Excavating the CA Archive: Northumberland

5 mins read
Over the years, Current Archaeology has featured a few multi-period surveys of Northumberland sites, including in CA 232, which examined the archaeology located within the Ministry of Defence’s Otterburn Training Estate in the north-west of the county.

After last month’s column on Cumbria, I now head east into neighbouring Northumberland. Current Archaeology’s coverage of the county is perplexing – plenty, of course, on ‘the Wall’ (see my own dedicated column in CA 326, May 2017, as well as the most recent ‘Hadrian’s Wall special’ in CA 388, July 2022). There are also lots of cross-references to surveys of site-types and themes, including prehistoric roundhouses (e.g. CA 222, September 2008), Vikings (e.g. CA 298, January 2015), early medieval settlements (e.g. CA 368, November 2020), and castles (e.g. CA 255, June 2011) – but not much detailed coverage in comparison to other counties. Is this because of the relative lack of commercial development in the county? Or because of the overwhelming draw of Hadrian’s Wall on people’s time and resources? Your thoughts on this are welcome – and, more than that, if you are undertaking fieldwork in the county, please let us know.

That said, a great starting point to get to grips with what Northumberland has to offer are multi-period surveys of the Ministry of Defence’s Otterburn Training Estate in the north-west of the county, which the magazine visited in CA 64 (December 1978) and again in CA 232 (July 2009). There, more than a century’s worth of training (the estate was established in 1911) has protected both the historic and natural environment of 242km2 (93 square miles) of the southern Cheviot Hills (23% of the Northumberland National Park), including everything from prehistory to the post- medieval. For those interested in modern military matters, see also CA 290 (May 2014) and CA 332 (November 2017).

Another notable multi-period survey then featured in CA 298 (January 2015): Low Hauxley, just to the south of Warkworth, where fast-moving coastal erosion revealed a stunning array of materials from the Mesolithic to the modern era. The site is also a superb one in terms of its project team, drawn from across the voluntary sector, academia, and industry – just the kind of interdisciplinary approach that the magazine likes to champion.

CA 298 visited Low Hauxley, just to the south of Warkworth, where fast-moving coastal erosion revealed finds spanning from the Mesolithic to the modern era.

As CA 207 (January 2007) explained, sometimes a mystery deepens as excavation proceeds, and such was the case at Cheviot Quarry near Milfield in the north-west of the county. When 4.5ha of gravel terrace was machine-stripped in advance of aggregates-extraction, the working hypothesis was that it had been an area of multi-phase Neolithic settlement, but the reality was not so simple. A detailed dating programme on the post-built structures there revealed a complex sequence of occupation spanning 4,500 years. In addition to a full Neolithic pottery sequence (from Carinated Bowls to Impressed and Grooved Wares through to Beakers), two circular buildings dated to the late Bronze Age, and some rectangular buildings to the late 5th or early 6th centuries AD.

CA 295 (October 2014) then featured a similarly complicated multi-period prehistoric site at Hoppenwood Bank, near Bamburgh, where mainly Bronze Age features date back to the early Neolithic. They were associated with a series of substantial timber platforms, calling into question what little we previously knew – or thought that we knew – about such ‘burnt mounds’, a name applied to a type of prehistoric monument seen all over the British Isles and parts of Western Europe.

Most recently in time and space, CA 399 (June 2023) featured a third stunning prehistoric site from the county, that of Ponteland, north-west of Newcastle upon Tyne, where excavations revealed an early Bronze Age ring-ditch with a remarkable sequence of human burials. Put together, these three sites demonstrate the richness and diversity of prehistoric settlement across Northumberland.


Given the shadow that Hadrian’s Wall casts, literally and metaphorically, on Northumberland, Roman sites not associated with ‘the Wall’ are rare in the pages of Current Archaeology. I flag, in passing, two literal outliers that drew my attention during the research for this column, though. First, CA 314 (May 2016) examined Roman roads – as well as the surveyors that led their construction – including some notable Northumbrian sites. Second, CA 164 (August 1999) visited High Rochester, the most northerly of five ‘outpost’ forts north of the Wall – a site that as a consequence laid claim for two centuries to the questionable honour of being the northernmost fort in the Roman Empire, situated 16 miles due north of Hadrian’s Wall on Dere Street, the Roman road that ran north from York via Corbridge into Scotland. I had visions when learning of this site of some poor, disgraced legionary from sunny coastal Calabria being posted there and writing despairing letters home to his mum.

Northumberland is home to some of the country’s most important medieval sites, including Lanton Quarry – the ‘support centre’ for the early medieval palace at Yeavering – which made the cover
of CA 239.

There is a delightful array of medieval sites in Northumberland, some of the most iconic in Britain, ranging in date from the 5th to the 15th centuries. I will break this section into three chronological parts. The first is early medieval, with some superb small finds reported via the Portable Antiquities Scheme – see, for example, CA 284 (November 2013), which examines a 5th- to 7th-century AD sword found at Alnwick, and CA 384 (March 2022), which reports on an 8th- to 10th-century AD gold cross pendant with runic inscriptions found near Berwick-upon-Tweed. Northumberland also has some highly significant early medieval sites, among them the royal settlement of Yeavering (see CA 72, July 1980, and CA 202, March 2006, in particular); in association with this, nearby Lanton Quarry may have been the ‘support centre’ for the former – where ordinary people did the hard, dirty work out of sight, sound, and smell of the elites.

CA 239 (February 2010) tells the story of the latter, discovered by accident during routine investigation ahead of gravel- quarrying in the area (it lies in the same rich seam of aggregates that led to the discovery of Cheviot Quarry mentioned above). Four post-built timber buildings were revealed: two rectangular timber houses defined by double posts (placed in the same post-hole to allow for planking to be inserted between them) and two square timber buildings, each with a wide doorway on one side, suggestive of double doors for use as cart sheds or barns. The most conspicuous buildings on the site were eight sunken-featured buildings, or Grubenhäuser – the largest group found thus far in the north-east. Rich in the material culture absent from the higher-status sites of the area, the site provided pottery assemblages, metalwork, and domestic items, too.

An early medieval cemetery found on the beach below Bamburgh Castle provided CA 360’s cover story.

Part two of my medieval pilgrimage around Northumberland then moves forward in time to, appropriately, its ecclesiastical communities. Over the last few years, there has been wonderful coverage in the magazine of hermitages and similar ‘eremitic’ sites, most recently in CA 400 (July 2023), but before that in CA 364 and CA 379 (December 2020 and October 2021). It includes the superbly atmospheric cave at Warkworth in Northumberland. There have also been repeated visits down the years to Lindisfarne/Holy Island: see, for example, CA 319 (October 2016).

Part three of my medieval meanderings then steps through the gateways of a series of medieval castles. A wonderful and wide-ranging review comes in CA 255 (June 2011), including a visit to Dunstanburgh. But, above all, the magazine has paid repeated visits to Bamburgh Castle, a site that regularly wins tourist polls for its stunning coastal setting, one of the best in Britain. CA’s visits there have included issues 237, 272, and most recently 360 (December 2009, November 2012, and March 2020). Importantly, though, it is not just the views that matter at Bamburgh. As CA 237 (December 2009) outlined, and subsequent issues followed up on, archaeology continues to make a significant contribution to our understanding of the development of this high-status site across the medieval period, in which the prominent rock-built castle is merely part of a far more complex, and fascinating, story of its settlement and its communities.

Joe Flatman

About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and – most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.

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