Secrets of the Solent

Gareth Shaw, Dan Pascoe and Violet Prigg

Gareth Shaw, Dan Pascoe and Violet Prigg

First published in News Daily Echo: Photograph of the Author by , Feature Writer

PICKING and prodding at a smelly, mouldy slab of mud and clay taken from the Solent seabed, Garry Momber is in his element. “That’s interesting,” he says as he inspects a black flake taken from the chunk. “That’s a piece of flint – or maybe it’s organic?”

To the untrained eye it is hard to get -excited over a mystery black speck, but as Mr Momber is quick to remind me, this isn’t just any black speck – it’s an 8,000-year-old black speck.

To put it in context, that is 3,000 years older than Stonehenge and 5,000 years older than the Egyptian pyramids.

It will be analysed, bagged, catalogued and kept in a giant walk-in freezer at the National Oceanography Centre, in Southampton’s Western Docks, along with hundreds of other ancient artefacts retrieved from the Solent.

Whether flint, a splinter from timber or pollen from a plant, the black speck is another vital clue to a forgotten prehistoric settlement.

Since unearthing a Stone Age oven just off Bouldnor on the Isle of Wight almost a decade ago, Mr Momber has remained -convinced his find was “just the tip of the iceberg”.

Due to the protection of the sea and the absence of oxygen-related erosion, the site has been preserved as a time capsule.

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Throughout the summer, the Southampton -scientist has been at the helm of a unique archaeological project to retrieve and exam ine whole portions of the 1km long under water cliff.

An international team of divers, including students from Southampton University and members of the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology (HWTMA), has regularly dived 11 metres below to bring back remarkably preserved remnants of a lost civilisation.

Each chunk of seabed is embedded with delicate flint tools, wood chippings, char coal, hazelnuts and even human hair-like fibres that are being gradually revealed by archaeological detectives.

“It really is opening up the book on the whole period. There is nothing else like it in the UK. It’s an incredible site and it’s on our doorstep,” Mr Momber enthuses.

It has been his task to slot together the pieces of this three-dimensional jigsaw about how our ancestors from the Mesolithic, or middle Stone Age, period responded to the retreating ice caps at the end of the last ice age.

Now Mr Momber, a director of HWTMA and the Southampton Heritage Federation, is preparing to reveal to the scientific world the findings of his ten-year quest.

His conclusions, to be published early next year in an epic mono graph, challenge established theories about the commu nity who once inhabited the land between Southamp- ton and the Isle of Wight, before the Solent immersed it all.

“This is really going to put the cat among the pigeons,” he says. “It is England’s -equivalent of Pompeii.”

Most controversial is his entirely new -theory about how the Solent we know today took shape.

Geologists and historians have long believed the Solent waterway between -mainland Britain and the Isle of Wight was once a river valley with various tributaries.

It was thought the Solent River, as it’s known, ran from Poole in the west, across the north of the Isle of Wight and into what is now the English Channel at the eastern end of the present Solent.

Mr Momber this week told the Daily Echo he believes the Solent River never existed – a groundbreaking theory that could poten tially rewrite the history books.

He suggests that about 8,000 years ago the Solent was in fact a freshwater lagoon fed by rivers from mainland Britain. Filled with freshwater fish such as trout, salmon and eels, the Solent Lagoon was a vital life source for the Bouldnor -settlement.

Mr Momber says the fact it was a lagoon and not a river is significant because the inhabitants would have per manently settled in the region, rather than migrating to it during just the short summer months.

“Rather than getting back into their canoes and sailing off back down to Europe to migrate with the seasons, I believe they stayed put and developed the resources around them,” he said.

“Culturally, this was a period when Britain separated from the rest of Europe because of rising sea levels. Within 400 or 500 years there was no connection between Britain and the Europe.

“All of sudden there was no way they were going to get back to mainland Europe even if they wanted to, so they were probably some of the first to settle in Britain.”

Life by the Solent Lagoon was to be changed forever as melting ice sheets slowly ensured a dramatic rise in sea levels. However, Mr Momber’s conclusion on how this climate change impacted on the Bouldnor folk radically differs from conventional wisdom.

He says a sudden, massive flood in about 6000BC completely changed the ecology of the Solent Lagoon when seawater broke through the south of the Isle of Wight, at an area now known as Freshwater Bay.

The newly formed saltwater river carved its way through the Island and spilled out into the freshwater lagoon, flooding Bouldnor community’s camps and killing the fish they hunted.

“I suggest that there was a river running straight through the Isle of Wight,” Mr Momber said. “It would have flooded their camp and changed the whole ecology of the wildlife.

“Suddenly saline (salt) water was introduced to what was a freshwater environment. The freshwater fish eels would have died and would have eventually been replaced by new species.”

Far from being wiped out, Mr Momber says the Bouldnor community would have adapted to their new environment.

His evidence is in the tools, wooden poles and timber believed to have been used to build camps and canoes that were swamped in the flood and preserved for thousands of years in the Solent’s seafloor.

“It’s called the Stone Age because, on land, we find stones from this period but under water a lot more survives,” he said. “I believe these people were far more sophisticated than we give them credit for.”

It was only comparatively recently – in geological terms – that the Solent eventually broke through to cut off the Isle of Wight from the mainland.

Mr Momber argues that in about 2800BC the sea overtopped marshy land between Milford On Sea and Newhaven, flooding the only remaining land connecting the Island to the mainland.

“Every tide would have been like a massive flood. It would have overtopped quickly, but all you would have is wet grass that would have gone away again. Land that was once dry would have suddenly become swampy and uninhabitable,” he said.

It is expected Mr Momber’s findings will be closely examined in the context of modern-day climate change, and he says today’s environment and planning authorities must look to the past to better understand what may happen in the future.

Mr Momber hopes that once his findings are published, the Trust will be able to secure funding for a full-scale excavation of the site – the scale of which we have not seen since the raising of the Mary Rose in 1982.

“The Mary Rose was so important about telling us about the Tudor life, because more important than the ship itself was its contents. The same is true for what we are attempting because the contents of the sea floor tell us about Mesolithic life.”

As always, the key to the future of the project, which is supported by the University of York, the National Oceanography Centre and the Royal Archaeological Institute, is money.

Mother Nature is steadily sweeping the Solent’s ancient drowned civilisation with erosion and it is a race against time before we lose the clues to our very origins and the fate of future generations.

Hampshire and Isle of Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology is always seeking. The Trust can be contacted on 023 8059 3290 or email info@hwtma.org.uk or see the Related Links section on the right.

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