Prehistoric Northumberland

Prehistoric Northumberland

The earliest settlers in Northumberland, during the Middle Stone Age of 5000-3000 B.C., were few in number and have left only a few traces of pigmy flints around Budle Bay near Bamburgh, and in the Tweed Valley. Rather more evidence comes from the succeeding Neolithic period, in the form of stone axes from ‘factories’ such as those at Langdale in the Lake District, and a few barrows and cairns, but it is a meagre record compared with that found in other parts of Britain, or with later periods in Northumberland. Much more extensive evidence comes after the Beaker invasions that began about 1800 B.C.

The Beaker invaders arrived by sea from the continent, though the Northumbrian settlement may be an offshoot of groups further south. Along the Northumbrian coast they penetrated up the river valleys of the Tyne, Coquet and Aln, and landed in the bays north of the Coquet, but they avoided the densely wooded, heavy clays of south­east Northumberland, and their main settlement was north of the Am, where higher ground and lighter soils gave more accessible and less wooded country close to the coast. We know very little of the settlements of these invaders, but a good deal about their funeral practices. Their custom was inhumation, the placing of the body in a stone cist in the ground, usually together with their typical beaker-pottery from which they get their name. These cists were sometimes topped by a small barrow or cairn. The technique of radio-carbon assay of organic deposits found in archaeological sites is now allowing more precise dating for such burials. Excavation of a large cairn at Chatton Sandyford, on the moors between Chillingham and North Charlton, revealed beaker burials, the first of which was dated to about 1670 B.C. Beaker cists are quite dense on the ground, and have frequently been found in farming. An example is one that was turned up during ploughing at Shipley near Alnwick in 1958. The cist contained the crouched skeleton of a female, aged 30-40 at death, and of the brachycephalic or broad, round-skulled type characteristic of the Beaker people, together with the usual beaker. The skeleton shows the wound on her arm that may have caused her death. After opening and excavation the cists usually get filled with earth, but one example is visible on the north-east slopes of Lordenshaws Hill, south of Rothbury. This is a good locality for seeing remains from all of the Bronze Age, Iron Age, Romano-British, and medieval periods.

The Beaker people mixed with the local population, and their absorption into the local populace is marked by a change in the type of pottery found: a ‘Food Vessel’ emerges as an amalgam of the Neolithic ware and the Beaker tradition. There was clearly an expansion of population, with settlement in areas of Tynedale previously largely uninhabited. In general the same burial practices continued. At a later date, probably about 1000 B.C., burial gave way to cremation, and in place of inhumations one finds cinerary urns. However, cremation did occur in Beaker times, as is instanced by the excavation of a barrow at Howick Heugh near Craster in 1972, which revealed a cremation dated from the charcoal of the funeral pyre to about 1440 B.C.

At probably about the same time as the Beaker invasions, a much weaker influx of Neolithic groups came from the west and north. It is likely that these groups created the few megalithic monuments to be found in the county, such as the stone-circles at Duddo, Three¬stoneburn in the Cheviots, and the Goatstones and Three Kings in south-west Northumberland. They belong to a number of different traditions, lut H. A. W. Burl’s commentthat the Goatstones and Three Kings were ‘shrivelled survivors of the Neolithic tradition of megalithic burial’ in a region not their own, is likely to be applicable to many of them. Also from this period are the strange ‘cup-and-ring’ designs of carved spirals, whorls and circles to be found on many rocks in the sandstone areas of Northumberland. These carvings, seemingly of religious significance in the way that Christians later carved a cross or fish, can be seen on Lordenshaws south of Rothbury and on the moors east of Wooler. Their contemporaneity with the Beaker period is indicated by their presence on the stones of burial cists, as on Fowberry Moor near Chatton.

The presence of bronze in the regional culture first occurs at about the same time as the Beaker people were mingling with the native population. At Allerwash, for example, near Newborough on the South Tyne, a bronze dagger was found in a cist that contained a mixture of Beaker and Neolithic burial traditions, suggesting a time when the main invasion thrust had waned. The flat blade, over 18 centimetres long, has three rivets at the butt where it was attached to a wooden handle. A similar dagger was found in a cist at Barrasford in North Tynedale, together with part of a brachycephalic skeleton, probably that of a man, aged 30-35 at death, about 5 feet 6 inches tall, and suffering from undernourishment on the evidence of the teeth and jawbone. The development of bronze working was slow, but in terms of artitic styles seems to have been largely indigenous. The Bronze Age stayed late in this remote area, but there was a late flowering of some very fine bronze metalwork, best seen in the leaf-blade swords, such as the hoard found in 1847 near Thrunton Farm close to Whittingham, especially one sword with both a socketted blade and a socketted pommel.

The late Bronze Age in Northumberland merges almost imperceptibly into the so-called Iron Age of 500 B.C. onwards. Certainly there is little indication of iron-working in pre-Roman contexts. In one respect, however, Northumberland shows strong Iron Age features: the dominance of hilifort settlements. Unlike the earlier inhabitants, the local Late Bronze Age and Iron Age people have left little evidence of burial or cremation practices, but much evidence of their settlements. The Ordnance Survey maps of the upland parts of Northumberland have large numbers of ‘camps’ marked on them, but it is only in the last 20 years that their dating and sequence have been worked out, largely by G. jobey. The earliest settlements are those revealed by aerial photography and excavation as timber-built compounds of wooden huts surrounded by wooden palisades. A site at High Knowes above Alnham in Whittingham Vale gave a radio carbon date of 700 B.C. onwards. Other palisaded sites have been found underneath later settlements. The amount of wood required to build these villages serves as evidence of the more forested environment that then existed close to these now windswept sites.

Later in the Iron Age these palisaded settlements were succeeded by the defensive hillforts that are such a feature of the Northumbrian hills. The site at Iuckhoe near Bolam lake suggests that stone defences replaced the palisade during the 6th century B.C., but both types clearly co-existed for a period:    at Ingram hill a slight ditch with palisade is dated to about 285 B.C., whilst a more classic hillfort at Brough Law is dated to about the same time. Very fine examples of these forts can be seen at Lordenshaws, at Harehaugh, near Hepple on the Coquet, at Old Bewick, and at Ros Castle above Chillingham (a magnificent viewing-point for the north Northumberland landscape). In many cases the ditches and banks of stones and earth were subsequently multiplied, creating multivallate forts, as most of the above sites are. Typical sites are on the spurs of hills above river-valleys, but coastal headlands like Tynemouth and Dunstanburgh also had settlements. Within the defences, the huts were still wooden. Most sites were not much bigger than their palisaded predecessors, but the largest hillfort, at Yeavering Bell, has evidence of over 130 huts in it. These hiliforts used frequently to be placed in a Roman context, but they are now firmly located in the pre-Roman centuries.

A new dimension to Iron Age settlement is beginning to emerge from aerial photography and excavation in lowland parts of the county. Large numbers of rectilinear enclosures are revealed by crop markings on aerial photographs of the coastal plain of south-east Northumber­land. Most of these have been placed in a Roman context, but excavation has revealed some early pre-Roman Iron Age occupation. At Burradon, near Seghill, sherds of finger-impressed native pottery suggesting a 5th-6th-century B.C. date were found in a rectangular ditched enclosure containing evidence of round, timber-built huts. Further inland at Hartburn, excavation of a similar settlement also revealed pre-Roman Iron Age occupation. The wooden huts in these sites and in the hiliforts had only limited lives, and both Hartburn and Burradon revealed good evidence of the sequence of replacement huts in the overlapping rings of post-holes.

This evidence is beginning to establish a pattern of Iron Age settlement in the inhospitable coastal clay plain, a development that is probably associated with the extensive Iron Age deforestation that is attested by the pollen diagrams for a number of sites in the north. Additional evidence of arable farming (in this largely pastoral region) on this clay soil comes from the presence of plough-marks found below the earliest Roman forts at Halton Chesters, Rudchester and Walker.