The Marine Archaeology of The Solent

Posted on 03 Dec 2005


In this, the third article in a series about the different faces of the Solent, we look at the sub aqua world beneath the familiar surface. The fact is that there are many historical treasures and artefacts, some dating back to the time when the Solent was a river and before the sea level had risen 10,000 years ago, at the time of the last ice age. These are being actively explored by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology which is a charity founded in 1991. Current areas of activity are the Hamble River and Chichester Harbour, where low water, shore line hulk recording is being undertaken, to assess their exploration potential. Survey work is being conducted on the Weston shore of Southampton Water and Langstone Harbour, while at Lepe in the Eastern Solent, underwater investigations have lead to the discovery of a wooden ship. In the Western Solent the submerged landscape off Bouldner Cliff, IOW, and Pitts Deep, New Forest, continue to reveal information about our pre-history. The HWTMA has also created a Marine Heritage Exhibition at Fort Victoria on the Isle-of Wight, dedicated to education about the subject and enhancement of tourism in the area. The work is undertaken by professional archaeologists as well as volunteers.

Discoveries on the seabed are sometimes made by fishermen whose nets become snagged. One example in 2004 was an extensive warship site with characteristic fixtures of cannon, copper pins and sherds of pottery which can assist with identification and dating. Previous examples are HMS ‘Impregnable’, a second rate warship of 1799 and the French ‘Hazardous’ of 1698. The most famous example is the raising and restoration of Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose.

Much of the diving field work involves humbler craft like the old hulks of abandoned barges in the Hamble River. Currently Southampton University students are gleaning valuable information about sea level change. Excavation in Langstone Harbour in 2003, resulted in the raising of an early Saxon Long Boat. It is hoped that radio carbon dating of a piece of heartwood will confirm a fitting date of AD 400-620.

In the Western Solent the underwater cliff face at Bouldner arises from a drowned forest of oaks, probably experienced by Mesolithic people using flint tools. This is the deepest site of its kind to be identified in British Territorial Waters, radio carbon dated to 8,565-8,345 years BC, probably the oldest sequence of oak in Britain. English Heritage funded fieldwork has revealed evidence of Mesolithic flint tools and charcoal remains. Rodent nibbled hazel nuts indicate the changing forestation from pine to deciduous trees. On the opposite side of the Western shore at Pitt’s Deep, divers have been investigating a sloping peat platform which suggests a river bank.

The ‘Oasis’ project is investigating offshore aggregates and species inhabiting historic ship wrecks, to demonstrate the inter dependence of marine life, sea deposits and sunken vessels. The marine areas around the IOW contain some of the most important sand and gravel deposits for extraction in UK waters. The wreck sites form reefs which teem with marine life. The project involves wreck sites on the West Wight.

This summary aims to give some indication of the rich maritime archaeology harboured by the Solent Waters. It also demonstrates how much fascinating and important work is being undertaken by archaeologists, divers, students, fishermen and volunteers. I would like to thank The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology for sourcing the information for this article.

Dr. Chris Willard