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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Marshland Challenge.
by Alec Miles and Mike Syddell.

In these days of rescue excavations one jump ahead of motorway builders and other contractors, why worry about the North Kent marshes? Perhaps we should examine what is at stake. First, we have, in Roman times, one of the most heavily populated areas in Kent, with hundreds of settlements engaged in saltpanning, pottery making, sheep farming and possibly fishing. A complete way of life lies buried under a thick layer of silt which has preserved it untouched to the present day, almost a fossil landscape.

Strangely enough very little is known about Roman settlements in the marshes, although immense quantities of pottery have turned up from time to time and nearly every museum in Kent -- and elsewhere in the UK -- has its share. The sites were known to the early antiquaries, who thought that they were the remains of vast pottery manufactories. Archaeologists have, it is true, investigated various sites, but usually retired to drier spheres. Some have produced controversial reports, while others have declined to publish their findings. One reason for this unsatisfactory state of affairs is the very high water-table in the inned marshes, Which makes excavations very difficult, and outside the sea-wall the work is at the mercy of the tides. Another problem is that the sites mainly consist of stratified clays, which are very difficult to trowel when wet.

For many years the marshes have been a quiet backwater, disturbed only by the shepherd and the occasional wildfowler, but the industrialist in his search for sites has started to cast his eyes on the Kent marshes below London. Already outline planning permission has been obtained for a refinery at Cliffe and plans are afoot for a power station nearby. Probably in the next decade, under stimulation of trade with the Common Market, we shall see the end of the marshes as we know them today, and with them will go our last chance to solve the archaeological puzzle.

Obviously, we must survey the area and locate all sites before the bulldozers and pile-drivers move in. The exposed cliff of the riverside saltings pose no problem from a survey point of view, as the sites are easy to spot. But, a site three parts washed away by the sea can 'be compared to surveying a house after it has been knocked down, so we must concentrate on the inned marsh behind the sea-wall. Although most of the sites will be near old water courses, which are easily detectable in aerial photographs, it is essential that every threatened stretch of marshland is examined thoroughly. A rapid random survey with a proton-magnetometer to locate any possible anomalies, backed up by a closer plotted survey and soil samples obtained by augering, would seem the only way to cover the large areas involved. Not forgetting the old dodge of examining mounds covered by thistles and stinging nettles!

Having located our sites, we must trial trench them and, if possible, excavate. However, experience gained at the Cooling excavations would suggest this latter is a long term project, and time is not on our side. It would seem the answer is to cut a series of trenches through the sites with a mechanical excavator, backed up by a team of experienced archaeologists to record and interpret the sections. This is an undoubted challenge both in logistical and financial terms.

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