Tanatus (Isle of Thanet?)

The classical references to the Isle of Thanet are few. The earliest mention is an entry in Geography of Ptolemy of the second century:

Eastward from the Trinovantes region there are two islands Toliapis¹ 23*00 54?, Counus insula² 24*00 54?. …

  1. Very likely the Isle of Thanet.
  2. The identity of this island remains unknown, though it may have been an island in the Thames Estuary now lost to the sea.

The Ravenna Cosmology (R&C#306) of the seventh century gives us the following information:

(V.30) Once again, there are within the selfsame ocean (islands) which are named Vectis, Malaca, Insenos¹ and Taniatide

  1. These islands are respectively; the Isle of Wight in Hampshire, the Island of Mull in the Inner Hebrides and possibly Hibernia, Ireland.
  2. The last entry has been identified as Thanet.

Over the years, various historians have mentioned the island; the Venerable Bede c.730AD referred to it as Tanetos insula, Asserius Menevensis c.900 calls it Tanet, the Domesday Book of 1086 names the island Tenet, Simon Dunelmensis in 1164 names it Tened, in the Saxon Chronicle of the Twelfth century it appears again as Tenet, and Thorn in 1390 is the first to use the modern name Taneth, Thanet.

The classical dictionary of John Lempriere, published in the eighteenth century states:

TANE’TUS, a small island of Albion. Ptolemy calls it Tolianis. It is now Thanet.” (Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary)

A Romano-British Lighthouse on Tanatus?

Thanet, Kent. Tanatus 3rd cent., Tanet 1086 ( DB ). a name (Welsh/Gaelic) possibly meaning ‘bright island’, perhaps with reference to a beacon.

Entry from the Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names by A.D. Mills.

The etymology of the name Tanatus, seems to stem from the Welsh/Gaelic teine ‘fire, bonfire’ + arth ‘height’. The ending is uncertain, but seemingly related to the Gaelic aird(e), ard ‘height, promontory’ and the Welsh ardd ‘hill, height’.

The suggestion that a lighthouse of some nature once burned on the island is quite tenable given its position on the Cantium Promuntorium and the derivation of its name. It is likely that any beacon would have been situated at telegraph Hill, west of Manston Aerodrome, which is the highest point on Thanet, though this is not backed-up with any evidence from the ground. Alternately, there may have been several small beacons arranged along the cliffs, particularly at the North Foreland, though again, no evidence has been found.

Ynys Thanatos – ‘The Isle of the Dead’?

Many thanks to Martin Helsdon for digging out the following reference:

There were also superstitions regarding Britain herself: for example the eerie story that she was the abode of the dead and that souls were rowed across in unmanned boats, which left the coast of Gaul at nightfall and returned before dawn. Thanet,¹ the name of Kent’s north-eastern extremity may originate in this legend.

  1. Greek thanatos ‘death’. Related in garbled form by Procopius in de Bello Gothico (I.iv.20).
Above extract taken from Romans and Barbarians by Derek Williams (p.122)

The Altering Coastline of Cantium

Durovernum Cantiacorum Regulbium Portus Dubris Portus Lemanis Rutupiae Margate Romano-British Farm Birchington Tumulus Burial - West Birchington Tumulus Burial - East Manston Tumulus Burial Broadstairs I-A farmstead & R-B burial Dumpton Gap I-A farmstead & R-B burial

Since Romano-British times there has been a gradual rise in sea-level which has had a marked effect on the coastline of Kent over the intervening two-thousand year period. On the north coast the tidal effects have eroded several hundred yards of the coastline away, including the northern ramparts of the Roman station at Reculver, whereas in the south, large amounts of alluvial deposits have built up over the years to create the Romney Marshes between Hythe and Rye, so that the once flourishing Roman port and Saxon Shore fort at Lympne now lies land-locked, almost 1½ miles (2.4km) from the sea. Eastern Kent has changed considerably since Roman-British times; the Wantsum Channel has completely silted up, connecting the Isle of Thanet to the mainland – which has lost almost half of its coastline in the process – and the Claudian bridgehead port at Richborough now lies 2 miles (3.2km) from the sea.

Historians have often questioned why Julius Caesar did not use the natural harbour at Richborough for either of his British expeditions, particularly the second one, and landed instead on the shingle beach between Deal and Walmer Castle. The only possible answer must be that the harbour did not exist in 54BC, but by the Claudian invasion almost one-hundred years later the harbour had been created, possibly by the titanic forces of a particularly violent – though unrecorded – winter storm.

Communication with the Mainland

A known Roman road exits from the north-east gate of the civitas capital at Canterbury, crosses the Great Stour near Sturry, and proceeds along the west bank of the river to Upstreet, where the road apparently ended. It is possible that a tidal causeway existed here in Roman times, between Upstreet and Sarre on the south-west tip of the island, linking Thanet to the mainland. It is more likely, however, that communication was achieved by means of a ferry.

It has been suggested – by Ivan D. Magary, the author of Roman Roads in Britain – that the Canterbury-Thanet road was among the first to be built in the area, though this has yet to be proven. It is possible also, that another road connected Thanet to the mainland between the Reculver station and Birchington, perhaps via Plumpudding Island, but this region has since been lost to coastal erosion and the supposition cannot be proven.

Roman Roads on Tanatus

The only extant road which may be of Roman origin is the A253 between Sarre at the extreme western tip of Thanet, and Manston Aerodrome at the highest point on the island. The existance of a Roman road beneath the modern A253 is substantiated only by the suspiciously named ‘Mount Pleasant’, near Telegraph Hill north of Minster, a name which is often associated with Roman roads.

There was very likely a native coastal track running along the cliff tops around the eastern and northern perimeter of the island, but we cannot be certain that this road even existed, let alone whether it was given a Roman surface. Whatever evidence there is for this postulated coastal road now lies buried under two millenia of occupation debris somewhere beneath the urban conglomeration of Ramsgate, Broadstairs and Margate.

This topic is expanded under R-B Burials below.

Romano-British Thanet – The Evidence

There is none! – Hardly…

As reported in the Britannia journal, a small hoard of 27 sestertii was discovered at Ramsgate in 1969, the silver coinage ranging from issues of Hadrian to those of Postumus, and spanning from the early-2nd to the late-3rd centuries.

Broadstairs Iron Age Farmsteads

Rectangular and curvilinear enclosures have been recorded at Dumpton Gap and Broadstairs on the east coast of the island, both of which may indicate small subsistence farming communities whose incomes were bolstered by the extraction of salt from sea-water, as evidence linked to this activity has been found at both of these sites. The industry was probably curtailed by the early 3rd century at these sites, however, due to the rising sea-levels. Burials have also been recorded at both sites (vide infra).

Margate Romano-British Farm

The only building on the entire island positively identified as Roman-British is the farmhouse at Margate, four rooms of which were discovered during road-works in the 1920’s; it has the dubious honour of being the northernmost R-B farm in Cantium. It is possible that a shallow, horizontal-draught pottery kiln was positioned nearby, as several pieces of pottery off-casts or ‘wasters’ have been recorded.

Romano-British Native Burials

The only other evidence of Romano-British occupation of the island are five burial mounds or tumuli, which have been loosely dated to the Roman period. There are two near the north-west tip of the island at Birchington, two more near the east coast farmsteads at Broadstairs and Dumpton, and another near Manston Aerodrome. This last one is of particular interest because it lies near the centre of the island, quite close to the line of the suspected Roman road, the A253 between Sarre and the airfield.

It should be noted that during the Romano-British period, many tumulus burials followed the Roman custom and were erected close beside Roman roads. On this premise, the tumuli at Birchington may have been built beside Magary’s postulated Reculver-Birchington coastal road, and the Broadstairs burials beside the theoretical cliff-top road (vide supra).

Later History of the Island

The Anglo-Saxon Period

There are a handful of references to Tenet in the Saxon Chronicle of the Twelfth century, recording the use of the island as a winter base for Viking raiding parties, as illustrated by the following extracts:

A.D. 851. … The heathens now for the first time remained over winter in the isle of Thanet. … A.D. 853. … This same year also Elchere with the men of Kent, and Huda with the men of Surrey, fought in the isle of Thanet with the heathen army, and soon obtained the victory; but there were many men slain and drowned on either hand, and both the aldermen killed. … A.D. 865. This year sat the heathen army in the isle of Thanet, and made peace with the men of Kent, who promised money therewith; but under the security of peace, and the promise of money, the army in the night stole up the country, and over-ran all Kent eastward. A.D. 969. This year king Edgar ordered all Thanet-land to be plundered. A.D. 1047. … This same year came to Sandwich Lothen and Irling, with 25 ships, and plundered and took incalculable spoil, in men, and in gold, and in silver, so that no man wist what it all was; and went then about Thanet, and would there have done the same; but the land-folk firmly withstood, and resisted them both by land and sea, and thence put them to flight withal. …

Ebbsfleet, Cliffs End – Traditional Landing Site

The sand bar south of Cliffs End was very likely one of the initial objectives in the Claudian invasion campaign of 43AD, as the native population there would have to be contained before the main landings took place on the mainland. The sand-bar, now called Ebbsfleet, is also the traditional landing site of the Saxons in 449, and of Saint Augustine in 597; Saint Augustine’s Well lies near the modern golf-course.

Unfortunately, the site is nowadays dominated by the steaming presence of the Ebbsfleet power station.

References for Tanatus – The Bright Island?

  • Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names by A.D. Mills (Oxford 1998);
  • The Cantiaci by Alec detsicas (Sutton, London, 1987); Britannia i 1970 p.304;
  • The Saxon Chronicle – AD 1 to AD 1154 translated by Reverend J. Ingram (1823);
  • Classical Dictionary by John Lemprière (1788; reprinted Guernsey 1994).
Sites near Tanatus (Isle of Thanet?)