Pett Level, East Sussex
One of the best examples of a submerged forest in the UK stretches for nearly 2km along the intertidal zone at Pett Level, East Sussex. The trunks, branches and boles that can be seen in the woody peat at low tide are the remains of a forest that grew below the cliffs from the Neolithic into the Bronze Age.
Pett Level August 2015
In earlier centuries such forests were thought to be remnants of the great flood. The name denoting this belief, if not the belief itself, survives: one such forest, near Withernsea in Yorkshire, still goes by the name of Noah's Wood. From the later 18th and into the early 20th century submerged forests were thought to indicate massive land subsidence at some point in the distant past. This belief, however, was challenged by Clement Reid who, in his seminal 1913 work Submerged Forests, was one of the first to explore the idea that the forests survived as a result of sea level change. As with the majority of those who had previously studied submerged forests he was a geologist but he was insistent that the only way to truly understand the phenomenon was through interdisciplinary research involving geologists, archaeologists and natural historians. From observing the deep stratigraphy of docks excavated in Fenland areas, he also believed that the peats that the forests lay on provided an ideal series of deposits for the study of successive stages of landscape change. In effect he wrote a method statement for the study of submerged forests today.
Previous work at Pett Level dated to the Neolithic and Bronze Age (Hazell 2008) while Eddison et al (1983) suggest that by 5300 years before present (BP) a shingle barrier sheltered the developing peat beds thus enabling the forest to develop. This shingle barrier remained in situ until 1960s (ibid.) which explains why there has been little erosion along this particular section of coast. There is also evidence of human presence in the vicinity of the forest: Four Mesolithic flint blades and part of a flint axe were found in the cave overlooking the site c 1900 (NRHE number 417398), one or possibly two finds of unabraded and/or in situ Neolithic flint flakes were found in the peats in the 1920s (Hazell 2008) and an in situ Mesolithic-type blade core was recovered from the peat in 1969 (Palmer 1972).
No work, however, had been carried out specifically on the trees of the forest until a Historic England funded project in 2014, in which Dr Scott Timpany of the University of the Highlands and Islands, surveyed and recorded over 150 of the trees on the site as a community archaeology project with the help of local archaeologists including HAARG (Hastings Area Archaeological Research Group). The trees were sampled to identify their species and age and peat samples were also taken to be analysed for pollen, seed, bud, wood and insects. Since then Dr Timpany has been returning for one weekend a year, to work with CITiZAN and CITiZAN and HAARG volunteers to take more tree samples to enhance the record of the site and to monitor its condition.
Dr Scott Timpany talks about trees at Pett Level submerged forest, East Sussex
The interim analysis of the peat and the tree samples has conjured up a vibrant picture of a changing woodland. A damp woodland predominantly of alder had pools of water on the woodland floor, surrounded by ground cover including fool’s-water-cress, greater spearwort, bulrush and cowbane. Following a period of inundation a mixed woodland developed with trees and shrubs including alder buckthorn, yew, ash, willow, birch and a floor dominated by brambles with meadow rue and sedges, bedstraws and marsh marigold. Patches of open woodland existed alongside denser forest, and there is even evidence for a storm event: a peak in deadwood fungi types indicates an increase in fallen branches and rotting wood on the woodland floor. A gnawed hazelnut indicates the presence of wood mice while remains of dung related beetles show that larger mammals also roamed the forest. From earlier finds we know that there was a human presence in the forest and while our work has found no further direct evidence, the presence of charcoal in the peat samples may suggest burning for land management purposes. There is further work to be done processing all the samples gathered from the site and an interim report from CITiZAN will be accessible via our website later in 2018.
Eddison, J; Carr, A and Joliffe, I. 1983. Endagered coastlines of geomorphological importance in The Geographical Journal, Vol. 149, No. 1, March 1983, pp. 39-75. Available here
Hazell, Z. 2008. Historic England's coastal peat resource database. Available here
NHRE (National Record of the Historic Environment). Accessed via Pastscape
Palmer S. 1972 ‘Excavations at a Mesolithic Cliff Site at Pett’. Sussex Archaeology 110 3-9
Timpany, S. Investigating a lost land: the Pett Level Submerged Forest Survey in Pett and Pett Level Parish News, December 2014