A team of archaeologists are in Jersey this week to begin an ambitious survey on foot of a former Ice Age landscape off the southeast coast of the Island.
The archaeologists, who are from UCL’s Institute of Archaeology and Archaeology South East, are working on a section of the intertidal reef known as the Violet Bank and aim to discover what records of early human behaviour, ancient environment and past climate change it holds. They also hope to understand how people used the landscape before it was inundated by the sea around 6,000 years ago.
The survey was originally due to take place in 2020 but was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is funded by the British Academy and Leverhulme Trust, and supported by Jersey Heritage and the Société Jersiaise.
Jersey Heritage is hosting the team at Seymour Tower, which sits about 3km out to sea within the Violet Bank. This is enabling the archaeologists to remain on location and make the most of the limited time when the landscape is revealed daily at low tide. As the reef can be dangerous, they are being accompanied by an expert guide.
Project leader Dr Matt Pope, from UCL Institute of Archaeology, is a regular visitor to Jersey for his work with Jersey Heritage at La Cotte de St Brelade – already known internationally as a part of the Island’s well-preserved Ice Age landscape. He explained that the survey team had evidence collected by members of the Société Jersiaise that suggested the sediments from ancient Ice Age landscapes lay hidden beneath more recent sands and shingle.
He said: ‘After a temporary delay to the Violet Bank survey due to the pandemic, we are excited to get to work and find out more about this starkly beautiful and scientifically important landscape. We know there is a record of Neanderthal archaeology and extinct fauna, such as mammoth, out there waiting to be discovered and documented. This week’s survey is about establishing how we can explore the seabed in the short tidal windows available and the first stage in specialist recording to map any Ice Age deposits and understand what potential they hold. If we are lucky enough to discover any artefacts on this trip, they will be recorded and handed over to Jersey Heritage to curate.’
Violet Bank is a solid rocky reef, which extends up to 4.5km from the shore. At sea level, within the gullies of the reef, are deposits of former land surfaces and freshwater pools laid down in the Ice Age and more recent prehistory.
Millie Butel, Jersey Heritage’s Landscape Engagement & Geopark Development Curator, is joining the team to capture the survey work on behalf of the Aspiring Jersey Island Geopark (AJIG) project. She said: “This ambitious survey is the type of work that demonstrates the importance of Jersey’s geoheritage and the huge part it plays in the Island’s story and explaining how it has been shaped by tide and time. La Cotte de St Brelade has already established Jersey on the international map and we can’t wait to see what this new research reveals about the Island.
On a low spring tide, the reef of the Violet Bank comprises 10km2 of former landscape and represents the margins of the now inundated Ice Age landscapes of the English Channel (La Manche).
This landscape was a terrestrial environment until at least the Neolithic, 6,000 years ago, when sea level rise began to inundate this low-lying part of Jersey’s south east corner.
Today, it is a designated area of RAMSAR intertidal landscape and part of a Jersey’s Marine Protected Area network to conserve its exceptional ecology and biodiversity.
The Violet Bank is one of a series of intertidal environments in the Channels Islands, which preserve prehistoric landscapes, and record of early human behaviour. The reefs of Les Écréhous, Les Minquiers as well as the beaches of Crevichon (off the little island of Jethou), the west coast of Guernsey and much of Jersey’s coastline preserve peats, clays and sands with prehistoric artefacts, structure and environmental records stretching back a quarter of a million years.
The Neanderthal artefacts recovered from the Violet Bank so far are all made of good quality flint, which would have been accessible during the Ice Age, when sea levels were much lower, from areas that now form the sea bed.