Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Mysterious Margate

This one has taken a while to reach you and I can only apologise for that.  I have been fortunate enough to be involved in some interesting, but time consuming, projects of late and wanted to make sure that my Thanet research was done properly.  I’ve been missing the Isle of late and yesterdays Dreamland announcement gave me the blog nudge that I needed.  I hope you have enjoyed my other bits and bobs, but, now we return to the research that I was so frantically trying to tie together this time last year…how time flies!

For those of you that don’t know Margate is a relatively small town located on the Northern coast of Thanet, once popular with seaside holiday makers, it now finds itself in the heart of the art scene thanks to the Turner Contemporary.  Was it that much different in the Iron Age? Well here are a few case studies…I’ll let you make your own mind up, but I may give a few handy hints along the way.

The top triangle marks the point of the Margate coast line, pop back to … if you need a little recap on the environment.

The circles marked 1,2 and 3 provide a rough location of the sites that will be considered, time will be spent considering their features, finds and interpretations, before I give you a round up of Iron Age Margate.  (My apologies for the size of this image causing the post to become untidy, but it is the only way that numbers can be made out)

The Hartsdown area of Margate is the area featured, its’ relatively compact and encompasses an area of land either side of the B2052.  The sites to be featured are Tivoli Park (Perkins 1996), Hartsdown Technology College (Gardner and Gibbon, undated) and Hartsdown Park (Boast 2007).  Original site drawings will be reproduced in order to provide clarity.  I also wish to take this opportunity to explain to you my chronology…

Early Iron Age (c800-500BC)

Middle Iron Age (c500-300BC)

Late Iron Age (c300BC-AD43)

Belgic Phase (c150BC-AD43)

As you can see these dates all overlap, this is because the dates were not determined by the Britons themselves, instead they are decided by those that study them.  You may read other texts, blogs etc that have a varied dating system to mine, I certainly experience this during my research…but these are the periods I found to be most frequently attested to within Thanet.

Firstly we shall investigate Tivoli Park; throughout this section reference will be made to Perkins’ site plan below…

You maybe wondering why the area consists of 13 individual sites while I am considering it as one, well the area was excavated as part of the Community Woodland Project and was conducted through the use of test trenches.  What we see on the above site plan is what was excavated and mapped.  It is estimated that we have only discovered approximately 2% of Tivoli Park’s archaeology, in terms of area.

Tivoli Park appears to have been occupied in one form or another from the Bronze Age right through to the Romans.  The area is pottery rich making the dating of features particularly secure, in turn this allows for a site narrative to develop.

Early Iron Age activity appears to be directly following activities undertaken within the Bronze Age; it was probably even conducted by the same people.  All that was likely to have changed for them was the pottery they were using.  Site 2 provides an area where a possible wooden structure was situated, but, the lack of adjacent features suggests that it was not used for settlement purposes.  There is a lack of ditches and pits associated with domestic sites.  Further to this Early Iron Age material has been found within ditches forming Bronze Age Barrows.  With this in mind I would suggest that the postholes found at Site 2 represent a structure that was in someway related to the ritualised landscape of Bronze Age Tivoli Park.  The ritualised nature of the landscape maybe characterised by the presence of the Shottendane River, water is thought to have been particularly important to the Britons and their predecessors.   It is possible that there was a spring or unusual feature within the river in this area, making it a particularly attractive location for the commemoration of the dead. 

In close proximity is Site 3, these interlocking semi-circular structures are interpreted by Perkins (1996) as being animal corrals of an Early Iron Age date.  Much like the structure in Site 2 it appears to be a particularly isolated feature, this leads me to associate it more with a ritualised landscape than that of a settlement.  With the exception of pottery the feature yielded little in the way of finds, this would make it an extremely clean settlement and furthers my suggestion that it is related to Bronze Age landscape.

Some 400m to the West is a sub-rectangular ditch enclosing a posthole.  The purpose of this is also ambiguous; however, its location upon the natural ridge is unusual.  It did contain sherds of Early Iron Age pottery and has the potential to be associated with the Bronze Age landscape.  It does appear to be out of use and not considered important by the Late Iron Age as it seems it has been truncated by a ditch which forms an alignment with the known Late Iron Age enclosure.  This is unlikely to have occurred if the inhabitants were consistent as they would be aware of a social significance to the structure.

The centre of the Site Plan is the focus of Middle Iron Age activity, more specifically Sites 5-9.  This covers some 200m of the entire excavated area, revealing features such as rectangular enclosures, multiple ditches, clusters of postholes and pits considered to be for storage purposes.  In my opinion this is strong evidence of a settled community, further supported by the discovery of a shale bracelet, cowry shell and weaving comb within Site 5, along with two spindle whorls in Site 7.  Site 7 also yielded a fragment of an Early Iron Age brooch, the occurrence of this could suggest that the settlement is associated with features in Sites 2 and 3; however, a single fragment is not enough to form an entire settlement.  At the very least I would expect a presence of contemporary pottery.  Instead I would suggest that the brooch was a treasure possession, possibly an heirloom which broke beyond repair. 

Sites 5-8 appear to be on a varied alignment to that of Site 9, this is suggestive of two phases of construction or even two separate communities.  It is possible that the natural ridge acted as a boundary marker for differing social groupings, however, both Site 6 and Site 7 encroach this ridge.  It is also likely that the settlement stretches in both a Northerly and Southerly direction, suggesting that we only have a snippet of the overall Middle Iron Age activity within the area.

Late Iron Age activity is present within the site but limited in nature.  Site 1 is a Roman trackway, frequented with Late Iron Age pottery, suggesting its construction was in fact earlier.  This is also supported by the presence of the Bronze Age Barrow landscape; they are known to be located along trackways and are thought by some, including myself, to provide a means of navigating wider landscapes.  Site 10 is also Late Iron Age in date, the purpose of the rectangular enclosure containing two large pits is unknown, but it appears to face a South-Easterly direction and extended investigation into that area may have provided us with further answers.  The lack of extensive Late Iron Age material culture could mean one of two things that the Middle Iron Age community curate their wares well or the site was largely abandoned.  I personally feel abandonment is more likely, with the potential for a new occupation area to have been constructed in an unexcavated area in close proximity to Site 10.

Now we turn our attentions to Hartsdown Technology College.


As the Site Plan indicates there are relatively few features within this excavation and in comparison to Tivoli Park the area excavated is tiny.   The archaeology is still insightful and the two curvilinear ditches both appear large enough to be considered of a bounded nature.  Their varied direction suggests that they are separate and possibly provide an insight into agricultural practices.  The presence of a gully and pit in association with enclosure 1 certainly enhance this idea.  A considerable amount of environmental studies have been conducted within this assemblage.  Firstly there are low numbers of animal bones; this suggests that the processing of livestock is unlikely to have taken place here.  Secondly there is a presence of wheat and barley but not chaff, this is indicative of cultivation, but, again not of processing, suggesting that the produce was transported in order for that to occur.  This evidence furthers conclusions that this was not a settled area but instead an agricultural one, demonstrating Iron Age field systems.

The dating of this site is particularly problematic, its’ agricultural nature means that there is little need for material culture, at least not in the forms that survive.  There is some material culture, which is of particular interest when considering the nature of socio-economic trends.  Within Pit 2009 a large amount of an individual ring based vessel, of La Tène influence and possibly even of origin was discovered.  The vessel dates loosely to the 5th-4th centuries BC and as such tentatively dates the field system.  There is also some evidence of contemporary fine and coarse wares, which could be indicative of more than a field system.  When this is taken into consideration with the crouch inhumation located within the large ditch of Enclosure 1 a clearer picture maybe painted.  The style of the inhumation is contemporary with both the La Tène influenced vessel and the other known pottery; it is therefore possible that despite varied location they are associated with the burial of the individual.

Interestingly the La Tène vessel was not the only object yielded by Pit 2009; it also provided two awls and an annular brooch fitting.  The awls are known to be of Early Iron Age date, but, were also used within the Bronze Age.  The annular fitting has not previously been attributed to an Iron Age context and Gardener and Gibbon (Undated) suggest that the objects were deliberately deposited in this location.  They further this by noting that they are related to the inhumation, however, if this were to be the case the objects would have had to have been passed through several generations, this I feel is unlikely and instead the items placed within a Late Bronze/Early Iron Age context, likely to be in relation to the Bronze Age hoarding tradition apparent across Thanet.  It is possible that upon burying the known individual these items were disturbed and the La Tène vessel placed as an additional offering.

Hartsdown Park

The final site to be considered is that of Hartsdown Park, Football Pitch (Boast 2007).  Unfortunately there is little information regarding the site due to a lack of funding for post-excavation analysis.  What is known can be found within the 2007 edition of Archaeologia Cantiana within the area given to Thanet Archaeological Trust in order to document their annual work.  The archaeological record is still particularly interesting, presenting us with thirteen individual inhumations dating from the Late Iron Age into the Early Roman Period.  The individuals buried across such as wide time span show a continuity of land use, this is suggestive that the same community remained in the area.  Further to this it illustrates that during a period of assumed upheaval, this community at least, continued their burial practices and retained their sacred lands.  In addition approximately twenty pits were found in close proximity, each filled with a variety of pottery and animal bone.  There is suggestion that some of the pits provide evidence of Late Iron Age stone quarries, this is however tentative and should be viewed with an air of caution.


What does this all mean?

Well firstly with some certainty I can say that the Hartsdown area of Margate was occupied from the Bronze Age to the Roman Period, what appears to change is the intensity of this occupation.  It is thought that the Shottendane River would flow in the Winter, but, provide marsh land through the Summer months, this coupled with the spring would have made this a fascinating place to the Bronze Age inhabitants of Thanet and as such it is easy to understand why it featured within a ritual landscape. 

By the Middle Iron Age a well established settlement had developed, this is potentially due to its’ proximity to a broad bay harbour.  The ability to access the sea allowed inhabitants to access the world, well the Wantsum, Thames and North Sea at least.  Aerial photography has prompted discussions relating to larges ditches, commonly associated with defended settlements; in this instance possibly a promontory settlement, such as that suggested at North Foreland.  This is supported by the inter-regional connectivity demonstrated at both Tivoli Park and Hartsdown Technology College.  The former provided evidence of contact with Western Britain in the form of shale bracelets, along with more distant contacts in the form of a cowry shell, originating in the Mediterranean or even Northern Africa.  The latter yielded a vessel of La Tène style, this shows not only contact but lasting influence, suggesting that contact and cultural exchange had been occurring over a longer period than we may have originally thought.  This illustrates the importance of considering sites in conjunction with one another as oppose to individually, it has allowed for a clearer image of the Middle Iron Age to be produced.

For Middle Iron Age Margate to be receiving such commodities it must have been providing something in return.  This takes us back to the College, the environmental samples coupled with the features points to an organised agricultural society, working within a field system allowing for the production of surplus.  Such surplus becomes as valuable as the grain required for sustenance as it creates an economy which allows the community to benefit.

By the Late Iron Age we appear to have a settlement shift with the known Tivoli park settlement, at least in our section, being abandoned.  However there is evidence for Late Iron Age activity including a metalled trackway, this suggests change and with known increase in Roman contact this is easily understood.  The desire to move slightly further inland is however slightly baffling and at present I can offer little in the way of an explanation.  Traditional this would be viewed as being as a result of an influx of Belgic peoples, however I fail to see how this would see an end to a well established community, instead I would expect to discover an extension of it.  Further to this the Hartsdown Park site is within relatively close proximity to the Middle Iron Age settlement and agricultural land, thus suggesting that there was a sustained population living within the area during the Late Iron Age and into the Early Roman Period.  I have little doubt that community remained the same during these late stages due to burial continuity, but, unfortunately many of their secrets remain just that.

From our first set of case studies it is clear to see that Margate was home to a vibrant community throughout the Iron Age.  Its’ geographical location is likely to be key to this; however, the settlement size is far larger than I ever thought I would find within Thanet for the period.  Traditionally the Middle Iron Age is viewed as a mysterious phase in Iron Age histories, its’ not quite proto-historic and is too close to be considered prehistoric, this ambiguity leads to an inability to categorise and such often leaves it forgotten.  Margate is beginning to shed some light on this forgotten era, but as ever has provided so many unanswered questions! I guess we will just have to keep digging….

I hope you have all enjoyed our return to Thanet and her beautiful Iron Age past, feel free to provide me with your thoughts and suggestions on the material discussed in this post.  As always it would be lovely to hear from you all…so until we explore North Foreland, it’s bye for now :o)

Influential Reading

Boast, E. 2007. Bronze and Iron Age Occupation: Hartsdown Park, Margate in Archaeologia Cantiana Vol. 127 pp429

Perkins, D.R.J. 1996. The Trust for Thanet Archaeology: Evaluation Work Carried outin 1995, Hartsdown Community Woodland Scheme Margate in Archaeologia Cantiana Vol. 116 pp 265-281

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