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Antoinette (Tony) - the tide expert

Archaeology on the sea bed of Minnis Bay, especially in the depths of winter was arduous but in all weathers Tony ensured work was carried out as scientifically as the elements would allow. A draft copy of a letter [date unknown] to Ann Conolly, the botanist from Leicester University, gives a good account of the method that was used to deal with excavating pits and holes that were covered by sea water twice in 24 hours.

Extract from Tony’s draft letter:

‘……The tide washes over the site and fills any hole already dug, taking in with it weed, sand and no doubt any other modern flotsam and jetsam.

The first job is to take out all the chalk we fill in with and bail out; next to sponge it dry all round where we kneel, down the sides of the hole then the bottom, lastly to scrape away the muddy surface of the sides and bottom. These little specimen lumps of silt were taken with care, cut out with a clean, sea rinsed trowel, with the water well controlled or, in some cases where the soil broke up a piece would be  lifted out. Sometimes bones we leave to collect another time or when dealing with pottery a certain amount of water does trickle or ooze in, always gloves and tools get very muddied up. A piece of timber from one hole already dug, will act as a conductor, bringing water from it into the new hole in process of being dug.

However this can usually be kept under control with sponges or bailing the neighbouring holes. There may be fissures in the chalk which if it is scraped too close on the sides or bottom may suddenly let in a gush of water, more likely just ooze. Sandy layers (if any) exposed in the side will ooze too but can often be plastered over with clayey silt quite successfully.

The filling of the pit we smear around to act as a dam and from it pieces of botanical material and doubtless seeds will be washed out by the tide and float about some of it to be re-deposited in our holes. They float around when pottery is being washed.                                                  

If there is much rain the pit will also be awash with rain drained from the road. There are many drains in the promenade for this purpose and the road comes down hill towards the shore; the shore water draining from there out to sea, passes over the pit………’

  • From this letter it can be seen that Tony was very aware of how samples could be contaminated by modern day flotsam and jetsam and details the steps she took to limit it.

Minnis Bay image
Tony preparing the area of a 2000 year old well base as the tide recedes.

Saturday 1st January 1966

Combed rocks at Grenham and no 25-30.[the 2000 year old Belgic Wells]  One rectangular animal burial Grenham opposite slope and ‘olde worlde house’ corner of – further out than other dittos.

  • A number of pits on the foreshore proved to be dug in the 19th or 20th century for burial of animals probably  washed overboard from passing ships. These pits were excavated by Tony to confirm the use and then backfilled.

Tuesday 4th January 1966

Out late – tide reasonably far out.  West side ‘creek’ pretty clear.  Greenish ‘clay’  south of  FF [Far Flats] – part with smashy chalk rolled above it - ? result of ice – post glacier conditions? Coming up to spring tide but tide time tables not out yet.  Same 4 Med holes and 1 further out  and a rectangular filling in pool that on page 65 not showing recently.  A party of small children were engaged on making stepping stone across the pool – chalk taken from N. explained our activity – nice kids – unfortunately one stepped in front intercepting a lump of chalk I threw, on his ankle or leg – was wearing gum boot.

Saturday 8th January 1966

Early am good tide. Twin irons showing.  West of Min i.e. FF area pretty clean – submerged oak peat etc.  The split post fence lies [I think] at the edge of the chalk or less in line with the flints parallel to the shore running from the land end of the very west of  F&P where the chalk begins to run out to sea.

  • The daily working times were determined by the sea and a ‘good tide’ was one that was low enough to view the Far Flats and Fence & Posts well off shore where the flint activities of the Stone Age are found. With the right conditions they can still be seen today! Spring tides are ideal.

Monday 17th January 1966

Tea with Clare Lukehurst and Dr. Dollar, geologist Kings College .  Lecture at Clarendon House School, Ramsgate – Italian volcanoes.  Good – a great talker.

Wednesday 19th January 1966

Minnis very cold some ice on pools on shore – Med holes as before pages 67, 72 and 71.  Is this a trial hole made by me or originally dug one?

Tuesday 25th January 1966

Med holes as before – BA north edge fairly clear but not posts or details.

Thursday 27th January 1966

With Dorothy Brown cleaned off Med ?36.  Received Geographical Magazine with SOS article from Clare Lukehurst.

Med 31 large part under water with putty and 2 large sand bags cleaned off shore top revealing tannish sand fill with some dark blue-black small patches here and there – nil else a few cartilage ends and fossils.

Sunday 30th January 1966

With Trevor and Vera Gibbons so started on pit 27.  Square, iron stained ring around it.  Very mixed sticky fill fawnish and grey, very pale grey with black sandy, worn tracks and little chalk lumps [modern] patches, liquid rusty tracks tannish colour , yellow rusty marks, sandy flint in part – some pieces stick.  One larger?, root about 11/2” diameter piece wood with ?rootlets in the patch of dark brown garden soil where rootlets had been.  The intervening fill – dark brown, a few snails – traces beetle – other finds elsewhere scraps sandstone, a few oyster, couple of thorns.

Pit 27 excavated
Pit 27 excavated, shows the bottom 4 feet of the well in the seabed

Next month, . . . . . . . . . our last of the twelve direct Field Book transcriptions, celebrating Tony Powell-Cotton’s archaeology of Minnis Bay 50 years ago.  February shows us getting more involved with Tony’s passion of archaeology, both then and now!

Antoinette Powell-Cotton (1913-1997) Debutante, nurse, midwife, African explorer, anthropologist and passionate local archaeologist, was the youngest daughter of Major Percy Powell-Cotton, of Quex Park, Birchington, Kent.


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