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Islands in a Common Sea
Phase 1
Isles of Scilly 2005

Account of fieldwork

1. Research into the extent, nature, state of preservation and potential of archaeological deposits at a number of prehistoric cliff-face sites was instigated. Initial monitoring of the rates and patterns of coastal erosion was undertaken. The characterisation of undated sites was initiated through the collection of artefactual and palaeoenvironmental material for dating. Previously noted findspots, were investigated and a potential settlement site identified.
    Beach scene St Martin's
    Beach scene St Martin's

  • Sites in the area of Pendrathen and Halangy Porth on St Mary's were located and recorded using GPS. The site at Pendrathen was confirmed to be a highly eroded Bronze Age cairn with less than one quarter of the total monument remaining. The eroding section was cleaned and recorded and datable material recovered. GPS survey revealed rates of erosion, relative to the 1880 OS map, to be a loss of 4m along this coastline. The eroding section at Halangy Porth was photographically recorded and compared to the section recorded in 1980's, it is estimated that loss at this site is about 1m of coastline over this period.


  • Coastal survey in the area of Porth Cressa, St Mary's, relocated a number of eroding sites; these were photographically recorded. The recent loss of approximately 0.5m of land to the west of the bay was reported by locals.

    Porth Cressa erosion
    Porth Cressa erosion

  • Coastal survey of St. Martin's relocated a number of eroding sites. The material collected from these sites allowed their characterisation as Neolithic and Bronze Age. At Lawrence Brow artefacts were recovered in hillwash derived from inshore sites, suggesting they relate either to the cairns lying upslope (e.g. Knackyboy see below) or with unidentified settlements.

    Lawrence Brow
    Lawrence Brow

  • A coastal settlement site, as yet unaffected by coastal erosion, was identified on St. Martin's. Initial investigations suggest a site similar to other prehistoric settlements, with an enclosure boundary, platforms and associated houses. The site was surveyed, and recorded although vegetation obscured much of the detail.

    Round Bottom
    Round Bottom

2. A sample of scheduled Ancient Monuments was visited to assess their state of preservation and potential for future research.
  • A number of submerged and intertidal sites proved impossible to locate, either due to attrition or sand deposition; at others damage due to erosive processes was noted.
  • Inland many sites remain unmanaged and are suffering from encroaching vegetation and agricultural damage. Two sites on St Martin's were cleared of vegetation by hand and surveyed, however it proved impossible to clear others without machinery. In particular attempts, to assess the preservation and potential of Knackyboy Cairn (estimated to contain the cremations of 60 individuals when excavated in 1948) were thwarted. Local accounts indicate the monument has been obscured by vegetation for a number of decades.

    Monument management
    Monument management

  • Intertidal monuments were visited; in particular, the fieldwalls lying off Samson and Tresco. The function and date of these fieldwalls remains unknown, and the suggestion that some were tidal fishtraps remains untested. In addition, the process by which they became submerged and the condition of any associated archaeological deposits remains unknown. Observations suggested that submergence resulted in the loss of original land surfaces, although this needs to be established by fieldwork.

    Samson walls
    Samson walls

3. Paleoenvironmental intertidal deposits previously recorded were relocated at the time of the lowest autumn tides and their position recorded using GPS. Submerged deposits were also located and sampled for assessment.
  • The survey and recording of the palaeoenvironmental deposits has facilitated planning for future research and analysis. In particular, the discovery of submerged peats lying in the deepest part of the sea channels filled a gap in our spatial sampling and future liaison with divers should lead to the identification of other sample locales. This information will feed into the assessment of environmental change and the chronology and extent of prehistoric peat formation.

    Peat deposit survey
    Peat deposit survey

4. The archaeological recording, survey and characterisation of a number of at risk archaeological sites accidentally exposed by building and agricultural activity was undertaken.
    Cist cemetery
    Cist cemetery

  • Part of a previously unknown Iron Age cist cemetery on St Mary's, had been exposed and then reburied by a farmer in 2002; this was re-exposed, cleaned and recorded. The state of preservation and extent of previous disturbance was also noted. The site was accurately plotted onto OS Landline mapping, and reburied in an archeologically appropriate manner. Fieldwalking, supplemented by geophysical survey in accessible areas, identified an area of archaeological activity surrounding the cists within which lay a possible associated settlement. There are only four recorded cist cemeteries on the islands, two on the foreshore of St. Martin's were washed away in the 1790's whilst the second pair, located on St Mary's in the area of Hugh Town, were excavated in advance of building work in the 1960's. The discovery of an undisturbed cemetery is therefore of significance. No attempt was made to excavate the cists, but it is likely they contain grave goods and possibly human bone. Advice on future treatment of potential archaeological features was given to the tenant farmer.

    Geophysics survey   Geophysics interpretation
    Geophysics survey and interpretation (click the image to see a larger version of the interpretation 152kb)

  • Prehistoric activity was noted on St Agnes, exposed as a result of agricultural works. No archaeology had been previously recorded in this location and a prehistoric drain was cleaned, identified and recorded. Advice on reburial and future land management was given to the tenant farmer.

5. Planning for future research on the island is being informed by the advances in knowledge gained from this initial trip.
  • Liaison with the local community identified a number of further potential sites, some of which are located near recorded artefact scatters.
  • The lack of archaeological activity in the islands in recent years may have lead to a decline in interest and management of this valuable resource.
  • The presentation and state of knowledge of many of the sites remains obscure, the majority were excavated some time ago, and many will benefit from a re-analysis and further investigation to clarify, define, interpret and present the monuments. In particular, there are a number of challenges to be faced in terms of locating and reassessing previously recorded sites.
  • Present models of island interactions suggest that earlier prehistory on the islands is under-represented and there is little understanding of the context within which the abundant burial monuments were created and used. Future fieldwork will focus on this and on the development of a modern Scillonian chronological framework.

We hope to return to the islands in 2006

Contact us
Dr Jacqui Mulville - Director of Islands in a Common Sea

tel: +44 (0)29 2087 4247

Acknowledgements and Thanks
Organisations: Cardiff University, The British Academy, Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, English Heritage, Historic Environment Service Cornwall

The team:
Jill Campbell, Julia Geall, Libby, Charlie Johns, Matt Jones, Fiona Pink, Sarah Rose, Imogen Sambrook, Helen Smith, Paul Tasker, Tim Young, Amanda Martin, Sarnia Butcher, Kathryn Sawyer, Vanessa Staker, Ian Morrison, Gill Arbury, Nick Johnson, Ted Moulson, Chris & Chris Savill, Terry & Jackie Perkins

The Rogers Family & The Gillet Family
St. Mary's, St. Martin's (in particular, for moving our equipment with grace and humour) and St. Agnus boatmen
Rhiannon, Island Taxis (and Matt when he stood in!)
The staff of the many shops, cafes and public houses that made us welcome
The people of St. Mary's, St. Martin's and St. Agnus
Support staff at Cardiff University
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  Phase 2 :2006
  Phase 3: 2007

cardiff university archaeology and conservation cardiff school of history and archaeology
cardiff university, humanities building,
colum drive, cardiff, CF10 3EU,
wales, united kingdom
  tel: +44 (0)29 2087 4470
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