Bronze Age and medieval finds at Medmerry

Reconstruction of Bronze Age Settlement. Copyright of Andrew Hall, Cambridge Archaeological Unit
Reconstruction of Bronze Age Settlement. Copyright of Andrew Hall, Cambridge Archaeological Unit

ARCHAEOLOGISTS at Medmerry have found evidence of a Bronze Age settlement – giving historians a rare glimpse into life and culture 3,000 years ago.

The Environment Agency said work to create the Medmerry sea defence had unearthed ‘fascinating’ finds, which was ‘radically changing’ our understanding of how people lived along the Sussex coast 3,000 years ago.

Clay extraction to build 7km of new flood banks has uncovered the remains of an extensive Bronze Age landscape dating to around 1,000BC.

The scale of the remains suggests the area supported a large population during this period, with marks in the earth indicating where 14 round-houses once stood – only one had ever been found in the Chichester district before.

Other Bronze Age finds include a cemetery, extensive field systems, and eight burned mounds – enigmatic features comprising of large deposits of burnt flint, where activities such as wool dyeing, beer making or even saunas may have taken place.

Archeologist Greg Priestley-Bell 
said: “We did not expect to find as much as we did.”

Of the 14 roundhouses, six were found in one field.

Mr Priestley-Bell said around six to ten people would have lived in each of the roundhouses, making it quite densely populated for the era.

From around 1000BC to 1500BC, the sea was two to three miles from Medmerry, however, water was still an important part of the settlers’ lives.

“Water seems to be an important part of the way they lived,” said Mr Priestley-Bell. “There was an area with a well from 1500BC, probably the well that served this community.”

Archeologists have also been studying the community’s burial ground.

People were cremated before the remains of the bodies were put in boxes or pots and buried underground, along with belongings or offerings.

“They put offerings in these burial pots,” said Mr Priestly-Bell. “We are talking 3,000 to 3,500 years ago. They obviously had a complex set of beliefs.”

He described this time as a ‘golden age’, when the settlers were probably farmers and stayed in the area all their lives. After the Bronze Age settlers, there is no evidence of activity until the Roman era.

“We do not know what, but around 600 BC something happened,” said Mr Priestly-Bell. “Maybe an environmental change or some sort of major migration.”

In the Roman era, the archeologist believes the area was probably farmed, but people lived in the area of Great Ham Farm, to the north of the site, as it was further above sea-level.

Jon Sygrave from Archaeology South-East, University College London, who has been managing the excavations on behalf of the Environment Agency, said: “Medmerry has been a godsend to archaeological research in this area – these are finds of national significance which we would never have seen but for this project.

“We now know the edge of the 
coastal plain was a very busy place during the Bronze Age, full of people living out their lives and then being buried here at the water’s edge.”

Colin Maplesden, Environment Agency project manager, said: “Medmerry is first and foremost about protecting people from coastal flooding and about creating new wildlife habitat, but it is such a bonus to know the history books are being rewritten due to the scheme.

“When the £28m project is completed this autumn more than 300 households, and the local infrastructure along this vulnerable stretch of West Sussex coastline, will have vastly improved flood protection. But this project has also provided a wonderful opportunity to unearth some amazing finds that will change our perception of how people lived thousands of years ago.”

Other finds

The Bronze Age settlement was not the only big find at the site.

A largely intact medieval fish weir was found, showing the fishing industry was strong on the Manhood Peninsula as far back as the 1300s.

The long woven wickerwork ‘fence’ would have sat across an old tidal channel, trapping fish behind it when the tide dropped, showing the sea came in and out of Medmerry about 650 years ago, just as it is about to do again.

Mr Priestly Bell said the fish weir would have been about waist high when the tide was out, but it was constantly being repaired and added to.

“We know it was used for a while, as there are running repairs in it,” he said. “It was probably used on an industrial scale with this level of fishing. They probably sold them at the market in Chichester.

“The people who lived here were probably quite well off.”

Archeologist Cormac Duffy has been working on the find, and said it is one of the largest, most complete fish weirs to be discovered.

He explained fish weirs were long fences along the seafront, built in a V shape so that when the tide lowere, it would ‘kettle’ the fish into the centre of the ‘V’, into a basket.

“It’s 160-metres long, that we can see,” he said, but explained, as only certain areas are excavated, it could actually be much larger.

“This was a passive fishing method rather than going in with rods,” he said.

“It is nice to actually get the structure of it. It’s fantastic.”

And the phrase ‘a kettle of fish’ came from this medieval practise.

Evidence of habitation in the Bronze Age and the medieval period was exciting enough, but several giant granite rocks have also been found, called erratics.

Archeologists believe they would have been brought to Medmerry on ice floes during the last Ice Age, making them hundreds of thousands years old.

One of the rocks, the size of a cow, now sits in front of the RSPB’s Pagham Harbour visitor centre.