Chronicles: The Early History of the Undercliff – Part 1

Thousands of years ago, long before the Victorians discovered Ventnor and changed it from a little fishing hamlet to a bustling town, there were people living here who have left very little trace of their lives. These ancient ancestors left no written or pictorial evidence, but something of their lives can be traced through what they did leave behind – evidence of shelters constructed, burnt wood from fires, primitive tools, burial sites, ornaments, and the clues to human habitation found in the ‘middens’ – rubbish heaps left by early communities.  The Undercliff is made up of landslips, so it is difficult to conclude that finding evidence of early humans indicates the location of their settlements because artefacts may have moved during earth movements.  However they are the best clues we have to the people who may have lived in this area in the past. For the next two weeks Richard Downing describes archaeological discoveries about these early people of the Ventnor Undercliff and Downs.

The pictures below show (left to right): Ventnor tribrach (Neolithic); Axes found at Flowers Brook (Late Bronze Age); Carved Celtic stone head found at Luccombe (Iron Age).

The Stone Ages (45,000-5,000 BC):

In the Early Stone Age  the inhabitants of Britain were bands of hunter-gatherers who followed herds of animals or supported themselves by fishing, although in the later Stone Age people seem to have stayed in one place for whole seasons.  Flint axe heads from this time have been found at High Port, Ventnor, Reeth Bay, above Binnel Bay, and on St Boniface Down.

Neolithic times (4,300-2,000 BC):

The Neolithic Revolution introduced a more settled way of life and ultimately led to societies becoming divided into differing groups of farmers, artisans and leaders of distinct tribes.  Forest clearances were undertaken to provide room for cereal cultivation and animal herds. Burnt wood found at Binnel Point dating from Neolithic times suggests there was a settlement there. Another occupation was at Week Down and there was possibly a stock enclosure on Luccombe Down.  A scattering of flint tools has been found in the Ventnor area. One of the most interesting is the Ventnor tribrach, which is a sturdy flint tool with one of its three arms longer than the others, it is believed to have been found on the beach at Ventnor (see illustration).

Bronze Age (2200-750 BC):

Evidence from the Bronze Age is more reliable. Burial mounds are still visible on Luccombe Down, Week Down and Rew Down although those on Wroxall Down were destroyed when flint was extracted in the 19th Century to build houses in Ventnor and Lowtherville. Early Bronze Age activity is indicated at Bonchurch by the discovery of period pottery near the stream.  At Blackgang an undisturbed round house was found in a chalk bay on the coast, and middens at Binnel Bay indicate another settlement. At Flowers Brook a cremation urn and a substantial hoard of 30 Late Bronze Age axes (see illustration) suggest a settlement there as well.

The Iron Age (750 BC-43 AD):

A prestigious warrior burial with weapons at St Lawrence, along with other burial sites and an iron bar that may have been used as currency, suggest that there were settlements here.  There were also Iron Age burials at Steephill and Lowtherville.  At Flowers Brook a similar pattern of continuity of settlement is suggested by scattered finds of Late Iron Age pottery. Other finds dating from this period include a hut with midden (AD 10-43) excavated on Gills Cliff Road, a carved Celtic stone head at Luccombe (see illustration) and a weaving comb made of bone found at Ventnor.

Roman period (43-410 AD):

The location and content of Romano-British middens in the Undercliff seem to show that these communities were more concerned with fishing than with farming or husbandry. At St Catherine’s Point the evidence of occupation is prolific, suggesting settlements there for 400 years from the 1st to the 4th Centuries, but much has been lost to the sea.   A series of ditches truncated by the cliff offer evidence of a more substantial nature during the Roman period when tiles from a stone building were discarded on this site. Closer to Ventnor, the remains of a Roman camp on the cliff below East Dene were still visible in 1865 according to Mates Guide of that year. At Undercliff Gardens many items of Late Iron Age and Roman pottery were found when building there in the 1960s. A Roman bronze brooch was found at Gore Cliff, an Iron Age or Romano-British bronze armlet was found at a burial site in Ventnor (now at Carisbrooke Castle Museum), and coin hoards have been found in Castle Road and Wroxall, where a bronze horse was also discovered.

Next week: Early history of the Undercliff Part 2: Medieval

Richard Downing, Ventnor & District Local History Society. Details of finds are mostly taken from David Tomalin’s contribution to an unpublished report on Coastal change, climate and instability, Isle of Wight Centre for the Coastal Environment.  This article first appeared in the South Wight Chronicle in 2016.