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

October - December 2010

October 2010
As the national deficit reduction reaches into every corner of the land, it has now arrived at the door of the Isle of Wight Heritage Service. Throughout October the council will be carrying out a review of heritage departments as part of their programme to seek savings across all services.
  The Heritage Service covers the record office, museums, archaeology and the local collection. It amounts to a fairly minor element within overall council expenditure and its storage facilities are probably more significant than its labour cost. It is an unfortunate fact of council life that the only time centres like this receive serious attention is when cuts are in the air. The council are nevertheless obliged to seek savings across the board and the service is unlikely to emerge unchanged.
   Not so long ago the service was promoting the idea of a new Isle of Wight Heritage Centre (Feb 2008 news item). This was going to embrace the now scattered departments under one roof, providing a comprehensive one-stop facility for the public. Originally it was thought this would be based at a vacated Nodehill School in Newport, but subsequent changes to the education programme seem to have ruled that out. The new centre was to be principally financed by a grant but would almost certainly involve a cost to the council, so it seems unlikely it will now go ahead on the grand scale initially envisaged. However, the review may well consider a more modest plan B if economies can be obtained from the consolidation of some facilities.
  The heart of the problem facing the heritage service lies in record office facilities. It is said the department is short of space and lacks the environmental and security controls necessary to meet government standards. As a consequence National Archives could insist some material be removed from the Island, leaving local researchers at a disadvantage. At present it's not clear exactly what the council's statutory obligation is in the preservation of archives. This matter has been drifting along unresolved for years. Now a formal review of the department is underway there is no excuse not to resolve it, and the review body will be less than competent if they fail to arrive at the necessary recommendations. The outcome must provide clarification and state precisely what the goal is relative to archives, and how and when the council is going to achieve it.
  A survey conducted in 2007 showed people found the staff friendly and helpful throughout all departments, while noting it was a dispersed and under-promoted service. Current staff levels are probably designed to do little more than meet the council's statutory obligations, leaving potential labour savings somewhat limited. Unlike many council departments, some staff provide a service to the community beyond their contracted duties, through a natural enthusiasm for their subject. It is important that the review process and implementation leave this enthusiasm undimmed.
  The question of part privatisation could rear its head. It is doubtful whether a review body of council officers would propose it but it's the kind of option that can arise at the hands of councillors. On past experience, it's unlikely any economic justification would withstand scrutiny.

November 2010
When a section of the river bank eroded some substantial timbers were exposed. Initially they were thought most likely to be Victorian remains. They have now been revealed as being Late Medieval/Early Post-medieval, suggesting a previously unknown feature.
  The structure is now underwater and consists of a floor of planks running outward, perpendicular to the river bank. They are very substantial timbers and extend 1.7 metres parallel with the bank. The timber has been radiocarbon dated to between 1455-1632. The County Archaeology Service carried out a square metre excavation in the bank itself and this showed another large timber containing what appears to be a mortice joint. The remains therefore extend at least 2 metres into the bank.
  Research has failed to provide any record of a feature at the location, and what has been exposed so far gives no indication of the type of purpose it might have served. Speculation includes a mill or wharf, although the river might be considered a little shallow for a wharf. One problem lies in assessing where the water level was at the time it was in use. If the feature originally spanned the river it may have been a crossing of some sort. One possibility is a weir that perhaps also provided a crossing. Timber weirs were unusual but not unknown and could point to additional nearby activity on the river.
  It remains to be seen whether further excavation will be possible. There are a number of technical problems to overcome. The excavation in the bank quickly became waterlogged. Securing a dry site for excavation would be a considerable engineering feat. At present there is no indication of how such a project could be financed.

Medina timbers
At left the timbers can just be seen under the water, running out from the bank. At right the square metre excavation in the bank shows another timber, with a probable mortice joint.

December 2010
Little remains of the original West Cowes Castle, so last month's excavations at the rear of the Royal Yacht Squadron was accompanied by an archaeological watching brief in the hope of uncovering a castle feature, with some success. On the East Cowes side, it was thought a watching brief covering the Waitrose development might establish the precise location of the sister castle, but the results were inconclusive.
  The castles were built in 1539 as part of Henry VIII's series of coastal defences. It is assumed the long gone East Cowes Castle was similar to the West Cowes design: a round blockhouse with a seaward semicircular barbican.
  The West Cowes excavations uncovered sections of a wall at the rear of the existing building. Associated finds of Tudor pottery established this as the original landward wall of the castle, constructed of particularly fine stonework.

Cowes Castle excavation   The above photo is viewed from inside the wall. Outside this there was originally a defensive ditch. The 18th century plan at left shows this had been subsequently filled in to provide a garden. The plan shows the wall has a return in it. This might suggest part of the wall was originally the side of an additional structure or has been subject to some other alteration. It's not yet clear whether the archaeologists had this plan to hand or which side of the return they uncovered.
  The exact location of East Cowes Castle has never been ascertained. The Waitrose development covered a possible site and archaeologists were on hand during building excavations. The ground had been heavily churned up over time but the remains of a small section of stone wall was discovered, indicating a substantial structure. It ran parallel to the river bank but there was not enough of it to determine a type of building. A few examples of Tudor pottery were recovered. A canon ball was also discovered but only after it fell out of a digger's bucket, obviating any context. There are mixed views as to whether the discoveries indicate the castle location, but they cannot be described as conclusive. A castle might be expected to leave more significant remains. On the other hand, if the finds can be said to date the wall, it's debatable whether any other substantial structure would have existed in 16th century East Cowes.