Digging for Britain: Expert takes sediment from The Solent
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The Solent separates the Isle of Wight from mainland Britain. At around 20 miles (32 kilometres) long and between two and a half and five miles (four and eight kilometres) wide, it is a major lane for passenger, freight and military vessels. It also provides an important recreational area for water sports, particularly yachting, and hosts the famous Cowes Week sailing event each year.
With the Isle of Wight, Southampton and Portsmouth all lying on its shores, it is of huge importance to the South Coast.
Yet, many thousands of years ago, the Solent had a very different story.
Much like the English Channel, the North Sea and the Irish Sea, it was once dry land, slowly being submerged by rising sea levels.
It was not until 6100 BC that Britain broke free from mainland Europe, and the Isle of Wight broke free from mainland Britain.
Known as the Mesolithic period, the remains of human habitation from this era have for years been found scattered across the seabed.
The recent BBC documentary ‘Digging for Britain’ explored this ancient settlement which is submerged 11 metres underwater, offshore from Bouldnor, a hamlet near Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight.
Dr Cat Jarman, one of the UK’s leading archaeologists, described the find the team of researchers made in the Solent as “spectacular and unexpected”, adding that it could rewrite the story of how people moved across the continent.
Garry Momber, of the Maritime Archaeology Trust, has dived at the site on numerous occasions, fascinated by the detailed information that the sea bed holds about the ancient humans who lived there.
In 2019, he and his team lifted and reassembled a mysterious, wooden walkway, and last year headed out to look for more signs of ancient life.
Mr Momber said: “It’s the only site we’ve got in the UK.
“It’s 8,000-years-old and it’s telling us about this period of time we know nothing about.”
The Mesolithic people roamed on British soil as hunter gatherers from 9500 BC until 4000 BC when farming and crops were thought to have arrived in Britain.
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However, Mr Momber’s most recent experiment looks to challenge that traditional thinking.
A sediment sample he extracted from the site acted as a brief glimpse into the past, and could challenge what we think we know about the area.
As he explained: “We’re going to take some samples for DNA analysis so that we get an insight into DNA from all the living creatures that were around at that point 8,000 years ago.”
The documentary’s narrator, Professor Alice Roberts, explained that, as Mr Momber dived down, evidence of ancient occupation could be seen “everywhere”.
A sediment sample sees a box cut through several layers of the sea bed, including earth occupied by the ancient Mesolithic people.
Mr Momber hoped DNA analysis from the site could “help us reconstruct that landscape”.
On opening the box — described as “archaeological treasure” by Prof Roberts — several layers of earth were revealed. The bottom layer showed the land lived on by the Mesolithic people, and much of the remains of the forest floor were still remarkably preserved.
They found flint, twigs, oak leaves and many other things from the ancient environment.
Professor Robin Allaby, from the University of Warwick, who carried out the DNA analysis, said: “What we’ve found is a whole array of plants.
“And then there’s all sorts of large animals around there. The really strange thing that we found — around 8,000 years ago, we get this signal for wheat.”
Wheat was previously thought to have arrived on British shores around 6,000 years ago, but this discovery shows it could have travelled north from Europe around 2,000 years earlier.
Their findings could see a big shift in the timetable of early British agriculture.
As Prof Allaby noted: “There’s a massive story written in the DNA and the sediments.”
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