August in Ancient Alderney

I’ve been quiet on the blogging front, chiefly because I spent August digging in Alderney.  Running a dig is full-on, 7 days a week but I found time to sit back see the moon rise over Longis Bay, to watch the stars come out over Saye and enjoy plenty of Alderney hospitality. We’d swim at lunchtime or straight after work and it felt very ‘famous five’ at times. My phone thought I was in France (clearly visible 9 miles away).

Our team returned to Longis Common where we found a dozen Iron Age burials and traces or Roman buildings in an electric trench in 2017, followed up with a dig in 2018. The site overlooks the island’s natural harbour but was abandoned by islanders when the land was buried by up to 2m of sand during extensive sand-blows from the early Middle Ages. Since then it has largely been undisturbed by development.

This year’s dig reinforced our belief that Roman buildings spread for some 200m across the common, and confirmed that the Romans built on top of an earlier Iron Age Cemetery they may not even have been aware of. In the Paddock at the western, uphill, edge of the site, Trench 2 from 2018 was partly re-opened and then expanded under my colleague Dr Phil de Jersey. Parts of a large Roman building stood here with clay-bonded walls up to a metre high made of local sandstone. Large sandstone blocks were placed vertically to form parts of these walls and a courtyard of roughly hewn flat stones interleaved between two layers of clay stood between them. Extending the trench this year revealed another room or courtyard with a hearth, and a doorway framed by upright slabs. Very late-looking Pottery points to these buildings being in use in the third to fourth centuries, so still occupied at the same time as the late Roman small fort at the Nunnery nearby. They could have been part of a vicus outside the fort.

A gap in the paved courtyard enabled a very deep excavation to reach the Iron Age cemetery.

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Two skeletons were found interred one on top of the other, with the uppermost wearing two neck rings, one of bronze and the other a combination of bronze and iron (David Nash)

A third skeleton was buried close by, in a stone cist, with a small pot by its shoulder. These are ‘high status’ burials, and taken with earlier discoveries show that the Iron Age population of Alderney was affluent and had links with communities in France. We are pretty convinced that they had a role in controlling trade routes, as northbound ships hugging the Gallic coast carrying wine and Mediterranean luxuries would pass within sight of Longis, as would southbound ships carrying produce from the north. This importance carried through to the Roman period, explaining their interest in the small island.

Some 50m downhill, on the Common closer to the sea, geophysics showed a large sweeping shadow so Trench 4 was dug to investigate. Dubbed the ‘Punishment Trench’ large quantities of sand needed to be removed by hand, to be followed by disappointment when the shadow turned out to be a trackway with tyre-ruts probably dating to the German Occupation of WW2. Removing yet more sand however revealed a medieval wall, and still deeper was a metre-thick Roman wall. At the base of the site was a curious structure of roughly shaped granite cobbles that is still causing some head-scratching.

Within 50m of the Nunnery, I led a group of volunteer diggers to expand Trench 3 dug by school students in 2018. It has been my curse in recent years to dig sites criss-crossed by utilities and this was another. Avoiding two electric mains, a water main and an old sewer we put in a 13m long trench and a trio of companion trenches to reveal a building with three rooms (or three adjacent buildings). These again employed large upright slabs on their internal walls which stood just less than a metre high. A layer of clay appears to have been laid down to seal the earlier soils before building commenced. The central room is over five metres by five metres and the overall plan suggests a civilian building rather than military barracks. A vertical slab once formed one side of a doorway,

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Main Street, Riduna? An area of large slabs could be a courtyard or possibly a road leading towards the Nunnery and the sea. (David Nash)

Given the similarity in building style and dating it is probable that the buildings in all the trenches were late Roman. All had earlier Roman pottery in layers running under the building showing there was earlier Roman activity on the site. The lack of large amounts of rubble suggests that the walls had been little higher in antiquity than they are now, with the upper parts of the buildings being timber-framed with wattle-and daub infill. The small amount of roof tile recovered suggests the buildings were roofed in perishable materials such as wooden shingles.

Late in the life of the building, when floors were no longer intact, the site was used for industrial activity including what looks like ironworking. A surprise find was made in one corner of the southern room of the Trench 3 building where part of a cobbled floor remained.  Beside a crushed pot of post-Roman style was the base of a glass flask with a Christian symbol.

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Flummoxed momentarily by this find, I quickly found parallels suggesting this is Merovingian, dating from the 5th to 7th century when the Franks replaced the Romans as rulers of this region. (Mike Deane)

Frankish material is extremely rare in the Channel Islands, and opens a new chapter in the history of Alderney.

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Sherds of stamped pottery of the same date were found over the same cobbled floor; the glass was found a metre to my right, behind that wall. (David Nash)

After the site was abandoned it was buried by wind-blown sand, the walls themselves probably encouraging it to accumulate. Work is still to continuing on the finds, but this year’s excavation proved that the Iron Age cemetery is extensive, and that its occupants were of high status. Exactly where those people once lived is an open question for the future. Our team has investigated perhaps 1% of the later Roman structures of the settlement at Longis, and we have not seen any traces of earlier Roman buildings or an earlier fort, so there is enormous potential for investigating this pristine site for years to come.

A big thanks to all my friends and colleagues who made this possible including Guernsey Museum staff, local and Guernsey volunteers, and our trio of students. It wouldn’t have been possible without support from the Alderney Society, Alderney Electricity, the States of Alderney, our many friends in the island and kind permission of the landowners.

 

 

2 thoughts on “August in Ancient Alderney

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  1. So sorry you are leaving. I heard you had a few copies of Glint in circulation at the end of your time here but was too late to try to obtain one it seems. Looking forward to the next novel. A Guernsey lady

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