree, post, or standing stone, to which people came to deposit isolated coins at intervals throughout the Romano-Gallic period, perhaps sacred as a settlement of significant ancestors whose memory continued to be revered.
The story of Sark until this point has been one of oscillation between isolation and connectivity, part of an Atlantic network, sharing the culture of Brittany, Normandy, and Britain as well as much further afield, but also on occasion standing apart. The same is true of the early medieval chapter in the island’s story, for Sark was not left out of the great surge of migration that took place from the early 5th century as Christian missionaries, operating from bases in Ireland and Wales, travelled great distances to set up monastic communities in Scotland, south-west England, and Brittany.
These pioneers, later revered as saints, sought the isolation they needed from worldly temptations to lead a life devoted to worship, but they also maintained lively contacts with the other parts of the Christian world, not least in Sark’s case because St Magloire, the founder of the island’s mid-6th-century monastery, set up a school here for training boys from the noble families of Brittany and the Cotentin peninsula.
As with all saints of this period, one seeks to find nuggets of credible fact amidst much hagiography: the Vita Sancti Maglorii Episcopi (‘Life of St Magloire the Bishop’; of uncertain authorship, but possibly written in the late 9th century) says he was born in the early 500s in Vannes, southern Brittany, and that his mother was a Welsh princess and his father a Breton nobleman. At the age of five, he was sent to study in the monastery founded by St Illtud at Llantwit Major in Glamorgan, south Wales. He ended up as abbot of Lammeur monastery in Brittany, where he ‘governed with prudence and holiness’ before succeeding his cousin, Samson, as bishop of Dol, in Brittany. He remained in Dol for three years before being visited by an angel who commanded him to resign his post and set out for Sark where, in AD 565, he founded the community and school that eventually supported 62 monks.
Among the miracles attributed to St Magloire was his restoration to life of a drowned fisherman on Sark, his rescuing of shipwrecked children, and his putting to flight a fleet of ship-borne raiders. After his death (c.AD 575), Sark was indeed attacked by Scandinavian pirates who set out from their base on the River Seine in the mid-9th century to attack Brittany. Brecqhou, the island separated from Sark only by a narrow sound, has a name derived from Old Norse (brekka, escarpment, and holmr, islet) and may well have been their base for raids against monasteries that continued sporadically until the mid-10th century.
Of several possible sites for the 6th-century monastery, the most likely contender is Tintageu, a headland in the north-west of the island that bears the only Celtic name on Sark and that might share its etymology with Cornwall’s promontory fort at Tintagel: dun (fort or protected settlement) and tagell (a narrow place). The site is a demanding place to inhabit and thus satisfies the early monastic preference for remote locations, but it overlooks a sheltered beach and safe anchorage as well as a ready source of food, with a fresh water source nearby. Currently covered with a dense growth of blackthorn, possible sites on the headland have yet to be explored.
There are further tantalising clues to suggest that the monastery might later have migrated to the more sheltered valley south of the headland, which leads to the landing place at Port du Moulin. A deed dating from the 1150s or 1160s granting the revenue from the old monastic lands on Sark to the Abbey of Montebourg, on the Cotentin peninsula, mentions an enclosure and a monastic watermill, as well as a monk’s cell and a chapel. In addition to the name of the Port du Moulin, one of the tenements in the valley is called ‘La Moinerie’ (‘The Monastery’); although this was not founded until the 16th century, it might encapsulate an earlier memory. Another tenement is called L’Ecluse (‘The Dam’), and there are two substantial ponds at the head of the valley that could have been created to supply fish and provide power for a water mill. Limited structural evidence for a mill survives in the form of a wall built of large undressed stone blocks up to 1m in length and 0.5m in depth.
What has been ruled out is the suggestion that the ‘old wall’ close to the Seigneurie is part of the medieval monastery. Excavations in 2013-2016 showed that this could not be earlier than the late-17th century and was probably part of an 18th-century folly. Even so, the possibility that the island’s first church and its first medieval community lay elsewhere, close to the Manoir in the centre of the island, has been raised by excavations that began in 2017 that found medieval graves in the garden to the east of the manor house. Those excavations are continuing and Barry reports that they mark the beginning of a new programme of work designed to find out more about Roman and medieval settlement in the centre of the island that will be the subject of a later report. He ends this volume by thanking the people of Sark for their hospitality and lively interest in the project and hoping in return to have ‘offered you some understanding of your island predecessors and ignited an anticipation for the surprises that your island has still to offer.’ Even those of us who are not Sercquiais could agree that this has been achieved.
Barry Cunliffe and Emma Durham, Sark: a Sacred Island? Volume 1: fieldwork and excavations 2004-2017, Oxford University School of Archaeology Monograph 81, £40, ISBN 978-1905905461.
ALL IMAGES: Ian Cartwright, unless otherwise stated.