Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Isle of Thanet....Part 1

In the last entry I mentioned The Isle of Thanet and recent works on the East Kent Access Road, having recently been featured in Current Archaeology 266 its time to share my musings! This is the first of several posts relating to Thanet in the Iron Age (800BC-AD43)

For those reading in sunnier climes and those not familiar with Kent in prehistory I'll start with the basics.  In the modern world Thanet is a district within Kent, found on the North East tip of the county.  Much like the rest of Kent it enjoys close proximity to the Near Continent and has developed a road, rail and air network to connect it to the rest of the world.

During the first Millennium BC Thanet looked very different, it sat as an isle, independent of both Britain and the Near Continent.  Its' geography placed it in an ideal position for contact with both worlds, her peoples were able to reach Kent, through the Wantsum Channel, modern London and Essex were accessible through the Thames Estuary and the Near Continent was East across the North Sea, or South across the English Channel.

Imaged produced by author and featured in dissertation

The geology of Thanet lead to a distinct topography and as early as the Bronze Age woodland clearance was likely, making it almost certain in the Iron Age.  Oak and hazel trees could still be found and cereal agriculture can be considered developed, certainly by the Middle of the Iron Age.  Thanet was blessed with high cliffs along its' North-Eastern and Eastern coasts, with broad bay harbours present at Margate and Ramsgate.  This provided her communities with relative safety and sea access, allowing for long term, sustained development. 

The Eastern coast also had access to the sea through small bays, located at several valley bottoms, including, Kingsgate Bay, Joss Bay, Stone Bay and Dumpton.  This has the potential to allow for wider sea access, however, I would be more inclined to associate such bays with interactions between island societies.

Generally speaking the Northern coast enjoyed relatively low cliffs, this coupled with soft loess (well suited for cereal agriculture) and the ability to produce salt lead to a well populated area.  This stretches from modern Birchington/Minnis Bay to Margate and will be investigated as this series continues.

The West coast was adjacent to the Wantsum Channel and from here inhabitants could look across to modern Kent and the British mainland.  This land was particularly low lying and the tidal nature of the Wantsum is likely to have created mud flaps and salt marshes.  It was here in modern day Sarre that is the likely place for a ferry crossing, from the Isle to the mainland, across the Wantsum.  A brief journey, but, the possibility to be perilous.

In the centre of the Isle is a plateau of higher ground forming the top of each valley (marked on the map above in green), a ridge runs across this, from East to West, essentially dividing the Isle in a topological sense.  From Sarre to the modern North Foreland, runs a trackway, connecting West to East, undoubtedly used to transport everything from grains to pottery.  Ensuring social contact across the Isle it is also believe that a second parallel track runs from modern Monkton to Margate, this is relatively new in belief and has been suggested through the presence of crop marks in several areas.

The importance of the trackways will become clearer as this series progresses, it without doubt assists in linking each valley community to various contemporary communities within the Isle.  It also allows the communities on the East coast to reach the West with little difficulty, in turn allowing access to the mainland.  It suggests that the Isle enjoyed an expansive communication network within her own geographies.

It is said that Thanet can be seen by the Late Iron Age as a cosmopolitan place, thriving from surrounding waterways and inter-isle activity....up-coming posts relating to each region will allow us to discover more.

Influential Reading

Champion, T. 2007 Prehistoric Kent in Williams, J.H. (ed) The Archaeology of Kent to AD800 The Boydell Press/Kent County Council: Suffolk

Hearne et al. 1995 The Sandwich Bay Wastewater Treatment Scheme Archaeological Project 1992-1994 in Archaeologia Cantiana Vol. 115 pp 239-354

Moody, G. 2008 The Isle of Thanet from Prehistory to the Norman Conquest The History Press: Stroud


  1. Fascinating stuff! No really. I'm interested in the area from a LBA point of view (mainly the founders hoards there)and I'll be looking forward to more of your musings about Thanet.

    1. Thank you, It's a fascinating area of the world when it comes to archaeology!There are features in Iron Age Thanet that I am yet to find comparison for. I didn't look as far back as the LBA, do you have a particular project that you are researching?