Archaeological dig uncovers 10,000 years of Northumberland history

Archaeologist reveals findings of race against time excavations on Druridge Bay on the Northumberland coast

Clive Waddington, project director of Archaeological Research Services Ltd at the prehistoric archaeological dig at Low Hauxley near Amble, Northumberland
Clive Waddington, project director of Archaeological Research Services Ltd at the prehistoric archaeological dig at Low Hauxley near Amble, Northumberland

Today, a house on the Northumbrian coast with fine views of the sea would be considered a rather desirable residence.

That, it seems, was also the case almost 2,500 years ago.

A major excavation project which involved a total of 700 volunteers, led by a team from Archaeological Research Services Ltd, uncovered part of an Iron Age site dating from around 300BC overlooking Druridge Bay.

Evidence emerged of several phases of timber building construction, a hearth and a well-preserved external area of paving on the seaward side of the home.

“This is what we would today call a patio and, just like us, the inhabitants of the site placed it outside the entrance so as to command a wonderful sea view,” says Dr Clive Waddington, who studied at Newcastle and Durham universities and led last year’s dig at Low Hauxley on the bay.

The flat sandstone slabs used for the “patio” and the hearth are thought to have been taken from a nearby burial cairn – a feature in the landscape which would have been ancient history to the Iron Age household.

The 17-metre diameter cairn on the edge of the cliff at Low Hauxley was the focus for the dig.

The thousands of folk who enjoy a walk along the bay every year stroll past 10,000 years of history, neatly stacked in layers in the low cliffs.

But winter storms and rising sea levels are washing away the information in the layers on how our distant ancestors lived.

It was local volunteer archaeologist Jim Nesbitt who alerted Clive in 2009 to the fact that erosion of the cliffs had revealed ancient features, including a cist, or stone burial chamber, leading to the rescue dig last year before the site was lost to the sea.

Now Clive has written a book on the operation, called Rescued From The Sea: An Archaeologist’s Tale which is available at £10 fromNorthumberland Wildlife Trust and the Great North Museum in Newcastle.

Creeping coastal erosion has gradually revealed the cairn burial monument over the last 30 years, with the first cist being excavated in 1983, revealing a skeleton lying facing the sea, with a decorated pottery vessel – what is known as a Beaker burial.

These distinctive burials date from 2400BC to 1800BC.

Ten years later the sea exposed two more cists, each with a beaker.

The emergence of the new features meant it was a race against time to uncover the archaeology before it vanished, and Clive joined forces with Northumberland Wildlife Trust, which runs the nearby Hauxley nature reserve, to put together a rescue project.

It went ahead after backing from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Leader fund – but not before scouring storms revealed a layer of black peat on the inter-tidal area of the beach, where human and animal footprints had been preserved from more than 7,000 years ago.

“The peat had originally built up in a shallow wetland which backed on to woodland. The peat had become very wet, and humans and animals stepped across the marshy ground for the last time, leaving their prints in the peat surface for millennia to come,” says Clive.

When the dig started, it focused on what Clive describes as a “stunning” sequence of intact, horizontal layers in the cliff face, each representing a separate historical timespan.

The oldest was from the Mesolithic, hunter-gatherer era, from 9700BC-4000BC, from which the dig recovered 15,000 pieces of flint tools and chips, plus a six metre-wide scoop over which a tepee-like hut had probably been erected.

Occupation of the site took place between 7900BC and 7200BC, with Mesolithic people returning to the site over many generations to hunt and fish.

Bevelled pebble tools which were also found are believed to have been used to process grey seals, taken for their meat, fat and skins.

The next phase which was uncovered was Neolithic, with flint tools, an arrowhead and a hearth uncovered from 3600BC.

The burial cairn, in use between 2400BC and 1800BC, is the earliest Beaker burial site to be revealed in the region.

The Beaker folk brought with them the ability to work metal, and the cairn builders may have originally come from the Rhineland.

“Overall it looks as though this burial monument was in use for around 500-600 years, making it a long-lived landmark for the local community,” says Clive.

It had been carefully positioned on what was then a raised hillock, which stood above an area of wetland.

“This meant that the burial ground was set apart from the landscape in which people lived and farmed, being separated by water,” says Clive.

“It occupied a transitional area between dry land and the sea, a sort of in-between land.

“The idea that spirits could be kept at bay by water has a long pedigree, and the positioning of the cairn on what was in effect a small island protruding from a wetland was perhaps a way of keeping the spirits where they could not disturb the people in nearby settlements as they went about their everyday lives.”

Next to be investigated were the remains of a stone Bronze Age building from between 800BC-540BC, then the Iron Age settlement which continued into Roman times.

Rock-cut pits which had been exposed on the beach were also investigated and turned out to be shafts dug by medieval coal-miners.

There was one more intriguing aspect of the dig, linked to the flooding of the land plain which connected Britain to the Continent and the creation of the North Sea.

Clive speculates that the bay’s Mesolithic people – and a similar occupation further up the coast at Howick – could have been refugees moving back to higher ground as the sea inundation gathered pace.

There is a lack of evidence of human occupation in the later Mesolithic around 6200BC when Britain became an island, and this could be linked to a massive rock slide off Norway which caused a tsunami-like event.

Gradually people returned, and around 4000BC the sea level stabilised, leaving Britain with roughly the same coastline as today.

“There are evidently lots more archaeological remains surviving underneath the dunes that fringe Druridge Bay,” says Clive.

“These remains have been protected for thousands of years by the huge quantities of sand that have been blown over them.

“Now the sand is being washed away and the remains destroyed as the sea level rises. We have to be vigilant and ready to react when more of these remains are exposed.

“This particular coastal location is quite remarkable in that it has provided a touchstone for many of the key events in our national story - Mesolithic colonisers, the arrival of the Neolithic, arrival of the Beaker folk and the skills to work metal, Iron Age farmers through to medieval mining.

“The preservation of these remains in a single sequence is almost unparalleled in British archaeology.”

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