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Changing Times | The archaeological history of Medmerry

Medmerry is an area of the Manhood Peninsular, north-west of Selsey.


In 2008, storms resulted in flooding of the area, in particular at the Medmerry Holiday Park. Between 2011 and 2013, the Environment Agency carried out a managed realignment of the area to provide flood defences for the local area and create habitat. Archaeology South-East (ASE) worked on behalf of the Environment Agency identifying and excavating archaeological features and deposits ahead of construction.


This article addresses some of the things they found through their investigations of the site.


A series of raised beaches lie between the coast and the Downs. These were created during periods of warmer climate and higher water levels. During ASE’s investigations at Medmerry raised beach deposits from the Quaternary period were found that would have been deposited around 125,000 years ago.


At the end of the Mesolithic period (around 5,000-4,000 BC) the water tables rose, causing water channels to be less dynamic. This, in turn, encouraged peat development. Peat is an organic mass that can be dated. It also preserves micro-fossils such as plant pollen which provide an indication of the environment at a given time. This era provided a fairly stable environment with ponded water, wildfowl and beaver that could be exploited. A Mesolithic flint scraper discovered on the site also indicated human activity in the area.


The peat record at Medmerry finishes at about 3,000 BC. At the start of the Neolithic era there was an abrupt change observed by an erosion event in the peat. This suggests sea incursions and storm activity, a switch from relative stability to a more challenging cold and wet environment.


In the Bronze Age, by around 2,000 BC, a brackish lagoon had formed. Close to the lagoon were “burnt mound features” identified by huge piles of fractured (through heat) flint cobbles with charcoal that are assumed to have heated water in nearby tanks. There is no clear indication of the use of these features, although suggestions have included the evaporation of water in the production of salt.


In the Bronze Age, we see the beginnings of extensive field systems. Around ten houses were also discovered. The houses are believed to have had elaborate fronts. Artefacts uncovered suggest salt working for domestic use, also loom weights and evidence of a cremation cemetery.


At around 800 BC, the Bronze Age site abruptly ends. It is possible that this is in part due to environmental factors, as the area appears to become colder and wetter and storm surges occur, which may have affected the fresh water supply.


After 100 BC, conditions became more stable once again and into the Romano-British period buildings and field systems begin to emerge.


A curious wooden structure dating to 700-900 AD was discovered on the site. Its use remains uncertain, however, suggestions include a possible fish weir type structure. Another theory is that it could represent the beginning of land reclamation in the area and was used to catch sediment from flood events.


A second later structure of ‘sails’ predominantly oak with ‘runners’ of willow or polar (wattle like appearance) was in use for around 120 years from around 1300 AD. The structure had cobbles placed in it to stabilise it. Creating such a structure and maintaining it would have needed a lot of resources.


By 1350 AD, storm surge events were occurring with cold stormy weather which marked the start of the “Little Ice Age” that lasted to the mid-19th century; its greatest intensity was between 1550 AD and 1700 AD.


During the Second World War, the area was utilised for a series of coastal defences, erected to resist the threat of invasion – known as Operation Sealion (the planned German invasion). Later, the area became an air-to-ground gunnery range for bomber practice.


If you would like to find out more about the excavations at Medmerry, the full report ‘A View from the Edge; Archaeological investigation on the Manhood Peninsula, Selsey for the Medmerry Managed Realignment Scheme’ is available to buy from Archaeology South-East.




By Pat Saunders, volunteer at The Novium Museum



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