|The Oldest Road on Mersea
In recent years, there has been steady erosion of the mud along the Mersea foreshore, and a steady revelation of interesting
artefacts. Several of the discoveries are by local oystermen, who are out on the mud looking for oysters ('ebbing') and
have inquisitive minds.
Early one February Morning in 2016, Daniel French senior was on the mud flats off East Mersea looking for oysters, and stumbled across
some big timbers of wood, which he first thought were the bottom of an old wreck. But then he noticed that in the end of the
timbers were square holes - almost non-existent in shipbuilding. It interested him enough to clear some more mud away, and he realised there were several timbers and they were quite substantial. His boat was nearby so he recorded it with his GPS plotter, and later told local lad Jim Pullen about it. Jim was doing a lot of work with CITiZAN - Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network, photos were sent to them and they became very interested.
Daniel French on Anglia News
And so 19 January 2017, early in the day, a group of CITiZAN members and local volunteers were out on the mud to recover
the timbers. The location was about 700 metres off Coopers Beach, East Mersea - an area only uncovered by fairly low tides
and not for long.
Gently lifting timber 2
Oliver Hutchinson centre, Jess Tipper right
The boards safe in Mark Dixon's boat
The timbers were then taken to the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) for cleaning and analysis.
Jane Dixon cleaning timber 4 at MOLA
Wrapping timber 3 at MOLA for sending to Portsmouth for preservation
July 2018 the first timber ready to go into the preservation tank at Mary Rose Archaeological Services at Portsmouth
July 2018 the first timber ready in the preservation tank. It will be there for a few months.
The timbers and the trackway they formed are very interesting historically. It was felt they should be
preserved. Historic England kindly offered to pay for the preservation of the boards if they would be on display.
The Museum wanted to do this. It was decided that a large hole in the floor was the way, with lighting, and glass over the top.
A significant amount of money was needed, not helped by Coronavirus which pushed up some of the prices, but the Museum was
very generously supported by local organisations, members, supporters, and a kind builder who decided he would not bill us
for the work.
December 2017 the hole was excavated in the Museum floor to display the board walk timbers.
Once the hole had dried out and ventilation fitted, it was boarded over while the timbers were away being
preserved. With carpet tiles over the top, all the Museum visitors knew was that the floor creaked a little there.
Coronavirus came and stopped most things, including the transport back to Mersea, so it was not until May 2021 that the very carefully packed boards came back to the Island.
Above Ready for unpacking.
Below the boards before the glass was. They are oak, just around 8 feet 2 inches or 2.5 metres long.
The glass is special and took some time, and it was March 2022 when five men and a fleet of vans arrived to
put it in place.
30 March 2022 strong men and a big piece of glass.
28 April 2022 the Boards unveiled by David Cooper and Oliver Hutchinson.
The boards are now on display in the Museum.
The boards are about 2.5 metres (about 8ft 2inches). They were laid side by side to form the trackway, and so
if the trackway extended to 100 metres, as is thought, there would have been at least 300 such boards.
Taking a section from a board for analysis.
When the square holes in the ends of the boards were examined, they gave a clue as to the age of the boards. The holes appeared to have been made by a Late Bronze Age socketed axe and this suggested a date of about 1,000 BC.
This date was then refined using dendrochonology - tree ring dating. A section was removed from two of the boards, and compared with data from other timber. The conclusion was that the boards are 'not before 952 BC'.
A section from one of the boards
Radiocarbon dating puts the boards between 955 and 905 BC.
In addition to the boards themselves, hazel brushwood and alder pegs were found.
The painting by Paul Thrales above shows the construction of the board walk. It was laid on a bed of hazel brushwood.
Each end of a board has a hole, about 50mm square, which would take a peg. Cutting all these holes in oak planks was
a big job. The pictures below shows how known examples of a Bronze Age axe fit the holes.
Clockwise: A Bronze age axe head perfectly fits the toolmarks on the timbers; a close up of the tool marks on
timber 2 with the curved stop mark of the axe clearly visible; some replicas of the different types of Bronze Age axes.
Some of the hazel pegs were radiocarbon dated and they were approximately 530 to 605 AD, about 1,500 years after the boards.
The river bank in the Bronze Age was well offshore from the present beach, over 1km. Tree stumps can be found along the former shoreline and creeks or rivers traced out from the present shore, lined with the stumps of old
trees and bushes. As shown in the painting above, the area which is now mud, would have been a wetland with trees, bushes, grasses etc. The board walk was built across this area, perhaps to the river bank to get to boats for transport, or to access resources in the area. By medieval times, there were fish weirs in the low tide area, and fish must have been an attractive source of food and trade. The area would have been a source of timber for construction, salt for preserving, and marsh for livestock to graze.
The initial boards found by Daniel French were all together, but three other boards were then found within 100 metres on the same alignment, giving some idea of the scale. In April 2022, CITiZAN members and volunteers were once more out on the mud, and found other boards 400 metres away. We do not yet know the scale of the trackway.
Building the board walk was a considerable undertaking, and there would have been good reasons to do it. It suggests a large community on Mersea to support this.
The story continues: 20 April 2022 possible new boards found off East Mersea
This article and its photographs owes a great deal to Oliver Hutchinson and other CITiZAN members and volunteers. Without them, we would not now have these timbers back on display on Mersea, looking very much as they did
almost 3,000 years ago.
Bronze Age Mersea by Oliver Hutchinson
Woodworking aspects of the Board Walk by Damian Goodburn MOLA
Historic England report September 2023:
CoopersBeachBronzeAgeIntertidalTrackway_AnalysisandConservationofitsTimbersandAssociatedBrushwoodSamples Sept 2023.pdf
Finds in the Mud - other discoveries on Mersea with CITiZAN;
Bronze Age burial urns found in Barrow Complex in East Mersea