6th December 2017: Excavating Early Folkestone

At the December meeting of the Wye Historical Society Dr Andrew Richardson gave a talk on "Excavating Early Folkestone" which gave an insight into the community archaeological project "A Town Unearthed: Folkestone before 1500". Although there were only three or four professional archaeologists on site at any one time, thousands of volunteers took part in the digs.

Dr Richardson first set out the strategic significance of the location where the English Channel meets the North Sea, explaining that Kent has a complicated geology and early peoples exploited a range of different landscapes including fertile farmland, high downland and wooded areas.

The historic centre of Folkestone is called the Bayle. Bones, both early human and animal (including tusks) have been found in a gravel deposit near the current church. In 2005 a Canterbury Archaeological Trust dig uncovered pottery and worked flint in this area from the Neolithic period (4,000-2,000 BC).

In 1924 coastal erosion exposed a Roman winged villa at East Cliff and this was subsequently excavated by amateur archaeologist S.E. Winbolt. Although the villa was covered over in the 1950s parts have since been re-excavated. An Iron Age roundhouse has recently been discovered. Also found were stone chippings and unfinished quern stones (for grinding grain into flour) on an industrial scale. It is thought that Folkestone may get its name from this industry, which was active between the first century BC and first century AD. The stone was quarried from above Sunny Sands beach. It is though the querns were sent north into the Thames region, Essex and up into East Anglia. Fragments of wine amphorae from Sicily and Italy have been found so it's possible that the amphorae were dropped off in Folkestone and the ships then loaded with querns to go north up the Thames. Other items found include coins and bracelets from Dorset and the Gallic tribes. There is no immediate sign of Roman invasion on the site, but the stone industry stops after this period. It's thought that the port of Folkestone was superseded by Dover. The Roman Fort at Dover was called the Novus Portus - the new harbour - so was Folkestone the old harbour? In the first century AD the first Roman villa was built on the East Cliff with a second one replacing it a century later. It's thought this was an estate centre connected with the Roman Navy which would have housed 5,000 men.

There is historic mention of an Anglo-Saxon monastic establishment at Folkestone though the location of the minster has not yet been identified. Test pits were dug in the Bayle area and Saxon pottery and moulds for metalwork have been found, which is what you would expect for a minster site. Silver sceatta coins dated 680-755 have also been found in this area.

A key question for future archaeological exploration in Folkestone is the history of the artificial watercourse called St Eanswythe's Water, in which water was diverted into a culvert and restricted so that it could flow uphill. The first recorded mention is by John Capgrave in the 15th century but its origin is unknown; it was still in use as the town ditch in the 19th century. Geophysics on a playing field which the watercourse runs through is due to begin in the spring.

Ellie Morris