The Roman site at East Wear Bay


The site at the East Cliff in Folkestone was known to produce Roman finds from at least the C18th. The land was notoriously difficult to farm because of ‘old stones’ which broke plough shares and disturbed crops. Mosaic pieces which probably originated at the site were exhibited at a meeting of the Harveian Society in the town in the 1870s and in 1919 the curator of Folkestone museum, Mr Browne Anderson, asked for permission to excavate on the East Cliff in order to explore the ‘Roman Masonry’  there and seems to have sunk a test trench .  It’s not surprising then that when, in 1923, the classics master and keen amateur archaeologist S.E Winbolt visited the Folkestone he was easily persuaded to explore the East Cliff for Roman remains. Having located a drain feature Winbolt persuaded the local authorities to support a full excavation which took place the following year in remarkably few weeks over the Easter and Summer vacations.

The excavation took place in a popular spot and at busy times for visitors and it was an immediate success with the public. The site was also brought to wider national and international attention through frequent reports in papers such as the Times and in various magazines and it seems to have created real excitement especially with its  association with the Roman navy and ideas around empire and national identity which linked C20th Britain with its Roman heritage.  Travel writers including Arthur Mee and the novelist Rosemary Sutcliff wrote about the East Cliff villas and the site clearly had considerable popular resonance. As part of this all manner of new ideas for interpretation and public engagement were tried at Folkestone including a very early aerial photograph of the site taken by the RAF, postcards, guidebooks and even the sale of small bags of Roman tesserae. Thus, as well as being a fascinating archaeological site, the East Cliff offers a very early and significant example of the role heritage, in particular archaeological heritage,  would come to play within public culture and imagination in the C20th.

The site was open to the public until the second world war at which time it formed part of a series of gun emplacements along the cliffs (the trench created for one of these was excavated last year and can still be seen).  Archaeologists excavating last year were able to see the tank tracks across the Roman walls.  The walls were re-opened to the public after 1945 but continued to deteriorate.  In 1956 in a period of post war austerity a decision was reluctantly taken to re-cover the site with clinker from the municipal incineration unit nearby, a decision which created serious problems for recent excavations because of possible toxicity.

The site sits in a remarkable location overlooking the Channel and on a good day the coast of France is clearly visible. Although the cliff edge has eroded over the years this would have been a stunning location for thousands of years and any building situated on it would have been clearly visible from the sea. The significance of the site lies in this location at a liminal point between sea and land, Down-land and Weald. The East Cliff sits at the start of the prehistoric North Downs track-way; it has been a centre of Iron Age cross Channel trade comparable only with the well known site at Hengistbury Head in Dorset; the largest known site for the production and export of quern stones and the location of a number of Roman buildings including the substantial Roman villas being excavated today.  The East Cliff is a site of international significance and contains within it evidence of trade, cultural change and settlement  that will help us unlock the relationship between Britain and the Roman world in the late Iron Age and Roman periods . The fact that the site is in imminent danger from cliff top erosion make it all the more important that we continue the work of uncovering its past and conserving its treasures for the future.

Notes on the History of the Site

Mesolithic 8000-4000BC – Flints showing habitation by hunter gatherers .  The North Downs Track-way which begins just above the site is a very ancient migratory route used by animals and the populations that hunted them.

Neolithic – 4000-2000BC leaf shaped flint arrowhead early Neolithic

Bronze Age 2000- 700BC pottery suggests habitation in the area

Iron Age 700BC – 43 AD Early Iron Age pottery suggests that people were living near by. Later pottery including Dressel One Amphora and imported Gallo Belgic wares demonstrates significant trade with the Roman world and the importation of wine and other luxury goods in the C1st BC .

Quern stone production is refined and on an almost industrial scale on the site. They were roughly carved and finished off on the cliff top perhaps in the chalk floored building found last year. The stones were exported and have been found in London, Essex and possibly France.

Roman -43AD – 400AD – Earliest Roman building on site is probably C1st AD circa 75AD. This ‘proto villa’ was almost certainly built within the confines of an existing Iron Age /early Roman settlement.

A second more substantial villa was built probably in the C2nd AD which included mosaic floors, a substantial bath house and a second block perhaps linked by the courtyard or perhaps a separate residence.

Other Roman buildings are known in the area and this poses a range of questions about the purpose, extent and history of the extended area in the Roman period.

Recent evidence suggests that the second villa might have been abandoned sometime in the late C3rd and re-occupied for some purpose in the late C4th.

Classis Britannica tiles found on site may indicate a naval connection possibly even a signalling station. The villas are very high status and were obviously occupied by important and wealthy people –either Roman or Romano British.

At this stage we can say that the site seems to have had a range of occupations and probably uses but its importance and visibility in the landscape in the C1st to C3rd are clear.

A number of fascinating finds from the Iron Age and Roman period have been found including gold Belgic staters, a complete writing stylus, beautifully worked  anamorphic brooches (hare and fish); an carnelian intaglio (carved gemstone from a finger ring) and a Roman figurine of a mother goddess. There have also been significant finds of Samian ware (some placed perhaps ritually within the foundations of a boundary), pottery from all periods and a number of everyday objects such as brooches, games pieces, fishing weights and small coins. The pottery collection represents a major and significant assemblage.

Anglo Saxon – 400AD – 1066 An Alfred the Great penny dating to 880, pottery.

This post is in: History of the Roman Villa site