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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 August 2007, 11:07 GMT 12:07 UK
Fight on to save Stone Age Atlantis
By Eleanor Williams
BBC News, Hampshire

Wooden remains of the settlement found on the seabed (copyright Simon Brown)
The village under the sea off the Isle of Wight was found by chance

A race against time is under way to try to save a Stone Age settlement found buried at the bottom of the sea in the Solent.

Eight thousand years ago the area would have been dry land, a valley and woodland criss-crossed by rivers.

A swamped prehistoric forest was identified off the northern Isle of Wight coast in the 1980s, but Bouldnor Cliff's buried Stone Age village was only found - by chance - a few years ago.

Divers taking part in a routine survey spotted a lobster cleaning out its burrow on the seabed and to their surprise the animal was throwing out dozens of pieces of worked flint.

Garry Momber with some of the excavated artefacts
Garry Momber is leading the excavation project

Maritime archaeologists from the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology have carried out a number of underwater excavations at the 8,000-year-old site.

For the first time they are bringing up sections of the Mesolithic village from the seabed and going through the sediments.

But they have to work fast, as the site is literally being washed away by tidal currents, which eat away at the submerged cliff at a rate of 12in (30cm) a year.

Garry Momber, director of the charity - which is supported by English Heritage - said the project is unique and helps to shed light on a time in British history which very little is known about.

8,000-year-old nuts found at Bouldnor Cliff
8,000-year-old hazelnuts were found at the Bouldnor Cliff site

He said: "This is the only site of its kind in Britain and is extremely important to our understanding of our Stone Age ancestors from the lesser-known Mesolithic period.

"It reveals a time before the English Channel existed when Europe and Britain were linked.

"The people who lived on this site could have walked over to Calais without too much trouble."

The Isle of Wight was then the highest point of a chalk ridge stretching out along the south coast with valleys on either sides.

After the ice cap - which had covered most of northern Europe - melted, the sea levels started to rise and the settlement was swamped and buried under the sea.

Diver from Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology excavating on the site (copyright Simon Brown)
Divers are still excavating at the site at the bottom of the Solent

In the process, silt formed on top and preserved both tools, such as flint knives and scrapers, as well as charcoal, worked pieces of wood, nuts and other organic material, which would have disappeared on land.

"It's called the Stone Age because, on land, we find stones from this period but under water a whole lot more survives," Mr Momber said.

"I believe these people were far more sophisticated than we give them credit for."

Among the discoveries are wooden poles and structures believed to have been used to build houses and canoes.

"The reason so little is known about the lives of the Mesolithic people, is because most of the sites where they settled are now on the seabed," Mr Momber added.

Wooden pole with a flint knife embedded in it (copyright Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology
A wooded pole with a flint knife embedded in it was found in 2004

"The whole of the North Sea could be covered in sites like this one.

"If we want to understand the Mesolithic people - how they went from hunter-gatherers to farming - we need to look under the water."

In 2004, the team carried out another excavation on a less intact site 300yds (275m) away.

This showed signs of having been by a river and Mr Momber believes the two sites were linked.

He said it was likely the larger one was where the people lived and the other where they went to catch fish.

Tamzin Scott, from the trust, goes through layers of mud from the seabed
Tamzin Scott goes through layers of mud from the seabed

However, there is still a lot more work to be done until it is known what Bouldnor Cliff looked like and how the site was used.

To put it in perspective, Mr Momber compared the find to one of the more "modern" historic finds in the Solent.

"The Mary Rose is only about 500 years old - this was well before that, well before the pyramids, which are 3,000 years old and way before Stonehenge was built, which was only 5,000 years ago," he said.

Mr Momber added they hoped to secure more funding so they could continue their work before the artefacts were lost forever, as the Bouldnor Cliff area was being washed away fast.

Maritime archaelogists talk about the excavation of an underwater Stone Age settlement

Stone age relics found off coast
25 Nov 04 |  Hampshire
Dark Age boat recovered
10 Sep 03 |  Science/Nature
Ancient boat found buried in mud
04 Sep 03 |  Hampshire/Dorset

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