Do you Wantsum? The remarkable history & archaeology of Thanet

The Isle of Thanet is said to have had more Bronze Age burial mounds than anywhere else in Britain. It is also the traditional location for three significant arrivals in Britain, including 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?

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 these external websites on Tanatus – the Bright Island? and Etymology of Thanet, Ruoihim. 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.

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.

Roundbarrows and beaker pottery (photos by Jim Champion and Thomas Ihle respectively)

[for images actually from Thanet, see Thanet beaker pottery and Thanet round barrow scene]

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.

Sewn-planked boats crossing the Dover Strait (illustration by Bill Gregory)
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: Thanet, Tanit and the Phoenicians.

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. See Virtual Museum – Iron Age coins.

The Romans arrive

Julius Caesar and the Romans are said to have landed on the southern shores of the Isle of Thanet in 54 and 55 BC. This arrival at Ebbsfleet has received much publicity recently, through the archaeological work undertaken by the University of Leicester. Nearly a century later, the Emperor Claudius undertook a proper invasion of Britain in AD 43. The location of this landing is still the subject of debate, but it could have been at Richborough just across the Wantsum Channel from Thanet. Britain subsequently became part of the Roman Empire, until their eventual withdrawal around AD 410. On the Isle of Thanet, the remains of this occupation include a substantial villa site at Abbey Farm, Minster, including two chambered malt kilns.

More arrivals

The legendary brothers Hengist and Horsa are said to have led the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in their invasion of Britain in the 5th century. Hengist and Horsa, meaning ‘stallion’ and ‘horse’ respectively, were themselves Jutes from Denmark. They arrived as mercenaries at the behest of British leader Vortigorn, and after winning a battle against the Picts, they were supposedly given the Isle of Thanet to live on. According to the ‘Virtual Museum’, the main evidence of the Anglo-Saxon period in Thanet (450-1066 AD) is “the large number of extensive and early period cemeteries that are found all over the Island”. Seven such cemeteries have been explored. Given that there is more funerary evidence and less of actual settlement, this adds to the intrigue (along with all the Bronze Age round barrows) of Thanet as an “Isle of the Dead”.

A replica Anglo-Saxon longship at Pegwell Bay (photo by Peter Lelliott)
St. Augustine and Christianity

The Ebbsfleet peninsular on Thanet’s southern shore is also traditionally the landing place of St. Augustine, who came from Rome in AD 597 to convert the Britons to Christianity. The Venerable Bede recounts that Augustine landed with forty men, and the presumed location of their landing is now marked by a cross. St. Augustine, who was a Catholic Benedictine Monk, wasted no time in becoming the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Sometime later, in AD 670, the community of Minster-in-Thanet was founded as a monastic settlement. Mildreth, the daughter of a British king from the Midlands, became its first abbess. She was declared a saint after her death, when her remains were removed to nearby Canterbury.

The 19th century cross of Saxon design commemorating St. Augustine (photo by Philip Halling), Saint Mildreth of Minster-in-Thanet, and the ruins of the Saxon tower at Minster Abbey (photo by Pam Fray)
The Danes

Given its location, it is not surprising that the Danish Vikings paid Thanet a visit. From around AD 830, they began to attack coastal areas of Britain, with summer raiding seasons turning into year-long campaigns. In 850, their “heathen army” over-wintered on Thanet, at a time when the there were apparently 600 families already living there. Three years on, they fought a bloody battle against the men of Kent and Surrey, and later that century they fought King Alfred at Stourmouth in the Wantsum Channel. There is no corroborating archaeological evidence of all of this. However, records show that their raids continued in the 10th century, and in the early 11th century a Dane called Turkill landed and burnt the town of Stonar (located on the shingle spit south of Ebbsleet). By the year 1016, the Danish prince Cnut had become king of all England.

The Danes invading England, and King Cnut
An island no more

We now fast-forward past William the Conqueror and through several hundred years of medieval history. During this time, the Wantsum Channel was gradually silting up, aided and abetted by human hands – including local monks who built walls and reclaimed land. In the year 1672, the last ship sailed through the Wantsum Channel. Today, Thanet is joined by land to the rest of the county of Kent, with the rivers Stour and Wantsum (the latter little more than a drainage ditch) being the remnants of the former sea channel. However, there is no guarantee that Thanet will remain an island into the future. Over the next few hundred years, with climate change and sea level rise on the agenda, the former Wantsum Channel may one day flood again. If you’ll excuse the pun, it may well be a case of… “Isle be back”.

A recent aerial shot of Thanet from the north (photo by Lewis Clarke)

 


Main references

Moody, G., The Isle of Thanet – From prehistory to the Norman Conquest, The History Press, 2008

Perkins, D., A Gateway Island – An exploration of evidence for the existence of a cultural focus in the form of a ‘gateway community’ in the Isle of Thanet during the Bronze Age and Early and Middle Iron Ages (PhD thesis)

The Virtual Museum of Thanet’s Archaeology (maintained by the Trust for Thanet Archaeology)

Thanet, Tanit and the Phoenicians: Place-Names, Archaeology and Pre-Roman Trading Settlements in Eastern Kent? By Caitlin Green

Thanet and the Wantsum article

Isle of Thanet once an island article

Around Pegwell Bay – A Special Area (Isle of Thanet Archaeological Society)

Thanet, Kent and other entries at: Vision of Britain

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