The Roman Harbour of Saint Peter Port, Guernsey

 

Topography:

Country

Guernsey is one of a group of islands collectively known as the Channel Islands, which lie in the English Channel, 25 miles off the western coast of the Cotentin peninsula of Normandy, and 60 miles from mainland Britain. Guernsey was defined as an island around ten thousand years ago, by rising sea levels after the Pleistocene glaciations. Jersey, now the largest of the Channel Islands, remained attached to the French mainland by a spur of land until some 2000 years later.

Locality

The Roman harbour was situated in what is now the town and parish of St. Peter Port on the east coast of Guernsey. Boats could be beached between the natural reefs in an area near to a freshwater stream. The island's position provided an ideal stopping off point for vessels en route from France and Iberia to Britain. The harbour was (and still is) a natural haven in the dangerous waters around the Channel Islands. Among the natural hazards for sailors there are strong and variable currents, caused by a huge tidal range flowing between the many rocks and islands. The St Peter Port anchorage is sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds and the approach was defined by prominent landmarks and sheltered by other smaller islands opposite the harbour. 

Findspot and co-ordinates

A Gallo-Roman trading vessel  Guernsey 1 was located within St. Peter Port harbour, about 60m south of the modern northern harbour arm known as ‘The White Rock’ (coordinates of the site are 49º 27.41' N, 2º 31.46' W and UTM 345 784).

Oro-hydrography

The area of the harbour is bounded on the north and south by fresh water streams and a sandy area formed a long strand below a cliff which rose quite steeply behind. Further to the north, areas of marsh land were probably navigable some way inland to small craft. The Channel Islands currently has one of the highest tidal ranges in the British Isles, with tides up to 3 metres giving substantial drying areas at low water but a good depth at high water. There is no reason to suppose that the situation was substantially different in Roman times although there is evidence in the St Malo area at St Servan (Alet) that sea levels were lower in the Early Iron Age period.

Traffic Routes

Prehistoric Trade MapRecent archaeological excavations have produced material which shows that people on Guernsey were trading  from the early prehistoric period. At the Royal Hotel site in St Peter Port, flint tools and pottery similar to types from the Paris basin were found.  The people who brought these items to the island probably brought farming skills and techniques with them in the early neolithic period. During the period of megalithic tomb building a ritual deposit of barbed and tanged arrowheads was made at Les Fouaillages in the low lying north of the island. A distance of more than 350 kilometres and a difficult sea crossing would have been necessary to transport these prestige objects to Guernsey. Polished jade axes from the French Alps also made their way to the island. Later in the Bronze Age, metalsmiths came to the island with new skills and their characteristic large decorated beakers, although there is little evidence of significant trade in the Later Bronze Age. By the Iron Age Guernsey was well established as a port of call between the northern coast of Brittany and the southern coast of Britain.  Pottery imports from Armorica and other goods such as shale from Hengistbury Head on the south coast of Britain are found in Guernsey. By 50BC a trading network is evident with substantial cargoes of amphorae containing wine and garum (fish sauce) passing in and out of the island along with other fine imported pots from Armorica. During the years leading up to the Roman conquest of Britain evidence for trade continued. At the native farmstead at Les Tranquesous, terra nigra wares from Rennes were found alongside Gaulish pottery, indicating that cargoes were reaching the islands en route from France to Britain throughout the period.  Amphorae from the early first century AD were found just outside the modern harbour of St Peter Port and recent land excavations have provided further evidence that the islands were under Roman influence from the time of their presence in neighbouring Gaul. Remains of cargoes from the Roman period litter a wide area of the east coast around the present harbour.

The Gallo-Roman ship Guernsey 1 was carrying a cargo of pitch. Recent research (Connan et al, 2001) has located the source of the pitch to the Les Landes region of France, suggesting that the ship was on its way from there to Guernsey and on to Britain. The pitch may have been used for sealing or lining amphorae or barrels. Barrel staves were also found on the ship.  There was no evidence that it was used for caulking the ship itself. 

History of Research

Several Roman Wreck sites have been located around Guernsey but local diver, Richard Keen, discovered the trading vessel Guernsey 1 in 1982. It was located between the pier-heads of St Peter Port harbour and suffering badly from the scouring action caused by the overhead passage of harbour traffic. The Guernsey Maritime Trust was formed to rescue the wreck from destruction and excavation work began in 1984, under the direction of Dr. Margaret Rule. The final timbers were raised in 1985 and, together comprise a substantial part of the aft bottom of a Roman cargo ship. The surviving length amounts to about 18 metres with at least 4 metres of the bow missing. Dr Jason Monaghan, a Guernsey based archaeologist co-ordinated much of the post-excavation research on the wreck and its contents, on behalf of the Guernsey Maritime Trust. He also co-authored the excavation report (with Dr Margaret Rule) which was published by Guernsey Museums & Galleries as a monograph. The Guernsey Museum Service now has the archive and artefacts from the ship in it's care.The wreck timbers themselves are now undergoing conservation at The Mary Rose Trust in Portsmouth. The programme will take approximately four years and includes immersion in PEG (polyethyleneglycol) and freeze drying. However, many of the small finds from the wreck site have already been conserved and some are on display in the Maritime Museum at Castle Cornet which is located only a hundred metres from the wreck site. The Guernsey Museum Service is hoping to display the wreck when it is conserved in a new museum telling the story of the development of St Peter Port harbour. The next phase of research on the wreck is underway consisting of:

Dating

There are some structures surviving, which can help to throw light on the ancient harbour. Excavations at La Plaiderie, St. Peter Port, have revealed Roman harbour-side structures, which appear to have been in use throughout the second and third centuries AD. Two buildings interpreted as quayside warehouses stood on the foreshore on the edge of the Roman town. The whole complex would have been close to the water’s edge during its lifetime, most certainly being a large trading establishment on the route between north western Gaul and southern Britain. More recent finds from the Bonded Stores, in the heart of St. Peter Port, suggest that the Romans were established in Guernsey from the first to the fourth centuries AD, and traded goods are ever present – amphorae from France, Italy and Spain, pottery from France, Germany, Spain and Britain. These recent archaeological discoveries confirm the importance of St. Peter Port as a port of call throughout the Roman era. The Gallo-Roman vessel Guernsey I has been dated to the 3rd Century AD on the evidence from coins and pottery.  Dendrochronological sampling will help to confirm the date of the ship and its provenance. Remains of other Roman shipping have also been found, most notably the ‘Little Russel Amphora Wreck A’, which still lies just outside the harbour, and produced material from the late 1st/early 2nd centuries AD.
Several almost-complete amphorae of Beltran type II, together with a number of amphora fragments and other pottery sherds, were recovered from the wreck.

Port installations

Although no structures of the ancient port have been found, there is indirect evidence of a landing station. There are, for example, the ‘warehouses’ at the La Plaiderie site, which consist of two large stone-buildings. Finds from the site confirm that wine, oil, garum (a fish sauce) and other Mediterranean produce were shipped here and then most likely stored in these buildings. The illustration shows an artist's impression of a harbour scene, unloading a cargo of amphorae. No tangible evidence for a pharos or light house survives but there must have been some form of navigation beacon to guide ships to the landing place.

Related Artefacts

Half a mile north of the present St Peter Port harbour a heavily corroded anchor was found with a late Roman mortarium sherd attached.

Shipyard Installations

There are no surviving harbour structures or installations from the Roman period. A little way from the waterfront at the Bonded Stores site (below the present, Victorian market buildings) slag and a smelting furnace were excavated, where ship repairs may have been carried out.

Function

The Roman wrecks found in the St. Peter Port harbour area are evidence for a commercial function for the harbour,and also show Guernsey being well established on the major trade route from Gaul to Britain at that time. Amphorae were found, which would have been used to transport commodities such as wine, garum and oil throughout the Roman world. A large amount of pitch was also transported on one of the Roman ships. The pitch has recently been traced to the Les Landes area of south-western France.
The harbour might also have had a military use. Roman tile similar to that associated with the Classis Britannica has been found in the Bonded Store excavations.


Summary/Analysis

Even though we have no tangible evidence for structures on the harbour front in Roman times, it is relatively certain that the area of the inner modern harbour was used then, and possibly even well before Roman times. Boats, before the 10th and 11th Centuries (when they increased in size and complexity), could easily have used the beach to be run aground and unloaded. It is only later, that ships would have needed structures and a stabilised waterfront.

View over the harbour of modern St Peter PortAs a landing place, St. Peter Port harbour possesses the natural advantages such a port would need to accommodate Roman ships. It offers natural shelter from prevailing westerly winds, boats could have been beached, and it provides sailors with a number of easily recognised landmarks. There is, for example, the large rocky islet on which Castle Cornet is now situated, protruding out of the sea, which could easily have been seen when approaching the eastern coast of Guernsey. There would also have been access to fresh water, with a stream running into St. Peter Port harbour in Roman times - and the proximity of a Roman settlement would have meant that there were materials and manpower close by, to service and possibly repair ships and load/unload cargo. The fact that prehistoric and Roman settlement took place so close to the waterfront leads us to assume that St. Peter Port harbour was as relatively busy in prehistoric and Roman times as it is today, even though there are no visible structures surviving from that time.


Bibliography

Connan J., Maurin B., Long L., & Sebire H. 2001. Identification of pitch and conifer resin in archaeological samples from the Sanguinet lake (Landes, France) : export of pitch on the Atlantic ocean during the Gallo-Roman period.. Revue d’archéometrie

Cunliffe B.W. 1986 The First Eight Thousand Years in Jamieson A.G.(ed) A People of the Sea Methuen : London.

Keen R. 1979 Little Russel Amphora Wreck Unpublished Information Sheet: Guernsey.

McGrail, S. 1987. Ancient Boats in North-West Europe – The Archaeology of Water Transport to AD 1500. Longman : London.

McGrail, S. 1983. Ancient Boats. Shire : Aylesbury.

Rule, M. and Monaghan, J. 1993. A Gallo-Roman Trading Vessel from Guernsey.. Guernsey Museum Monograph 5. Sutton : Guernsey.