There has been a flurry of interest in the media and on social media recently as to whether a Roman town might be waiting to be discovered under the sands of Skegness beach, and I felt it required some additional context on this blog.The suggestion has been stirred up through the launch of a great new scheme in Lincolnshire to promote the recording of more finds from the shores and beaches of the county. It is called ‘Sea Treasures’ and you can watch a video about it here. Lincolnshire has a fascinating coastal heritage, but it is an under-represented and under-studied aspect of the county. The bed of the north sea contains centuries of prehistoric occupation (‘Doggerland‘) and the shifting coastline means that many Iron Age, Roman and Medieval settlements have now been reclaimed by the sea. Caitlin Green has a fascinating post on her blog about the lost Medieval settlements of the Lincolnshire coast.
So, if you dig down deep enough into Skegness’ golden sands, will you come across a Pompeii-esque buried Roman town? Erm, no, sadly you won’t. The idea of a lost Roman settlement comes from a reference made by the 16th Century antiquarian John Leland. In his ‘Itinerary’ (a tour around the country noting various things he found interesting) undertaken between 1535 and 1543, he made the following observation about Skegness:
“To Skegnesse sumtyme a great haven toune a 4 or 5 miles of. Mr. Paynelle sayid onto me that he could prove that there was ons an haven and a towne waullid having also a castelle. The old toune is clene consumid, and eten up with the se, part of a chirch of it stode a late. At low waters appere yet manifest tokens of old buildinges. For old Skegnes is now buildid a pore new thing”
The old town of Skegness had been claimed by the changing coastline during Leland’s own lifetime but thankfully, via the very useful Mr Paynelle, he was able to record the existence of a ‘walled town’ and a ‘castle’. In the absence of documentary evidence of a Medieval castle cited at that point on the coast, there is a long held belief that the remains could be Roman in date – perhaps representing a walled town or, more likely in my opinion, a late Roman coastal defensive fortification. It is to this that the Sea Treasures project was referring, and from which all the talk of buried towns has come.
The so called ‘forts of the Saxon shore’ represent some of the most dramatic Roman remains to be seen in Britain – forts on the south and southeast coasts such as Pevensey, Reculver or, my personal favourite, Burgh Castle. Constructed during the 3rd and 4th Centuries, they served as coastal early warning and military defensive installations against raids from pirates and Germanic peoples outside of Rome’s borders. Lincolnshire’s coastal defences are less well understood, but the area cannot have been left without adequate protection. The massive 4th Century stone enclosures at Caistor and Horncastle are believed to have served a military rather than civilian purpose, perhaps housing rapid response cavalry units. The suggestion of a lost walled enclosure off Skegness therefore offers a tantalising possibility of forts more akin to those seen further south having also once existing along the Lincolnshire coast. The only problem with the theory is that we have a list of 4th Century military commands and troop dispositions in Britain – the Notitia Dignitatum – and no entry in it seems to comfortably match the Lincolnshire coast. It is possible, however, that the site fell out of use before the compilation of the document and so had no active garrison to record.
The importance of recording finds made on the beach is therefore that they may provide us with more evidence of the dating and nature of such lost sites. Might there be a preserved Roman town beneath the sands? No. But might the study of finds of pottery and metalwork washed ashore start to provide us with more clues to this fascinating subject and what may lay underneath the waves off the coast? Absolutely.