Version: 19th December 2013.

Submerged forest in the Solent

Ian West,
Romsey, Hampshire

and Visiting Scientist at:
Faculty of Natural and Environmental Sciences,
Southampton University,
Webpage hosted by courtesy of iSolutions, Southampton University

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Tree remains and artificially shaped timbers apparently from an ancient ship have been discovered by Don Bullivant and John Barber on the Solent sea-bed off the coast of Hayling Island, southern England. Carbon dating has shown that some of the wood is of about 6400 years old. Some further investigations were made and some cores of the sediment have been taken.

Sidescan sonar image of a ship

The initial discovery of an object, the shape of a ship was made during a survey of the sea-floor by Leslie Whitcombe with Havant Borough Council's Sea Defence Group. (It is shown here with red markers indicating the positions of the sides). The survey was part of a study into the behaviour of a shingle beach at Hayling Island and the associated waters of Hayling Bay and the outer East Solent. A series of hydrographic surveys were made in addition to the side-scan surveys. The surveys were undertaken in order to determine possible sediment transport pathways in this area, and to examine any relationship there may be with coastal changes along the Hayling shoreline.

For the survey the Council were offered the use of a 30 foot Island Gypsey trawler-type craft, owned by John Barber. This boat was being used by The Mary Rose Special Branch of the British Sub-Aqua Club in connection with Project Solent Ships. Project Solent Ships began at the instigation of the late Alexander McKee OBE to investigate historic shipwrecks in the Solent. This led to many small finds and then the discovery of The Mary Rose, Tudor flagship of King Henry VIII, that sank in 1545. The side scan sonar provided a paper record of the sea bed.

Members of the diving team, the 'Mary Rose Special Branch' diving group, then investigated the site. Members working on this project are: John Barber, Don Bullivant (chairman), Eric Sivyier, Hugh Millichip, Dick Millichip and Mike Saunders.

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The Possible Ship Remains

Timber with treenail holes

Timber - detail

Shaped timber

Figures above. Timbers from the ancient remains as seen on the sea-floor. Wood from within a metre of the field of view was carbon dated at about 6,300 years before the present. Note the apparently shaped timber with the two holes. The dated samples were originally taken from adjacent timber rather than this, so as not to damage it. The date which this provided is compatible with the timber having come from a submerged forest and does not provide information on the ship remains.

Timber like a tree-trunk

Cross section of timber with tree rings

Figs above. Carbonised remains of a tree trunk from the sea floor near the worked timbers. This is probably part of a submerged forest The spirit level, shown for scale, is 30 cm long. A slice of the tree trunk showing the annual rings. These rings have been studied for dendrochronology and it has been established that the wood is older than the year 1500 AD. The rings are unusually closely-spaced and 220 are present in 21.6 cm.

The side-scan sonar recorded a number of anomalies. One of these is U - shaped, about 30 metres by 10 metres, and appears to represent the stern of a ship. If this is the remains of a ship the complete vessel would have probably have been round about 50 metres in length and about 15 metres wide.

The divers investigated the site in a few metres of water. They found a quantity of timbers. Some of the timbers discovered are worked, have a rectangular cross-section and contain holes for treenails, that is large wooden dowels. Another timber has a shape of a tree-trunk.

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Samples of a timber of tree-trunk shape and roughly circular cross-section were taken for dendrochronological dating (Figs 3 and 4). The samples contained 220 rings in 21.6 cm and the conclusion was that these were from the southern hemisphere (?) pre-dating 1500 AD. Apparently there were insufficient records from this area to give an exact date but the opinion was that they could be older.

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Radiocarbon Dating

Two separate samples of associated timber, but not the rectangular worked material (purposely left undamaged),. were taken for radiocarbon dating (partly funded by Worldcom). These samples were dated at the Queen's University of Belfast, Radiocarbon Research Laboratory on 4th March 1997, where under the direction of Dr McCormack, the wood was dated at being between 6307 and 6441 years old.

The radiocarbon age (uncalibrated) was determined in years BP (before the present) as: 5584 plus or minus 23.

The calibrated age ranges are:

One sigma - cal BC 4464 - 4366 - cal BP 6413 - 6315

Two sigma - cal BC 4492 - 4358 - cal BP 6441 - 6307

Thus, the wood can confidently be dated as of about 6,400 years old. This date is a calibrated date (corrected for carbon isotopic changes in the past which would otherwise produce an error) and it cannot be directly compared with uncalibrated dates, determined in the past.


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The Hayling Sea-Bed

The offshore area of Hayling Island in the East Solent, between the entrances of Chichester and Langstone Harbours, forms part of the much larger Solent Estuarine system. Much of the coastal area over this part of the East Solent consists of mostly recent alluvial deposits at, or near, sea-level, with many gravel and sand deposits. Much of the gravel is deposited sub-tidally and occurs along the borders of the present main entrance channels. The most widespread deposits, from the Pleistocene, are the Plateau Gravels and Valley Gravels, consisting of subangular flint pebbles in a coarse sand matrix. The deposits are found to occur in a series of ancient river terraces, and at depth below Portsmouth, Langstone and Chichester Harbours. Some 10,000 years ago, during the Flandrian marine transgression, sea-level started to rise from about -120m, to -30m below its present level. The rise continued. This postglacial rise in sea-level finally separated the Isle of Wight from the mainland.

Where the ancient 'Solent River' tributaries had flowed through wide unconstricted valleys, extensive shallow tidal inlets developed, such as those of Langstone and Chichester Harbour. A further rise in sea-level, to that near to the present level, drowned these valleys and created conditions similar to those found today, with large areas of the sea-bed covered with gravel, sandy-grassland sand.

Previous studies undertaken into the mobility of sediments and the stability of the coastline in the East Solent have been somewhat restricted to specific problems or locations. For example, Harlow (1980) has identified that the shoreline along the East Solent has been eroding over an extended period of time. Other, but more localised studies, have also contributed useful information on the evolution of the coastline in this area. It has been suggested (Wallace, 1990), for example, on the basis of tracing the position of submerged relict beaches, that the coastline in the East Solent has been migrating landwards for the past 600 to 700 years; a process which is continuing today.

In one particular study of the Hayling coastline (Webber, 1979), reference is made to past coastline changes established by examination of historical charts. Although maps and charts before the 19th century are considered unreliable, they do indicate that the entrance to Chichester Harbour was much narrower than at present; also, the spit at the western end of Hayling Island, along the entrance to Langstone Harbour, was much smaller than the massive accumulation that now exists. There is historical evidence to suggest, that around the 13th/14th century, a large inundation of the land occurred. Remains of a church have been claimed to have been found some 2 km offshore of the present shoreline, in the centre of Hayling Bay according to a map (shown opposite p.9) in Wallace (1990 unpublished draft text).

Dave Shotton (personal communication by email, 2000) has kindly provided some further comments on the supposed church remains: "There is an interesting discussion of the possible church site in "The King Holds Hayling" by F G S Thomas, he also shows an Admiralty chart which superimposes the 1783 survey by Mackenzie on the 1958 survey. Two features are marked, one of which is called church rocks although no evidence that they are anything more than geological features."

Similar rapid erosion of other parts of the UK coastline have been reported. For example, until the 13th century, the Lincolnshire coastline was protected by an offshore bank of glacial moraine, but the breaching of this barrier caused rapid erosion of the coast to a position similar to its present location (Brampton and Beven, 1987).

Overall, the long-term trend, of the relatively low and flat-lying coastline in this area, has been one of erosion and submergence in association with the post-glacial rise in sea-level. Maps, charts, and offshore finds all tend to indicate a continual recession of the shoreline.

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The radiocarbon date seems similar to that of dated natural carbonaceous material (forest debris) from a borehole near Fawley (Hodson and West, 1972; West, 1980), at the southern end of Southampton Water. Here oak wood was found at a depth of 7.6m below Ordnance Datum, under estuarine deposits, and dated by Churchill (1965) as from 6,358 BP. This, however, was an uncalibrated date so the Fawley wood may be about 1000 years older.

In the Solent region remains of an old forested land surface now several metres below sea-level was submerged by rising sea-water during the continuing transgression, about 6,500 years ago. Tree remains of about this age are also known from the Western Docks, Southampton at shallow depth but lived in a river valley and show no specific relationship to marine transgression (Godwin and Godwin, 1940; Godwin and Switzur, 1966).

A still-stand at about 3,600 years (uncalibrated date) produced peat and submerged forests around the Solent at round about 3 metres (West, 1980). Several submerged forests at about this depth or rather deeper have not been carbon-dated but probably correspond to a Neolithic still-stand. Tree roots and stumps occur at Portsmouth Dockyard between minus 6 metres and O.D. (James, 1847; Meyer, 1871) and other submerged forests occur at Southsea (White, 1915), Stokes Bay (Fisher, 1862) and around the northern shores of the West Solent (Shore, 1893). Some tree remains can be seen near low tide level west of Lepe Beach.

If all the timbers discovered are of so great an age, then is this remarkable sea-bed feature really a very ancient ship? Because, of course, the rising sea-level had not reached its present height at that time the timber could be part of a land-based structure such as a jetty or walkway.

The dendrochronology in suggesting that the timber is older than the year 1500 is not in conflict with the radiocarbon date. The suggestion (which needs to be confirmed) that the wood may be from the southern hemisphere is very puzzling.

A possibility that may explain the remarkably old date for the timber, but as yet unproven, is that the shaped remains could be those of some old ship of unknown date. This ship, however, may sunk into sediments associated with a submerged forest (with projecting tree stumps) that existed approximately 6,500 years before the present. The depth, the shape of the non-worked timbers and a suggestion that bark may have been present supports such a theory.


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Further Investigation

If the dated wood could be from a submerged forest and not from the ship-like object then it is clear that the well-shaped timbers need to be carbon-dated. The apparent southern hemisphere origin of old timber here remains unexplained, however, and and more information on the dendrochonology is needed. More survey of the sea-floor is planned, particularly with regard to the existance or not of submerged forests here. The distribution of Pleistocene gravel, Holocene gravel, peat deposits and estuarine mud in this area of the sea-floor needs determining. The relatively recent geological history of the area is to investigated further.


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Coring of the Submerged Forest

On the 27th September, 1997 divers operating from John Barber's boat in the general area of the ship-like object successfully cored through the submerged forest peat. The sea-bed at this point was at 4.1 m. below O. D. having made corrections in relation to the tidal cycle.


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A submerged forest of about 6,400 years BP has been found at about 4 m. below OD south of Hayling Island. This is one of many submerged forest deposits in the Solent area. Shaped timbers from a ship were found adjacent to the fossil wood. The age of these is unknown, but presumably a timber ship was wrecked here long after the forest was submerged. Thus although the ship remains may be old in historic terms there is at the present no reason to regard them as thousands of year old because the carbon dating provides no information about the age of the ship. The association of ship timber and submerged forest timber seems to be a coincidence. More information on the ship would clearly be of interest, though.

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Brampton , A.H. and Bevan, S.M., 1987. Beach Changes along the coast of Lincolnshire, UK. (1959-1985). Proceedings on Coastal Sediments 87. Am. Society of Civil Engineers, 539-554.
Churchill , D.M. 1965. The displacement of deposits formed at sea-level, 6,500 years ago in southern Britain. Quaternaria, 7, 239-249.
Fisher , O. 1862. On the Bracklesham Beds of the Isle of Wight Basin. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 18, 65-94.
Godwin , H. and Godwin, M.E. 1940. Submerged peat at Southampton: data for the study of postglacial history. New Phytologist, 39, 303-307.

Godwin, H. and Switzur, V.R. 1966. Cambridge University Natural Radiocarbon Measurements VIII. Radiocarbon, 8, 390-400.

Harlow, D. A., 1980. Sedimentary Processes, Selsey Bill to Portsmouth and a Coast Protection Strategy for Hayling Island. University of Southampton, Department of Civil Engineering, Ph.D. thesis, 772pp.
Hodson , F. and West, I. M. 1972. Holocene deposits of Fawley, Hampshire and the development of Southampton Water. Proceedings of the Geologists' Association, 83, 421-442.
James , H. 1847. On a section exposed by the excavation at the new steam basin in Portsmouth Dockyard. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 3, 249-251.
Meyer , C.J.A. 1871. On the Lower Tertiary deposits recently exposed at Portsmouth. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 27, 74-89.
Shore , T.W. 1893. Hampshire mudland and other alluvium. Papers and Proceedings of Hampshire Field Club, 2, 181-200.
Thomas, F.G.S. 1961. The King Holds Hayling. Publisher: Pelham, Havant. 340pp. Discussion of church rocks mainly contained pp 41-43, 66, 67.
Wallace , H., 1990. Sea-level and shoreline between Portsmouth and Pagham for the last 2500 years, ; With some thoughts on how the Sussex-Hampshire coastal plain may best survive the rising sea. Part 1. unpublished manuscript, January, 1990, large type draft. 61 pp. (Note on p. 61 that Part 2 is in preparation. Part 2 is a: Review of the literary and map evidence for coastal change; a site by site review of the archaeological and other evidence for sea-level change. It includes: 1. Selsey, East Beach and Mixon. 2. Fishbourne, Roman Palace and Outbuildings, Medieval to 18th Century, mills. 3. Chidham, Iron-Age/ Roman Saltern, excavated 1989 by then Archaeology Department, Reading University (if their report is ready in time). 4. Hayling Island, the Church Rocks site. 5. Southsea Common and Portsmouth; Medieval to modern structures and beaches. Acknowledgements covering both Parts 1 and 2. References for Part 2. )
Webber , N., 1980. Possible effects on the Hayling Island coastline from dredging of the approach channel to Chichester Harbour. A study for Chichester Harbour Conservancy, Havant Borough Council and Francis Concrete Ltd.
West , I.M. 1980. Geology of the Solent Estuarine System. In: The Solent Estuarine System: an Assessment of Present Knowledge. N.E.R.C. Publication, Series C, No. 22. November, 1980, pp 6-18.
White , H.J.O. 1915. The Geology of the Country near Lymington and Portsmouth. Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, pp.v + 78.

For further information on the geology of the area and the effects of the Flandrian Transgression see the Bibliography on the Geology of the Solent Estuarine System

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Dr Ian West, author of these webpages

Webpage - written and produced by:

Ian West, M.Sc. Ph.D. F.G.S.


at his private address, Romsey, Hampshire, kindly supported by Southampton University,and web-hosted by courtesy of iSolutions of Southampton University. The website does not necessarily represent the views of Southampton University. The website is written privately from home in Romsey, unfunded and with no staff other than the author, but generously and freely published by Southampton University. Field trips shown in photographs do not necessarily have any connection with Southampton University and may have been private or have been run by various organisations.