to Isle of Wight History Centre Archive of Monthly News Items
As previously featured in the History Centre

April - June 2013

April 2013
Painstaking analysis was required to establish the object represented by fragmented iron remains found in a Saxon grave near Shorwell. It emerged as a helmet, only the fifth such example ever found in Britain.
Saxon Helmet
  In 2004 metal detectors working in a field near Shorwell began to discover various items that suggested Saxon grave goods. In subsequent years sufficient materials had been recovered for archaeologists to assess the site as a major Saxon cemetery. It was thought the graves had been ploughed out over time and the skeletons decayed in the acidic soil.
   In 2008 a cluster of finds prompted an excavation by the County Archaeology Unit, in what was an identifiable grave. They recovered a glass vessel, shield boss and buckles. They also carefully collected hundreds of iron fragments. These fragments gave no clue as to the precise nature of the original object, other than an assumption it was probably a container of some sort. All the finds were passed to the British Museum.
   It wasn't until 2012 that experts at the British Museum decided to try and assess what the iron fragments represented. In order to locate related parts, they used X-radiography and three dimensional scanning as a method of sorting the fragments by density and curvature. Sorting so many pieces was clearly no easy task and finding a means of fixing together the corroded parts presented its own challenges. After considerable detailed work, they had sufficient reconstruction to conclude it was a helmet. Further analysis suggested it was of composite construction, comprising of eight separate plates riveted together. It was assessed as an 'early-to-mid sixth-century Frankish style helmet’.
   The Frankish peoples were one of the cultures that accompanied Saxon migration to Britain. Archaeological evidence elsewhere suggests their warrior class began occupying Kent early in the 6th century and thereafter had considerable influence on the Saxon culture in that area. The helmet adds an unexpected element to our own Saxon past but it's also a reminder of how little we know about these mysterious times.

May 2013
Since the range of World War II activities at Bletchley Park have been disclosed, the field operations that supported it have also come under scrutiny. The Isle of Wight Industrial Archaeology Society have recently been researching the remains of a rare wartime structure called a Y-station on Rew Down, which was part of a radio receiving network linked to the code-breaking at Bletchley Park. The Society believes that it could be the only one remaining with walls above ground level and many of the fixings still intact.
   Y-stations acted as wireless listening posts, intercepting enemy VHF radio transmissions and, if encoded, forwarding them on to Bletchley Park for processing. Y-stations could also be used for radio direction finding, a means of locating enemy ships by using the bearings of their radio broadcasts to obtain a triangulated position. On a more local level, Y-stations were useful in monitoring the movements of German E-boats through their radio transmissions, a function that was particularly significant for the Isle of Wight.
   Like other Y-stations, the one on Rew Down is octagonal with a 2 ft channel running across the middle of the floor. This trunking channel housed all the wiring for equipment. There is a single-skin brick perimeter blast wall that forms seven of its sides, with an opening on the south-east side. About 4 feet away from each corner, there is a concrete base set in the ground that originally held a timber brace, set at a slant towards the structure. These wooden beams acted as supports for an octagonal wooden hut, now gone, about 25 feet high, that sat upon a low internal masonry wall and housed the aerials. The iron bolts and bracket plates that secured the hut still remain embedded in the low foundation wall. The operators occupied the ground floor of this structure, while the top housed a double H-shaped aerial that could be rotated according to the strength of the received signal.
   A document in the National Archives, listing Y-stations and their locations, includes the Rew Down Y-station as part of "Southern Command" and names it as "Ventnor". It was operated by the Navy and described as a "D/F Tower 200 yds. from Stn." The main station itself was located in The Heights Hotel and operated by Wrens. It is visible on a 1945 aerial photo as a dark tower and is also marked on a 1942 map as "tower".
   Very few remains of Y-stations exist today as most were dismantled after the war. Here and there, the concrete base of one can be seen appearing through overgrown grass and indeed an almost identical base, but without its walls or any detail, can be seen at Beston Hill, near Sheringham in Norfolk. It is this extreme rarity that makes the Y-station on Rew Down so nationally significant.
   If radar could be described as the eyes of Britain, Y-stations were its ears, and, as with radar, their operators are some of the unsung heroes of World War II. As part of their continuing research, the IW Industrial Archaeology Society website carries a request for contact with anyone who has associations with the Rew Down operation.

Y Station External and internal views of the Y-station on Rew Down. At right, a wartime photo showing how this type of station originally appeared.

June 2013
The education section of the Heritage Service traditionally offers facilities to schools centred around Island museum sites and collections. They have recently embarked upon a new project involving children in field walking exercises. This project not only provides an educational element but also reveals finds that can make a genuine contribution to the understanding of a particular area.
  Field walking is a useful archaeological practice but it has perhaps taken something of a back seat since the popularity of metal detecting. Nevertheless finds discovered merely by walking a particular site can reveal much about its periods of occupation. After a couple of preliminary informal test exercises with schools, the Heritage Service Education team organised a formal school field walking project at Bowcombe.
  Children were selected representing the schools of Weston Academy, Niton Primary School, St Thomas of Canterbury Primary School and Nine Acres Primary. The field walking was preceded by a talk demonstrating the different kinds of materials they might encounter and the periods they represented. In spite of inclement weather, they enthusiastically set about the task and walked the field for over two hours. Afterwards the finds were assessed on site with some further research carried on back at the schools. The work was then displayed at an open day at the Museum of Island History in Newport at the end of term.
  They managed to discover items covering around 5,000 years of occupation. They were able to recognise flint tools such as Bronze Age scrapers and even collected tiny fragments thought to be of uncommon Bronze Age pottery. There were also many medieval pottery fragments and post medieval finds. It seems children have sharp eyes and, being closer to the ground, may notice smaller items adults could miss. Encouraging an early interest in our past is an important goal within the Heritage Service. A project that adds to our fund of knowledge while fulfilling its educational remit is something of a bonus.
marking out grid   The field walking was organised in a formal manner. The field was laid out in a grid at 10 metres. Each section was cordoned off and walked in a systematic way to give complete coverage, recording the position of each find. At left, children help with marking out the grid.