Revealed: the birth of urban Britain

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FORGET the rural idyll. The discovery of Britain's oldest town has proved that ancient Briton was in fact an urban man. The site, one of the largest prehistoric remains found in northern Europe, is on the banks of the Thames estuary in Kent.

The 6th century BC conurbation is thought to have been home to several thousand, suggesting that southern Britain shared in the rise of urbanism which swept through early Iron Age peoples on the continent

The archaeological excavations, near Whitstable, have yielded evidence of a densely occupied 11 acre "town centre" located within a much larger series of "suburbs" covering an estimated square mile. It was fully or partially defended by massive multiple earth works.

The town centre was on high ground overlooking local salt marshes and the Thames estuary. Its prosperity and size may well have stemmed from its control of salt production.

The area - which is still today known as Seasalter - was one of the top salt production centres in England until as late as the 18th century. Around 25 per cent of thousands of pieces of Iron Age pottery unearthed have been fragments of special pots used in salt evaporation.

Sited near the estuary, the town was no doubt involved in commerce - probably including continental trade. Wines, metal work and even textiles - made of a type of silk - were imported from the Mediterranean.

The town might also yield clues to a long standing archaeological mystery. For virtually all northern Europe's first towns disappeared or shrunk massively in or around the early 5th century BC.

Some pre-historians have suggested that political, social and military problems throughout northern Europe put a stop to the region's first urban experiments. Whatever happened, the Kent prehistoric town, in common with others in northern Europe, appears to have declined and did not revive for at least 300 years.

The director of the excavation at Seasalter, Tim Allen of the Canterbury Archaeological Trust, described the discovery as "extremely exciting".

"Because of the immense size of the site we expect it to shed light on the birth of northern European urbanism and, hopefully, on early cultural links between Britain and the continent," he said.