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Face of unknown woman is a 750 year old mystery

PUBLISHED: 15:46 05 August 2009 | UPDATED: 10:56 23 August 2010

VOLUNTEER: Daniel Albert with the artefact

VOLUNTEER: Daniel Albert with the artefact

ARCHAEOLOGISTS have been left puzzled after discovering a 750-year-old tile bearing a woman s face at a country park excavation. But with multi-million pound developments scheduled for the Thames Gateway experts expect to face many more mysteries as trea

ARCHAEOLOGISTS have been left puzzled after discovering a 750-year-old tile bearing a woman's face at a country park excavation.

But with multi-million pound developments scheduled for the Thames Gateway experts expect to face many more mysteries as treasures from the past are unearthed.

The glazed floor tile, which shows the head and shoulders of an unknown woman, was found during an archaeological dig at Randall Manor in Shorne Woods, near Gravesend, on Friday.

It is the latest in a series of finds with many key historical finds located in the county, including the famous Lullingstone Villa and 'Swanscombe Man'.

Volunteer archaeologist Albert Daniels, of Maidstone, made the discovery during this summer's three-week community archaeology dig which involved several schools and youth groups in the area.

He noticed the red tile buried under the earth facedown and when he turned it over and scraped off the topsoil the image was revealed.

He said: "When I saw the face, my first thought was: 'Who is this mystery figure?'

"It's astounding. It's in very good condition and it's not worn. It's the best one I have ever found."

The woman on the tile has fair hair, which looks braided, and appears to be wearing a brooch around her neck but her facial features are unclear fuelling speculation of who she may have been.

Experts say she could be of one of the wives of the de Cobham family who lived at Randall Manor during medieval times or possibly be a religious icon.

The manor was built in Saxon times and occupied for over a 100 years by the de Cobham family Over the years its remains were slowly lost within the woods, but a four-year project was launched in 2006 to investigate the site.

The tile will now be preserved and displayed at the Shorne Woods visitor centre alongside another tile found last year.

Over the years north Kent has been the site of a vast number of important archaeological finds and with £230million of development including 45,000 new homes expected in the Thames Gateway over the next 20 years that trend looks likely to continue.

Secretary of Kent Archaeological Society Andrew Moffat, of Woodlands Lane, Shorne, said: "It's an exciting time for archaeologists with all these developments going on and there's obviously potential to learn a lot more about our history.

"As the development takes place there will probably be a lot more Roman or Anglo-Saxon graves and settlements found and of course lots of artefacts to go with them.

With its proximity to the continent, accommodating landscape and abundance of rivers such as the Thames, Darent and Medway providing transport links and a source of water north Kent would have been an ideal place for our ancestors to make their homes.

Mr Moffat added: "Kent was joined to the continent where all of the settlers such as the Romans and Saxons came from so they obviously came across this bridge as it was the easiest way to get here."

One of the most significant finds made in the area is that of the 'Swanscombe Man'. In 1935 and 1955 three matching fossilised skull fragments dating back between 200,000 to 300,000 years were discovered in river gavels at Barnfield Pit, a former gravel quarry in Craylands Lane, Swanscombe.

The fragments are thought to come from late Neanderthals and became known as 'Swanscombe man', a name they have retained despite being identified as the remains of a young woman.

The fragments are some of the oldest remains discovered in Europe. The first two were found by Alvan T. Marston, an amateur archaeologist who visited the pit between quarrying operations to search for flint tools. A third, matching fragment of the same skull was found in 1955.

The area was also previously famous for the finds of numerous 400,000-year-old Palaeolithic-era handaxes and further excavations, carried out between 1968 and 1972 by Dr John d'Arcy Waechter, uncovered more animal bone and flint tools, and established the extent of a former shoreline that the bones were found on. Most of the finds are now housed in London's Natural History Museum.

North Kent has also been the site of several important Roman discoveries. The Romans settled in the area after building a road from London to the Kent coast, known as Watling Street. The road had to cross the River Darent at a ford and it is thought that it is from this the name Dartford originates. The lush, fertile soil was also an attraction for settlers and over the years many remnants of Roman life have been found in the area.

A complex of Roman buildings was uncovered near the Blue Circle cement works by a team from Rail Link Engineering who were researching the area along the Channel Tunnel Rail Link in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Among the structures discovered were the remnants of a large villa and the well preserved remains of a bathhouse.

One of the most impressive examples in the area is the 5th century Roman Villa at Lullingstone. Some 240 artefacts were found at the site, each of them combing to paint a vivid picture of life in the Roman times and include a mausoleum containing the bodies of a man and woman who lived in the 4th century, several skeletons of babies and an almost perfectly intact mosaic floor thought to have been laid in the 4th century.

The Villa was first opened to the viewing public in 1963 and was reopened last year after undergoing a £1.3million refurbishment.

But however impressive the Lullingstone Villa may be experts say every piece, no matter how small, has its own story to tell and helps to shed light on the lives of our ancestors.

Mr Moffat said: "Obviously it's great to find something large and imposing, but it's not so much the individual finds that are important so much as the way they all fit together like a jigsaw to form a bigger picture.

"All of these things fit together to give us an idea of the way these people lived and the kind of settlements they lived in.

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