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Title: Shaped by ships and storms : a maritime archaeology of medieval Winchelsea
Author: Dhoop, Thomas
ISNI:       0000 0004 5991 9337
Awarding Body: University of Southampton
Current Institution: University of Southampton
Date of Award: 2016
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This thesis presents a maritime archaeology of the medieval port town of Winchelsea, in East Sussex, United Kingdom. It specifically researches the aspects of seafaring and storminess which are shown to be vital for understanding how the town was structured and how life was lived. The study brings together a variety of sources – many collected during a fieldwork project at the ancient waterfront – which allowed for the production of a narrative about a community whose attitudes towards the sea shifted over time. In the process, a number of theoretical and methodological tools were developed that allow for (medieval) port towns to be studied in new ways, unhindered by any remaining perceived boundaries between the maritime and terrestrial spheres. The theoretical underpinning that functions as the study’s foundation is a relational approach – the maritime townscape – aided by two theoretical devices – rhythmanalysis and spatial trialectics – that encourage researchers to consider how the dynamisms of everyday life in a port were materialized in the past and how they can be studied and reconstructed by archaeologists. Approaching Winchelsea from the water, materials and places are discussed as they are encountered along the way. The ship archaeological material from the region is synthesized and contextualised within developments in shipbuilding in northwest Europe. This material serves as the basis for a discussion of the types and sizes of ships that would have called at medieval Winchelsea and the organisation and working of the Camber Estuary which functioned as the new town’s roadstead. These findings are subsequently related to New Winchelsea’s waterfront. Taking the results of a geotechnical survey conducted as part of this project as a starting point, the available information about the area is brought together and the first archaeological interpretation of how the waterfront was structured and could have functioned is put forward. Venturing into the town itself, the tools of spatial analysis are used to raise questions about Winchelsea’s seemingly simple grid-like structure and it is argued that the town was laid out with seafaring in mind. Yet, this structure imposed on a population in a top-down manner was to a large extent negotiated by the people’s own attitudes and affordances. One of the most telling indications of these are the remarkable instances of ship graffiti in the town – in St Thomas’ church and Blackfriars Barn undercroft – which were recorded using reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) and analysed. While highlighting the complexities involved in interpreting and finding meaning in ship graffiti, it is nonetheless argued that they demonstrate a multifaceted relationship with the sea. Finally, a local proxy for high-energy events is developed by dating a rhythmite sequence from a core extracted from the silted River Brede using paleomagnetic secular variation (PSV) and subjecting it to geochemical analysis (micro-XRF) using the ITRAX core scanner. This proxy allowed Winchelsea’s history of storminess to be both refined and contextualised within wider developments of medieval climate change. Working on the series of storm events that led to the destruction of ‘old’ and the founding of ‘new’ Winchelsea, it is proposed that the production of localised well-dated environmental proxies could contribute to solving methodological difficulties with reconciling information about weather events from written records and information about climate from environmental proxies. The localised proxy for high-energy events generated at Winchelsea revealed that weather conditions seemingly worsened in the second half of the thirteenth century, at the eve of the transition from the Medieval Climatic Anomaly (AD 950-1250) to the Little Ice Age (AD 1400-1700), forcing the residents of Old Winchelsea to protect themselves by building sea defences and ultimately requiring them to relocate to a nearby hilltop. Stimulated by the theoretical device of spatial trialectics, the choice of the new site, located c. 1.5 km inland, is interpreted, not only as a way of physically protecting oneself, but also as suggestive of a growing unease towards the sea. The results of the geotechnical survey indicate that the waterfront at the new site needed a certain amount of work to keep it viable as an access point to the water and provides physical evidence for what is suggested in the written sources: it was “perilous at all flowings of the tide”. Yet, the ambition reflected in the town’s layout and the fact that systems were put in place that allowed Winchelsea to continue functioning as a port, hint at a multifaceted relationship with the sea. Encouraged by the theoretical toolkit of rhythmanalysis, it is shown that people’s daily lives in Winchelsea were, to a large extent, lived to the rhythms of the sea: from millennial and centennial storminess down to the yearly sailing season and the daily tidal cycles. Yet, people’s activities emerged with the rhythms of the sea and not as a result of them. The complexity of this relationship is perhaps captured best by the ship graffiti. On the one hand, people found it necessary to engrave ship drawings in stone pillars in St Thomas, perhaps to acquire some form of spiritual protection from the sea, while – at the same or at a different time – also scratching ship drawings in wet plaster in an ostensibly secular undercroft, perhaps commemorating the mustering of a large naval fleet before setting out, and therefore seemingly celebrating the beneficial aspects of living beside the sea.
Supervisor: Adams, Jonathan ; Sturt, Fraser Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available