A prehistoric wetland site which was a hive of human activity for at least 2,000 years has been uncovered by archaeologists in Northumberland.
The Bradford Kaims site, near Bamburgh, was a series of shallow lakes connected by streams, which drained into Budle Bay.
Depending on the weather, the site is now wet pasture but the dry summer gave archaeologists from the Bamburgh Research Project a valuable opportunity to excavate part of the site.
They uncovered a wooden paddle, sitting on a brushwood platform, which dates from around 6,500 years ago at the start of the Neolithic period - the time of the very first farmers. The paddle and platform were next to a burnt mound - piles of stones which had been heated by fire.
These heated stones could have been used for a number of activities, from cooking and brewing to tanning, metal extraction, canoe making or even sweat lodges - the forerunner of saunas.
Four small artificial islands have also been found, made of stone rubble on wood foundations.
These may have been used to reach deeper water for the ritual offering of gifts, or as a base from which to set fish traps.
The Bradford Kaims Research Project has been backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage, and is partly staffed by volunteers. The project is now looking for funding so that the investigation can continue next year.
The paddle may have been from a canoe, or could have been a means of moving the heated stones.
Project co-director Paul Gething said: “This find is of national and potentially international significance and is extremely rare as the first such find of this date identified in Europe.”
Co-director Graeme Young said: “To find preserved organic material like this from this period is incredibly rare in Britain.”
The earliest of a dozen burnt mounds on the site dates from at least 4,000 years ago. It pre-dates any previously-known mound by more than 1,000 years.
Mr Young said: “We have been gobsmacked by what we have found. It has really surprised and is unique in the North East.
“There is an extraordinary concentration of burnt mounds and we are looking at either a local community using the site for a huge period of time, or people coming in from a wider area into what is a resource-rich site. It is a complicated landscape and we have just scratched the surface.”
Mr Young said that one theory is that the site may have marked a tribal boundary between the coast and inland Northumberland and as such would have been a meeting place. Prehistoric pottery has also been discovered.
“The stones from the burnt mounds are being heated as in this period pots could not be put on a fire because the ceramics were not good enough. The stones were heated to boil water or provide steam for any process requiring heat.
“They could have been used for feasting, or brewing on a semi-industrial scale.”
The use of the burnt mounds extended into the Bronze Age 2,500 years ago. The scale and sophistication of the use of the site has impressed archaeologists.
Mr Young said: “In the modern age we have had the opportunity to build on the efforts of many previous generations. but the people using this site were very bit as clever and resourceful,” said Mr Young. They lived in family groups, cared for each other and probably hoped for better things for the next generation.”
To volunteer for the project go to www.bamburghresearchproject.co.uk .