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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Operation Gas Pipe.
by Nigel Macpherson-Grant.

From May to August, 1971, the North Sea Gas pipeline traversed 6-7 miles of open farmland on the Isle of Thanet from Gore Street Farm, above the Monkton Marshes, to Chilton, Ramsgate in the eastern sector of the island. Apart from a major diversion round the modern settlement of Manna Hutte, Ramsgate, the line hugged the A253 for most of the way, between 80-100 feet of its southern edge. The line acted as a good longtitudinal cross-section of the island, both from geological and archaeological standpoints. In this relatively short distance, 30 sites were discovered, of which 28 were unknown hitherto, ranging in date from the Iron Age to Medieval period. As usual the majority were ditches. Six of the sites are selected for description on the basis of their particular importance -- four of the sites are cemeteries.

The six main sites are described in order of discovery, from west to east.

  1. Just east of the junction of the A253 and A299 at the Monkton roundabout, and overlooking Monkton itself, 22 graves of a large 6th-7th century Saxon cemetery were found. Situated on gently rising ground between 75-100 feet OD, the graves extended over nearly a mile distance, and in most cases lay east- west along the alignment of the pipe trench. This necessitated a constant watch, since otherwise quite often the only remaining clue would have been bones among the spoil, the grave having been completely destroyed. As one might expect in a "stratified" society the grave goods reflect varying degrees of wealth. However, judging by the remnant material, there do not appear to be any vast extremes between the wealthy and the poor. Necessarily from such a small percentage of what must be a large cemetery this view may, eventually, have to be modified. Nevertheless, the relatively poorly equipped graves were supplied with imported Frankish flagons. The westernmost and perhaps earliest portion of graves were the wealthiest. Here the graves were tightly clustered. Grave 3, that of a woman, contained a gilt disc-brooch, set beautifully with garnets and lapis-lazuli, and a necklace of pottery and amethyst beads. Grave 5 included an unbroken delicate glass-beaker, and nearby, a further grave, partially robbed, was furnished with a bronze buckle and a pair of bronze tweezers, both gilded. Other graves had iron swords, shield bosses and knives, bronze buckles and annular ring brooches with punched decoration.

  2. The next notable site was again part of a cemetery -- 5 unaccompanied graves. Here the alignment was approximately north-south, but not regular. The graves were deep and irregularly dug, the bodies apparently being buried without much ceremony. The lack of grave goods inhibits dating accurately, but the fairly close proximity to the known Romano-British cemetery at Mount Pleasant, overlooking Minster, suggests that this group may be of similar date.

  3. A further 3 burials, presumably part of the same Romano-British cemetery already mentioned, were found immediately east of the Prospect Inn, at the top of Minster Hill. Two graves were exposed of which one was single and one double.

  4. This site, again Roman, and dated to late 1st-early 2nd century AD made a pleasant and somewhat unusual change. Situated on the main Thanet ridge crest, opposite Manston airfield, it consisted of one ditch and seven large hollows. The ditch was narrow and only 15 inches deep with a slot cut in the bottom (suggesting a fence bedding-trench) and ran between the two westernmost hollows and con- tained a scatter of pottery and bone. The shallow depressions (average depth 3-4 feet) were almost entirely filled with fine loose ash in massive quantities, together with large sherds, bone, some of it worked, nails, knife-blades and pieces of slag. The largest was 24 feet long and the others averaged a little less. Perhaps, with the presence of iron-slag, this was an industrial site. Analysis of the ash may confirm this.

  5. A further group of burials! One inhumation of unknown date with the grave partially cut into an earlier ditch, and two Romano-British cremation burials of the late 1st-early 2nd century. Each was accompanied by pots; the second con- taining a flagon and a small poppy-head beaker. The site overlooks Thorne Farm.

  6. The last major site of Iron Age, date (circa 400 BC), was, perhaps, the most interesting. Situated immediately south of the cutting for the Minster-Ramsgate railway, and overlooking Pegwell Bay, it consisted of a series of pits and ditches. The pits were found on an easterly-rising hill-slope, with the ditches sited on the hill crest. The latter consisted of two large and deeply cut v-shaped ditches, one being over 45 feet wide. The last and widest contained in its eastern side, part of a pit-burial, virtually decomposed apart from the limb-bones. Recently, several other sites in Thanet have produced whole skeletones or only fragments of skull. The disposal of the dead among pre-Belgic Iron Age peoples is very much under debate at the moment. There seem generally to be few cemetery groups and until recently no known siting-factor. The only common factor now appearing is the erratic disposal of whole or parts of corpses in convenient pits and ditches, oftcn within the settlement area. One pit on this site which was rectangular and over 5 feet deep, contained considerable amounts of pottery, including parts of wide-mouthed carinated bowls, highly burnished. Barring the last, all the above sites are threatened by an eventual widening of the A253. As a result, preparations have been made for a form of spaced out "pre-emergency" rescue excavations.

The geological points involved are important. The pipeline cut through deposits of chalk and brickearth, but without exception the sites were confined to chalk zones. This was emphasised by the siting of the Thorne Farm Romano-British cremations. For over a mile the pipe trench had gone through deep brick-earth deposits with no sites. The chalk rose nearer to the surface for a distance of about 100-150 yards, followed by a return to brickearth. The burials were confined exclusively to this one short stretch of chalk. The study of site distributions in relation to subsoil geology, is important, particularly in fieldwork, since it acts as a fairly reliable contributory indicator as to the relative density of vegetation cover, a major determining factor in the choice of sites by man, whether they be domestic, defensive or funerary./p

During the passage of the pipeline across Thanet much help and consideration was received from the South-Eastern Gas Board as a whole, various representatives from the Board and from members of the firm of A E Bartholomews, the contactors who carried out the pipe-digging and laying. This sort of co-operation is the kind that has its reward for both sides, particularly in the field of good public relations.

Finally I should like to thank all those who took part in the watching for sites or in the excavations and helped to make the whole operation successful, and thus add considerably to our archaeological knowledge of Thanet.

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