THE installation of a heating system in a historic church turned the building into an archaeological hotspot.
The work in 2008 led to discoveries which suggest the site has been a focus for ritual worship for around 4,000 years.
Now the special status of St Michael & All Angels Church in Houghton-le- Spring in the Diocese of Durham, has been recognised with an award from Visit England.
A coveted Red Rose in the Places of Interest Quality Assurance scheme highlights the quality of the visitor experience, including the information on offer, the amount of time people stay and the accessibility of the building.
It was thought that the history of worship on the site was restricted to Christianity in the existing Grade I listed building, parts of which date back to the 12th century.
But the discoveries suggest that the site could have witnessed ritual activities in prehistoric times.
The work, which included making the church more accessible and more suited to the needs of congregations in the 21st century, threw up discovery after discovery, which are now celebrated in a heritage centre in the building.
Initially, an Anglo-Saxon doorway and walls were discovered during the excavations – now on show through a glass panel in the floor.
But investigations by archaeologists as the refurbishment continued revealed whinstone boulders under the church, which are thought to have been part of an early prehistoric ritual site. A line of similar boulders was been found under the churchyard wall.
Under the central tower of the church, which was restored in about 1350, the work uncovered huge Roman stones thought to have come from a temple. A Roman stone coffin lid has been in the churchyard for many years.
It was often the practice that important pagan ritual or worship sites were taken over by subsequent religions.
Archaeologist Peter Ryder, of Riding Mill in Northumberland, who worked on the site alongside Newcastle University’s Archaeological Practice, said: “These finds have been the most significant from any watching brief at a church in the North East ever.” Also uncovered was a maze of mainly 18th century burial vaults, some brick and some stone, under the church.
The church has another claim to fame in that two of its rectors went on to become Archbishops of Canterbury – William Sandcroft in 1677 and Thomas Secker in 1758.
It also houses the tomb of Bernard Gilpin, known as the Apostle of the North, and who was Rector of Houghton from 1557 to 1583.
Reverend Canon Sue Pinnington, the Rector of Houghton-le-Spring, said: “The Red Rose is the final piece in the jigsaw because it recognises what an important place the site is for the North East and the wider area.
“It confirms that people will have a great experience when they come here.
“The discoveries in 2008 were very exciting because they suggested that the site was used for worship as far back as the days of Abraham in the Promised Land.
“They suggest that worship may have gone on on the site for 4,000 years, showing that this is indeed a holy place.”
David Turnbull, a former churchwarden who is the official guide for the church, said: “Up until the reordering work, people believed that the church was 900 years old and that was that.”