Work on a town’s church has revealed that the site may have been used for ritual and worship for thousands of years.
Major refurbishment work on the Grade I-listed St Michael and All Angels church in Houghton-le-Spring, Tyne and Wear, began last month and has involved digging up the floor to install a new heating system.
The church, dating back to Norman times, is the oldest building in the town.
A carved stone above a tiny doorway, featuring a carving of mysterious intertwined animals known as the Houghton Beasts, may be from before the Norman Conquest.
But investigation by archaeologists as the refurbishment has continued has revealed whinstone boulders under the church, which are thought to have been part of an early prehistoric burial cairn or ritual site. A line of similar boulders has been found under the churchyard wall.
Archaeologist Peter Ryder, of Riding Mill in Northumberland, said: “It looks like a prehistoric site. We can’t think of any other reason why these very large boulders should be inside the church.”
Under the central tower of the church, which was restored in about 1350, the work has uncovered huge Roman stones thought to have come from a Roman temple.
“These are massive and spectacular foundations for the tower, using huge stones which must have come from a major Roman building,” said Peter.
A Roman stone coffin lid has been in the churchyard for many years.
It is believed it was often the practice that important pagan ritual or worship sites were taken over by subsequent religions.
“We have found far more than we ever expected when the work began,” said Peter, who is working alongside Newcastle University’s Archaeological Practice.
Also uncovered has been a maze of mainly 18th Century burial vaults, some brick and some stone, under the church. A number had their tops and bodies removed when Newcastle architect John Dobson carried out remodelling in 1858 – during which, the current work has shown, he re-used medieval timbers from the roof.
Pits of bones from this work have been found and the remains will be reburied.
Several intact vaults have been found in the current work and Peter said: “We have found evidence for at least several dozen vaults.”
There are also signs of a major fire around the time the church was rebuilt in 1330s-40s, probably after a Scottish raid. There is a documentary account of a man having been killed by Scots raiders while hiding in the church belfry.
Another find has been footings of a wall from a late Saxon or early Norman nave. The Rev Derek Newton, associate priest at the church, said the finds would be part of a Houghton heritage centre which will be created in the church as part of the £1m refurbishment project.
“Although the finds have delayed the work slightly, this has been a great adventure and everybody has enjoyed what has been revealed,” he said.
To help raise funds for the heritage centre, people are being invited to make a donation as they contribute items, photographs or writings to a time capsule which will be sealed beneath the new floor.
Contact Mr Newton on (0191) 584-9169.
The church is considering holding an open day for people to view the finds a week on Saturday.