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Issue 42 August '13

Wednesday 28th August 2013

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Human Footprint

Archaeologists are able to trace a continuous record of human activity in the West Wight stretching back more than 425,000 years ago to the Palaeolithic period. At this time the Isle of Wight and the mainland were still attached to Europe and these early inhabitants were hunter-gatherers who followed the herds across the interglacial landscapes.
From this time archaeologists use eight principal periods in time to characterise human habitation of the West Wight. Click on the links below to learn more or click here  to download achaeological booklets for each of the West Wight parishes.

Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age

Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age

Neolithic of New Stone Age

Bronze Age

Iron Age



Post Medieval

Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age - The period of the emergence of primitive man and the manufacture of unpolished chipped stone tools, about 2.5 to 3 million years ago until about 12000 B.C.
These first inhabitants:
  • did not build permanent settlements;
  • have left behind scatters of worked flint tools to show where they lived.;
  • usually settled in extended family groups;
  • hunted, fished and gathered in the valley of the Old Western Yar, a prehistoric river that has now dried up.
These earliest human remains are of great importance as they help archaeologists to piece together the landscapes and environments of the land which was to become the Isle of Wight and how early humans adapted and used the natural resources to survive.
Remains can still be seen in the exposed cliff face along the south coast, as well as on Highdown.

Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age - This period started about 12000 B.C. and ended, in Europe, about 3000 B.C. It is characterised by the first appearance of microliths. These are small flint tools which were part of a weapon such as an arrowhead, a knife blade, or a spear-head.
The final separation of the Isle of Wight from the mainland occurred sometime during the Mesolithic period. This is when the Solent River and its network of ancient valleys was drowned by sea level rise. The Mesolithic people were using the rich fishing and hunting grounds and had developed very specialised flint “tool kits” which show just how they were adapting to the environment.

Poole's illustrations of mesolithic instruments from the brickearth of the old Western Yar

The sequence of the natural environmental change and human activities as the modern Island was formed can be pieced together from Mesolithic archaeological remains which still survive. These include hearths, stone tools and environmental deposits, in submerged river estuaries, such as the Old Western Yar. The south west coast is very important for these sites as the layers around Brook show that the landscape was wooded with alder, hazel, oak, ash and yew trees. All were used extensively by human family groups.

Neolithic or New Stone Age - The cultural period that lasted in Europe from about 4000 to 2400 B.C., characterized by primitive crop growing and stock rearing and the use of polished stone and flint tools and weapons.
Farming was introduced to the Island around 3600 BC in the Neolithic period. Because people needed to stay and tend their crops, humans finally began to build the first permanent settlements.
None of the fragile houses survive, but settlement patterns are shown by the large scale clearance of trees to create crop fields, flint scatters, and ceremonial monuments. Highly organised and complex societies developed as permanent settlement caused the vast forests to be cleared and allowed for communal burial of the dead in large chambers called “long barrows”. These were made by erecting stones around a burial chamber and covering with a huge mound of earth.

Longstone at Mottistone (© National Trust)

The Longstone on Mottistone Down is part of such a monument and others in the West Wight include a Mortuary enclosure (where the dead were left exposed until their bones had been picked clean before burial) on Tennyson Down and a longbarrow on Afton Down.
The Neolithic was also the period when great technological advances, such as the introduction of pottery, farming and domesticated animals changed the way of life for humans forever. They also had to cope with changing environmental conditions. Sea levels rose with wetlands resulting in the accumulation of peat deposits. These gave way to salt marsh in some coastal areas by around 3500 BC. Archaeological evidence shows the extent of natural and man made change on the Island's environment during the prehistoric period as the rising sea level was destroying the oak forests in the intertidal zone by around 3000 BC.

Bronze Age - By about 3000 BC, humans on the Island had discovered the use of metals as well as flint for tools and weapons. Hence this period of our past is called the Bronze Age. Very complex human communities built ceremonial monuments in the landscape, in order to mark out their different territories. Some of these sites are visible as “burial mound cemeteries” in the West Wight andscape of today.
Bronze Age barrows on Brook Down
Extensive cemeteries survive on the higher down lands at East Afton Down, Afton Down, Pay Down, Shalcombe Down and Brook Down. As well as these magnificent prehistoric funerary landscapes, the entire West Wight area still contains the ploughed out remains of similar sites which are not visible from the ground, but which survive beneath the modern rural fields.

Iron Age - From about 800 BC, the new technology of Iron working was introduced and Iron Age communities farmed the Island landscape. The remains of some of their field systems and enclosures survive as earthworks. Occupation sites and other remains show the complicated tribal nature of Iron Age society and it seems that Island tribes had contact with their neighbours on mainland England and on the Gallo-Belgic continent.

Iron Age gold “stater” coin from the 1st century AD.

Very little evidence has been recorded for the Iron Age in the West Wight to date. This is simply because no archaeological work has been undertaken in this area and chance finds seem to show that a sophisticated, complex society on the Island had trading connections to Europe and Britain and were minting coins long before the Romans arrived in AD 43.

Romans - When the Romans invaded Britain in AD 43, it seems that the settlement patterns were not much affected on the Island. The landscape was still filled with small agricultural and market settlements, but the trade and production were taken over by the Roman state and the island was controlled by the occupants of seven Roman villas built along the central chalk ridge, which suggests that the economy may have been based on sheep farming, but there is also evidence for corn growing, pottery production and the transportation of building stone to the mainland.

A coin of the Roman Emporer Allectus

Anglo Saxons - By the end of the 4th century AD, the Roman rule in Britain had collapsed. The subsequent settlement of Germanic peoples and adoption of their culture resulted in distinctive settlements and cemeteries of the Anglo-Saxons. The geographical position of the Isle of Wight increases its importance in this process, but is as yet poorly understood. It is clear, however, that the organised Roman market economy was replaced by a dispersed pattern of self-sufficient farmsteads, which developed into the network of 101 settlements, which are mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086.

Post Medieval - During medieval times the Isle of Wight was a fairly isolated, not very prosperous, rural community. The Norman Conquest is evidenced by the building of Carisbrooke Castle and a complicated pattern of compact nucleated villages, scattered hamlets and single farmsteads grew up within the medieval parishes and manors of the West Wight. Many of these settlements were depopulated in the 14th and 15th centuries as the arable economy changed to pasture with resulting land enclosure. Some 30 deserted medieval village sites survive in the landscape as earthworks. Planned towns were also laid out in the medieval period at Newport, Yarmouth and Newtown but do not seem to have prospered. Archaeological remains such as houses, villages, earthworks, manor houses, ridge and furrow, priories and many more survive within the West Wight landscape. There are also many rural settlement remains which survive as cropmarks (buried remains visible from the air when crops ripen) over the agricultural land of the whole of the West Wight.
The Medieval site of Newtown, a planned 12th Century town sited on the estuary to take advantage of the medieval maritime trade, is a spectacular example of a failed settlement as economic problems, French raids and environmental change combined with the Black Death in the 14th Century to cause the town to be abandoned. The earthworks of the medieval streets and houses still survive today and can be visited as part of the National Trust holding.

Aerial view of abandoned medieval town of Newtown

After the Tudors gained the British crown in 1485 (the post medieval period), the Island's geographical position gave it political and military significance, which is evidenced by the sixteenth century coastal defences built by Henry VIII in response to French invasion threats. Yarmouth Castle was the first of these in the West Wight which seems to still have been geographically isolated from the rest of the Island.
Whilst towns grew up in the north and east of the Island from the 17th Century, such as Cowes or the late 18th century as at Ryde, and the Island became a popular early nineteenth century tourist attraction, most of this attention was not focussed on the West Wight. However, this period is also important for the development of landscape design, which saw the laying out of many of the Island's historic parks and gardens, many of which are in the West Wight.
The West Wight coastline played an enormous role in national coastal defences from the 16th Century onwards. As artillery technology improved a series of forts were built to guard the Needles passage and the military road was built along the southwest coast. Many of these forts still survive and show how important the area to national defence. In addition, there are many important sites dating to both World Wars.
All the physical remains which survive from each period (present day back to the first human arrivals over 450, 000 years ago are classed as archaeological remains. They can survive as buried layers underneath the modern ground surface, as earthworks (visible as humps and bumps), as buildings, structures or even as individual objects found whilst digging a garden.

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