South West

The south west holds the first of the RCZAs with the Isle of Wight Coastal Audit published in 2000. It provides statements as to the condition, rate of erosion and advice for future management of the area taking into consideration the merits of protection versus allowing natural processes to take their course (Isle of Wight 2000). The south west is still yet to receive full coverage of RCZAs as the region was identified as a lower priority due to the hard geology along parts of the coastline (Murphy 2014; 18). Most recently the RCZAs for North Devon and Cornwall have been commissioned and will be undertaken by the Coastal and Offshore Archaeological Research Services (COARS) and is due to be completed in December 2016 (COARS 2015).


The approach for the RCZAs has nationally been fairly uniform, the exception to this however is the Severn Estuary. Arguably one of the most dangerous parts of the English coastline, fieldwork areas were targeted rather than a full survey being undertaken as many areas were inaccessible (Pers comm. Tim Grubb).

Intertidal archaeology is changing nationally; using the RCZAs the CITiZAN project can start to move intertidal archaeology out of the Rescue era and start to use monitoring data to pre-empt sites which will be lost to coastal erosion.


Although much of the south west coast is dominated by hard cliffs there is still evidence of prehistoric landscapes in the low lying bays, estuaries and harbours of the region, with significant peat deposits preserved in clayey and silty sediments. At extreme low tides the remains of submerged forests can be seen in areas including Langstone Harbour (Hampshire) and Quarr Beach (Isle of Wight), now at risk from erosion. Changing sediment levels in the sandy bays of Cornwall and Devon have exposed and re-covered prehistoric forests and extreme weather such as the storms in 2013 has revealed new sites including the remains of a forest in Mounts Bay. Intertidal peat deposits have been found on beaches such as those at Westward Ho! in association with a Mesolithic shell midden and Crooklets Beach where Mesolithic artefacts are also eroding from the nearby cliffs.  


The harbours and estuaries of the south west coast contain a number of vessel assemblages, the majority were deliberately abandoned, while others were re-used as coastal defences and some accidentally lost and only now exposed as a result of shifting sediments. Both wooden and metal vessels are found in the region of varying size and type. Large vessels in Purton were used to support the coastal bank, this is one of the largest assemblages nationally with more than 80 vessels recorded. Poole harbour, Hooe Lake, Forton Lake and the Hamble River are among other large assemblages of abandoned vessels, the Hamble containing one of the oldest, the ‘Grace Dieu’, launched in 1418 by Henry V and now a Protected Wreck Site.

Military defence sites in the south west often utilise the rugged landscape that typifies this region. Examples of defence include the promontory forts at Gunwalloe and Gunard’s Head, the Saxon shore fort of Portchester Castle, the Tudor defences at Calshot and Falmouth constructed by Henry VIII as part of his coastal defence campaign, and those defences built as part of the fortification of England during WWI and WWII. These sites were built to defend the English coast from other nations as well as pirates and privateers. Due to the location of these sites however, many are now at risk from coastal erosion or flooding, and several have crumbled into the sea or fallen to the beaches below.

Evidence of coastal activities in the south west include fish traps, oyster farming, salt extraction sites, causeways, jetties, mining and much more. Due to the nature of the coastline the majority of wooden structures that have survived are only found within the harbours, bays and estuaries of the region, particularly along the Severn. Some stone structures such as V-shaped fishtraps can be found in more exposed stretches of the coast, including the north east of the Isle of Wight and north Devon at Lynmouth. The importance of marine resources to coastal communities is demonstrated at sites such as Chichester harbour where evidence of the oyster industry can be seen in numerous locations.  

In the far south west the coastline consists primarily of hard cliffs, rocky outcrops and sandy beaches, particularly in Cornwall and north Devon. Further east the geology become softer with soft chalk and weak sandstone clifflines as well as tidal estuaries, dunes, saltmarsh, mudflats and the harbours of Poole, Christchurch, Portsmouth, Langstone and Chichester. The predominant coastal change processes include cliff erosion, coastal landsliding, beach erosion and sea flooding. Areas of the south west, particularly around the bays, harbours and estuaries, are also under threat from coastal squeeze. Archaeological material is eroding from the cliffs all along this coastline and changing sediment levels along the beaches are exposing new sites which are under threat from storm damage and tidal scour. Erosion, storms, tidal scour and flooding is also affecting archaeological material in the harbours and estuaries where there is also high potential for new discoveries.



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  • Coastal and Offshore Archaeological Research Services. 2015. North Devon and Cornwall Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Survey. May 2015 
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