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East Wear Bay Archaeological Project
Why are we there?
With stunning views of the Dover-Folkestone Heritage Coast, the area is famous for its countryside and wildlife. Centuries of landslides have created a steep, pockmarked landscape called The Warren covered in thick vegetation leading down to the sea below the cliffs. Unfortunately, this same erosion is threatening nationally important Iron Age and Roman remains along the cliff top. Working closely with the local community and other partners, CAT has been closely involved in efforts to understand and rescue the site.
A series of community-based excavations is currently being planned for 8-week periods each summer from 2023 to 2026.
Look out for weekly updates on our social media channels and read the latest blogs.
Why is it important?
The archaeological site at East Wear Bay has a complex history. As presently understood, following some activity during earlier prehistoric times, this area grew to particular importance during the Late Iron Age, when it served as the focus of a quern-stone production industry and probably functioned as a port of trade with the developing Roman Empire. After the Roman Conquest of Britain, a major villa complex, whose full extent is yet to be ascertained, was established on the site surrounded by a system of ditched fields and enclosures that replaced earlier ones belonging to the Late Iron Age settlement.
The project background
The cliff and beach at East Wear Bay is known as The Warren and was a popular tourist destination in the Victorian period through to the Second World War. Roman remains had first been discovered eroding from the cliff-top at East Cliff, above East Wear Bay in about 1919, sparking the first archaeological excavation in 1923.
At risk from erosion
The main process of erosion is called 'rotational slip' although landslides are also common in this area. The geology is Gault Clay and the base of the cliff is easily eaten away by the sea during winter storms when the tide is especially high. Understanding the erosion process is critical to understanding how much of the cliff has already been lost and estimating how long the site has before it is completely destroyed.
The Villa sits on top of the cliff at East Wear Bay. The wooded area below the site is part of The Warren and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Explore the archaeology timeline
Use the timeline below to explore the rich heritage of East Wear Bay.
(c 10,000 BC)
The earliest evidence that humans were present on the cliffs above East Wear Bay dates back as far as the Upper Palaeolithic (c 10,000 BC) with a flint blade found at the end of the 2016 season.
Plans for 2023-2026
The Trust is now raising funds for a major new programme of excavation at East Cliff. This will be focused on ground outside (i.e., seaward) of the main villa buildings, across the area most at risk from coastal erosion. The aim will be to set the known villa buildings into both their contemporary local landscape and chronological settings. The new excavations are expected to reveal further remains of prehistoric and Roman date, including buildings, complexes of ditches and rubbish pits, all adding to our growing understanding of the history of this major site.
The seasons of excavations so far
The excavations at East Wear Bay can be divided into the following seasons:
Further information about most of these excavations can be found in the Conservation Management Plan.
Extensive excavations led by Sussex archaeologist S.E. Winbolt in 1923–4 succeeded in exposing the foundations of a large Roman villa complex. The uncovered Roman Villa became a popular tourist attraction and many postcards and photographs survive from this period showing visitors enjoying the site. A toilet was built, along with a tea room – the concrete foundations and a tea cup from this were discovered in our 2015 season! The toilet continues in daily use, but has stood in curious isolation since the ruins of the villa were reburied.
One of the first ever aerial photographs of an archaeological site was taken of the villa at East Wear Bay.
The uncovered Roman villa being visited in the late 1920s by holiday makers to Folkestone. It was one of the biggest archaeological tourist attractions in the country.
The villa in 1948. After the war, the Council closed the site due to its poor condition and the decline in tourists. There is nothing visible on the surface today.
Up until the Second World War the site enjoyed considerable popularity with tourists. In 1940 the Villa was occupied by the army who dug slit trenches and weapon pits across the site, causing some damage to the archaeology which was picked up in the A Town Unearthed excavation.
The villa remained uncovered but sorely neglected until the mid-1950s when the council decided that it was too expensive to upkeep. Holiday makers were taking advantage of cheaper travel costs and heading to sunnier climates away from the British Isles so there was no longer an income to maintain the monument. As a result the Villa was reburied in 1957 and almost entirely forgotten about.
In this year the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit excavated part of the Villa. A key reason for doing this was to investigate the level of erosion since 1924.
The excavation found that a considerable amount of the site had been lost, and that Winbolt's excavation had only removed the upper deposits within and immediately adjacent to the Villa, leaving considerable intact stratigraphy. This included earlier Iron Age features which had been missed during the 1924 excavation.
The Bath House identified by Winbolt at the end of Block B of the Villa. Unfortunately by 1989 most of the structure had been lost, and today the edge of the cliff is too close to safely excavate it.
The area opened up included the previously unexcavated courtyard directly in front of Block A and rooms 50-53. The excavation confirmed the presence of earlier Iron Age features underneath the Villa and courtyard. These included ditches and intact chalk floor surfaces.
The courtyard contained an enormous amount of roof tile, some bearing the stamp of the Classis Britannica, the naval fleet based in the Channel.
Thought to have slipped off the roof when the Villa lay derelict, the tile covered the courtyard space under which coins, jewellery, and other finds were recovered.
The project attracted a lot of local and national attention. It featured on Alice Robert's 'Digging for Britain' TV series and won the Current Archaeology Magazine award 'Rescue Dig of the Year'. Our thanks go out to all of the partners and volunteers who took part in the project.
2010/13 A Town Unearthed
In 2010 and 2011 the Villa was re-opened as part of A Town Unearthed: Folkestone Before AD 1500, a community archaeology project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. As well as re-excavating the northern part of the Villa, this work revealed that unexpectedly complex and well preserved Iron Age structures and deposits underlie the Villa.
A town unearthed
2015/17 The Field School
The East Wear Bay Archaeological Field School ran between 2015 and 2017 investigating land to the north of the Villa. The focus of this excavation was to establish the extent of the earlier Iron Age features found in the 1989 and 2011 excavations.
Recognising a need for quality archaeological training, the project was designed as a field school welcoming anyone who wanted to learn archaeological skills with training from Canterbury Archaeological Trust.
Our thanks go to Dover Archaeological Group and Folkestone Research and Archaeological Group who provided training and support throughout the field school.
The site itself far exceeded expectations in terms of the archaeology. Multiple phases of occupation were discovered dating from the Roman period back to the late Bronze Age.
The most important find was of an extensive quern stone production area dating, at its height, to the late Iron Age. The querns were made from the local greensand stone bought up from the cliffs and beaches around Folkestone.
Building up the picture of Iron Age East Cliff we found evidence for international, national, and local trade alongside roundhouses and other domestic finds.
The field school
2022 The re-excavation of mosaic Room 40
Following the 2017 excavation season, lack of available funds and more latterly, the COVID pandemic, necessitated a halt in the fieldwork programme at Folkestone. Some funds were, nevertheless, obtained in 2021 to undertake a review of the recorded information and to produce a detailed conservation management plan for the site (see above).
In 2022, the Trust was able to raise sufficient money to cover the cost of a small new community excavation. This was undertaken by a team of local volunteers and students from the University of Kent and was focussed on the site of villa Room 40, known to contain a mosaic. The work was designed to determine what, if anything, still survived of the mosaic. Eyewitness accounts from the early 1950s suggested that the floor was in a very poor state when it was reburied, but the new excavations established that some reasonable amount of the floor remained, and it was found to be in a rather better state of preservation than expected.
Trenching by the students from the University of Kent outside the villa to the north-west located undisturbed stratified Roman deposits. Finds from these layers included a stamped tile, a fourth century coin, painted wall plaster and Roman pottery.
2022 Copt point mystery
Moving southwards away from the villa site, some exploratory trenching was also undertaken on Copt Point in 2022. Here, a roughly circular mound enclosing a Second World War bunker was shown to be earlier than the building that it appears to surround. The possibility that this now somewhat mutilated mound, originated as a prehistoric or Roman round barrow (burial mound) seems a distinct possibility. More investigation is required here in order to solve the mystery of the origins of this structure.
Copt point mystery
East Wear Bay Archaeological Project is a community project with the aim of researching the historic landscape of East Wear Bay and preserving archaeological remains associated with Folkestone Roman Villa ‘by record’ before they are lost for ever to coastal erosion. Lead partners are Canterbury Archaeological Trust, Folkestone Museum, Folkestone Research and Archaeology Group, Dover Archaeological Group and the University of Kent.
We are grateful to Folkestone and Hythe District Council for their continuing support of the project.
Look out for news on our social channels.
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