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An Archaeological Deskbased Assessment of Land at Great Bells, Isle of Sheppey, Kent.


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Authors

Standring, Robin 
Britton, Dan 

Abstract

This archaeological desk based assessment was commissioned by the Environment Agency in order to assess the potential impact of habitat recreation works within the 194.5 hectare land holding of Great Bells Farm, Eastchurch, Isle of Sheppey (centred on TQ 983 678). The proposed works area (PWA) is located approximately 2.5km southwest of the village of Eastchurch within an area historically known as Eastchurch Marshes. Proposed works comprise the construction of a nature reserve with 145 hectares of new mixed freshwater habitat. Consultation of the Kent Historic Environment Record (HER) has not revealed any designated heritage assets within the PWA or wider study area. Archival, aerial and cartographic sources demonstrate that the land at Great Bells mainly comprises an area of reclaimed low-lying saltmarsh (c. 80%) situated at an elevation of 1-2m AOD, the remaining 20% being situated on the ‘upland’ London Clay of 4 / 5m AOD. The saltmarsh is likely to have originally been enclosed by sea walls in the late Medieval / early post Medieval period, with smaller quantities in the early 19th century. References to a place known as ‘Bele’ date from the early 14th century, and it is first recorded on an undated map of the late 16th century as ‘Belles’. Cartographic evidence demonstrates that from at least the late 16th century the marshes at Great Bells were a ‘fresshe marshe’ and therefore likely to have been used for grazing. An estate plan from 1732 records a variety of land parcel names associated with grazing, including the presence of a ‘Sheep House’, at a location which was used as a sheep fold and sheep dip into the 20th century. The ‘upland’ part of the Great Bells site has a higher potential for archaeological remains. The Isles of Elmley and Sheppey are known to contain archaeological remains from as early as the Neolithic period, with recorded remains including prehistoric monuments and settlement activity, Roman occupation, as well as medieval settlement and later agricultural features. This upland area appears to have been a ‘peninsula’ at some stage of its history, surrounded by saltmarsh and as such could have been a focus for maritime or industrial activity such as salt making. Part of this upland area was incorporated into the boundaries of RAF Eastchurch during World War Two. This airfield was heavily bombed on a number of occasions and aerial photos show a number of extant and infilled bomb craters in and around the PWA on aerial photos from 1940-46. Most of the study area was completely inundated in the storm surge of 1953. The proposed works comprising ditches to a depth of c.2.5m shallow ’scrapes’ are not considered likely to impact upon any prehistoric land surfaces. If any such remains survive, including organic layers, they are buried beyond the 3m depth of alluvial deposits found by hand augering. Any buried archaeological remains on the marsh from the Roman period onwards are not likely to be settlement-related owing to the low-lying topography. Whilst it is possible that remains associated with activities such as seasonal grazing, salt-making or oyster cultivation could be found, it is more likely that any remains encountered would date from the last 500 years of pastoral and arable agriculture and associated drainage. Planning habitat works to avoid areas of high land and the visible and potential late Medieval / Post-Medieval assets defined by this study would mitigate the impact of planned works.

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Cambridge Archaeological Unit, Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge

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