Durham City’s ‘earliest inhabitant’ identified

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Excavations in Claypath, Durham, have uncovered the remains of what has been dubbed the city’s ‘earliest recorded resident’.

Archaeologists excavating a cobbled surface
Archaeologists excavating the site at Claypath, Durham. Image: Durham University

Cremated human remains were recovered from an Iron Age pit during an investigation by Durham University’s Archaeological Services and Addyman Archaeology. The work, undertaken in 2016-2017 ahead of development off Claypath – one of the three main streets that led into Durham’s medieval Market Place – uncovered other evidence of Iron Age activity, including a possible roundhouse, but the solitary burial was a particularly exciting discovery.

It is believed to be a token burial, containing just 11% of the bones from the body: mostly skull fragments although some pieces of tibia and radius have also been found. The teeth and nasal bones were adult-sized, but the age and sex of the individual could not be determined. The remains have since been radiocarbon dated to between 90 BC and AD 60, making them the earliest human bones yet identified in Durham.

The Iron Age finds were unexpectedly early in date, but other historical periods were also illuminated by the project, with the site yielding a wealth of medieval material, including evidence of occupation in the 10th century, predating the establishment of the shrine of St Cuthbert in AD 995, which was previously believed to be central to medieval activity in Durham. Evidence was also found for various forms of local industry spanning the 11th to 15th centuries, including bell-making, utensil-production, and corn-drying, as well as huge amounts of pottery (totalling 5,383 sherds), including local Durham handmade pottery dating to the 11th-12th centuries.

Post-medieval buildings and cobbled alleyways leading from shopfronts to workshops behind, and large rubbish pits containing household waste, were also identified. Additionally, evidence was found for a variety of 19th-century shops, from a wine and spirits merchant to a rope and twine-maker. Much of the area’s archaeology had been destroyed by the construction of newer buildings in the 20th century, but the project’s discoveries provide significant insights into the people living and working in Claypath from the Iron Age to the present day.

With post-excavation work now completed, the results are presented in the exhibition, 2000 years of life at 18-29 Claypath, which runs at Palace Green Library until 1 June. See www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/whatson for more information.

This news article appears in issue 361 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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