Digging deep in Canterbury

PUBLISHED: 17:29 08 June 2011 | UPDATED: 19:31 20 February 2013

Digging deep in Canterbury

Digging deep in Canterbury

An amateur archaeologist discovered evidence in countryside near Canterbury of a remarkable development by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago. It triggered a desperate race against time to unearth the secrets of the site before they vanished

Digging deep in Canterbury

An amateur archaeologist discovered evidence in countryside near Canterbury of a remarkable development by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago. It triggered a desperate race against time to unearth the secrets of the site before they vanished

Four oclock in the afternoon and a smoker outside the Duke William pub was the only thing moving in the sleepy village of Ickham.

Five miles away in Canterbury the nose-to-tail traffic jams would be building up, but not a single car drove past the white-painted weatherboard houses in The Street.

Tiny Ickham must be close to epitomising the perfect English village. It has almost 50 buildings listed online as of architectural or historical interest. Oldest of them is the splendid flint-walled Church of St John the Evangelist, with an unusual wall-mounted sun dial, which dates back to Saxon times.

Ickham is picturesque and peaceful and even has a red telephone box (one of the listed buildings). Yet once upon a time, a very long time ago, the area was at the cutting edge of a technological revolution which changed the world for ever.

Had you asked people in this part of Cantium about 1,800 years ago what had the Romans ever done for them you would have been marched down to the river and shown a modern miracle. A water mill! Or possibly more than one.

The Romans tramping along the road between their busy fortified port at Rutupiae (Richborough) and Durovernum Cantiacorum (Canterbury) knew about hydro-technology from their exploits elsewhere.

The backward Celts were still doing everything the slow way, by hand - and were presumably struggling to cope with the demands of their hungry new conquerors.

Luckily for them the Romans spotted the potential for a mill on the river that we know today as the Little Stour, and they had the wherewithal to construct it. It was very probably the first time the poor old Celts had had a power-driven facility, other than sailing, to help with their work, anywhere in down-trodden Albion.

The mill, believed to have been constructed in the third century AD, was the first of four to be built on the river in the area we know as Ickham, between Littlebourne and Wickhambreux. Their existence wasnt discovered until the 1970s and the story of the remarkable excavation has only just been told in a new book, published by the Canterbury Archaeological Trust.

Although it happened long before the Time Team programme was even a glint in a television producers eye, the water mill digs contained all the dramatic ingredients of a classic episode - a passionate amateur who made it happen, a desperate race against time, disinterested bureaucracy and, most of all, a mass of amazing finds, including thousands of coins.

It began with the belief of renowned amateur archaeologist Jim Bradshaw that the route of the long-lost Roman road from Richborough to Canterbury crossed the Ickham area.

Canterbury Trust director Paul Bennett says his friend Jim, who died a few years ago, was a remarkable field worker with a special ability to discover archaeological sites in Kent. He could spot them while riding his motor cycle or walking through a wood.

This time it was an aerial search that convinced Jim he had found the ancient road. He and a team from his Ashford Archaeological Society began digging for this part of ancient Britain in 1972.

It quickly became clear that they were on to something special. But there was a catch and in a true Time Team tradition, they were up against the clock. They were working in an area that was being excavated as a huge gravel quarry and the archaeological evidence was rapidly disappearing.

Discussions with the aggregate business won time for the archaeology to proceed, but not much. It became a rescue dig and archaeologists - amateurs and professionals, specialists and volunteers - were drafted in.

A protracted battle went on to persuade officials in Whitehall that a truly significant discovery had been made and eventually the Department of the Environment agreed to fund a final dig before it was too late.

For the first time in Kent, if not wider afield, metal detectors were used on a professional dig to quickly sift through the piles of gravel. It resulted in nearly 7,000 coins and thousands of other metal objects being discovered. Thousands of bits of pottery were also found along with tools, jewellery, dishes and a wooden votive figure.

But, most exciting of all, was the evidence of the watermills and other industrial activity that had sprung up because of the mills - possibly Kents first light industrial estate!

Four mills flanked the Roman road. The first is thought to have started work grinding corn in the second century. The other mills came along during the next 200 years.

Along with parts of the timber buildings and the water races, the archaeologists found bits of the millstones. Metalworking waste and debris from furnaces suggested some kind of an industrial settlement in the area.

Interest in the exciting discoveries is likely to be re-ignited by the book. More than 20 years after the last find was extracted from the ground, English Heritage agreed to fund it.

Archaeologists who worked on the dig and specialists who interpreted the finds contributed to its 396 pages. There are 123 meticulously crafted line drawings and numerous photographs. Many of the contributors attended a reunion at Canterbury Waterstones to launch the book.

Paul Bennett says: Theres a long history to this excavation. It was a splendid piece of work, undertaken mainly by amateurs, who worked under the most difficult of circumstances. Its been well worth the wait to get this book.

Did you know?

● When the Domesday survey was carried out in 1086, about 300 water mills were working in Kent

● Windmills didnt reach Kents shores until the 12th century, probably inspired by soldiers returning from the Crusades full of the exciting technology they had seen on their travels

The Roman Watermills and Settlement at Ickham, Kent, is written by Paul Bennett, Ian Riddler and Christopher Sparey-Green and is published by Canterbury Archaeologicl Trust Ltd and funded by English Heritage. It costs 40. ISBN 9781870545198.

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