The Environment Agency's work to create the Medmerry sea defence scheme has unearthed fascinating archaeology that is radically changing our understanding of how people lived along the Sussex coast 3,000 years ago.
As clay has been extracted to build the 7km of new flood banks, it has uncovered the remains of an extensive Bronze Age landscape dating to around 1,000BC. The scale of these remains suggests that the area supported a large population during this period and marks in the earth indicating where 14 round-houses once stood have been uncovered across the site, where previously only one had ever been found in the Chichester district before.
Other Bronze Age finds include a cemetery, extensive field systems, and eight burnt mounds - enigmatic features comprising of large deposits of burnt flint, where activities such a wool dyeing, beer making or even saunas may have taken place.
Jon Sygrave from Archaeology South-East, University College London, who has been managing the excavations on behalf of the Environment Agency, said: "Medmerry has been a godsend to archaeological research in this area – these are finds of national significance which we would never have seen but for this project.
“We now know that the edge of the coastal plain was a very busy place during the Bronze Age, full of people living out their lives and then being buried here at the water's edge."
Colin Maplesden, Environment Agency Project Manager, said: “Medmerry is first and foremost about protecting people from coastal flooding and about creating new wildlife habitat, but it is such a bonus to know that the history books are being rewritten due to the scheme.
“When the £28 million project is completed this autumn more than 300 households, and the local infrastructure along this vulnerable stretch of West Sussex coastline, will have vastly improved flood protection. But this project has also provided a wonderful opportunity to unearth some amazing finds that will change our perception of how people lived thousands of years ago.”
Finds have not just been restricted to the Bronze Age. Several giant granite rocks have been found, called erratics, which would have been brought here on ice floes during the last Ice Age. One of these, the size of a cow, now sits in front of the RSPB's Pagham Harbour visitor centre.
The most impressive structure to have been uncovered is a 160-metre long medieval fish weir from the 14th century. This long woven wickerwork 'fence' would have sat across an old tidal channel, trapping fish behind it when the tide dropped, showing that the sea came in and out of Medmerry about 650 years ago, just as it is about to do again.
The scheme covers the area of more than 300 football pitches, and will include new public footpaths, cycle paths and bridleways, two small car parks and viewpoints. Once the project is completed, the Environment Agency will continue to manage the flood defence structures, and the RSPB will manage the wildlife habitats and access.
Currently the area remains a closed construction site, which due to all the ongoing construction activity has no public access (except along one short public right of way) from now until the completion of the scheme. The continued understanding of the landowners and the community is appreciated while this essential work takes place.