This article explores the archaeology and ancient history of the Isle of Thanet, which lies in the extreme south-eastern corner of Britain. It once was an island separated from the rest of Britain by a sea channel (now the rivers Wantsum and Stour). It features extensive archaeological remains, and was said to have more Bronze Age burial mounds than anywhere else in Britain. Furthermore, the Ebbsfleet peninsula at the southern end of Thanet is traditionally seen as the site of three significant arrivals in Britain, including that of Julius Caesar and the Romans. So what are the origins of the Isle of Thanet? And why was it such a cherished destination for ancient peoples?
Above: The County of Kent in Saxon times – the Isle of Thanet is top-right
What’s in a name?
The name of “Thanet” has somewhat mysterious origins. There have been suggestions that it means ‘bright island’, perhaps relating to fires or beacons burning on the island that were visible from the surrounding sea. There are also mysterious references to Thanet possibly being an ancient ‘Isle of the Dead’ – in Greek mythology, Thanatos is the personification of death. And there is even a theory that its name derived from the Phoenician goddess Tanit. There’s more on the etymology of “Thanet” in the external websites here and here. For the Phoenician link, read on…
Thanatos from Greek mythology, and Tanit the Phoenician goddess (photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen)
Thanet becomes an island
The “isle” of Thanet has had an interesting evolution from being part of the island of Britain… to being separated by a sea channel… to being connected to Britain once again. Britain itself became an island around 6500 BC, as rising sea levels began to create the English Channel. Sea levels continued to rise for several thousands of years more, flooding low lying land and forming two tidal creeks that eventually joined to become a continuous sea channel. This channel, known as the Wantsum Channel, separated the newly created Isle of Thanet from the rest of Britain. The channel would have formed somewhere between 5000 BC and the beginning of the Bronze Age (2000 BC), and by Roman times it would have extended to around 4km wide and 30ft (9 metres) deep. The island itself would have been at least 15km (9 miles) wide at widest point.
Above: Map of showing the Isle of Thanet (well, most of it) in Roman times
Early life on Thanet
The Virtual Museum of Thanet’s Archaeology does an excellent job of presenting the extensive archaeological finds in Thanet. Human activity is apparent during the Stone Age, when hunter-gatherers would have used simple camps, before a more settled way of life developed over time. This is shown by the discovery in Thanet of burials, pottery, flintwork and monuments. The burials included Neolithic earthen longbarrows, of which there may have been four or five in Thanet. There is also evidence of a causewayed enclosure and two possible ‘cursus’ monuments. After around 2900 BC, the emphasis in Britain was on building henges, and although there are no ‘classic’ henges in Thanet, several ring ditch monuments have been found.
Into the Bronze Age
The Beaker period (2500-1700 BC) saw the introduction of beaker pottery, as well as a change in burial practices with an emphasis on interring grave goods and the widespread adoption of round burial mounds, or round barrows. During the Bronze Age (2100-750 BC), the Isle of Thanet became pockmarked with round barrows. As described in the ‘Virtual Museum’, the archaeological record of the Isle of Thanet is “dominated by monuments raised by our Early and Middle Bronze Age ancestors to house the remains of their dead”. Most of these round barrows have been ploughed out and today only survive as cropmarks. However, they would once have been a distinctive part of the Thanet landscape, and visible from out at sea.
Ancient gateway to Britain?
Much of Thanet’s past is entwined with the use of the Wantsum Channel. Dr David Perkins, in his PhD thesis on the Isle of Thanet, proposed that the Thanet was the base of a ‘gateway community’ that controlled trade through the channel. Perkins found that Thanet “possessed and continues to yield evidence of prehistoric settlement and trade inordinate for the size of the island”, including bronze hoards and prestige imported artefacts. His research showed that from around 2000 BC, seafarers making their way to Britain used sewn-planked craft, which could only sail downwind. They came from the rivers Seine (France) and Rhine (Germany), and headed for the River Thames, using the Wantsum Channel as an alternative to rounding Thanet’s North Foreland, where the tidal systems of the North Sea and English Channel meet.
Above: Sewn-planked boats crossing the Dover Strait (illustration by Bill Gregory)
Above: Extract from Dr Perkins’ PhD thesis (with colour added) – most of the routes shown date from the Bronze or early Iron Age, but 8, 9a and 9b depict later Iron Age sailing routes.
Trading into the Iron Age
Around 600 BC, there is evidence that the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Etruscans and Greeks were sailing directly across from Amorica (north-west France) to south-west Britain, rather that sticking to the Dover Straits. Even so, they continued to travel via Thanet as well. Dr Caitlin Green notes that the most significant concentrations of Carthaginian coins found in Britain have come from East Kent, including the Isle of Thanet. These coins date from the fourth and third centuries BC, when the Phoenician colony at Carthage in the Mediterranean was expanding its influence. Dr. Green suggests that Thanet may well have been the site of pre-Roman coastal trading settlement, which was used by Phoenician traders from Carthage and Cadiz. There’s more in her article here.
Boats and Belgic influences
By around 100 BC, boat technology had advanced to the point where deep-hulled vessels were able to tack into the wind. Seafarers could therefore sail around Thanet’s North Foreland without needing to use the Wantsum Channel; this may have reduced the amount of sea traffic passing through the channel. Also around 100 BC, the first Iron Age tribal kingdoms emerged in south-east England, and there was Belgic influence from Northern Gaul – possibly due to some of the inhabitants fleeing from Roman expansion. From this period comes the commonest type of coin found on Thanet: Potins, a mixture of copper, lead and tin, used for trade and exchange.
Above: Potins found on the Isle of Thanet
This article continues in part 2, when the Romans arrive…