Ponteland’s prehistoric past
Tracing life and death on the edge of the Northumberland Coastal Plain
Recent excavations on the south-western part of the Northumberland Coastal Plain have revealed an early Bronze Age ring-ditch with a remarkable sequence of human burials. Milena Grzybowska, who analysed the human remains, reports on this discovery and other prehistoric features in its immediate vicinity.
Before the Roman conquest and the subsequent construction of Hadrian’s Wall, the lowland area north of the River Tyne was a densely settled agrarian landscape. A number of Iron Age sites have been recorded during developer-funded excavations on the Northumberland Coastal Plain since the early 2000s. Many were abandoned by the 2nd century AD, and they revealed little information about the nature of settlement prior to the mid-1st millennium BC (see CA 277).
An important addition to this picture emerged during our investigations ahead of the redevelopment of Ponteland Leisure Centre. This site is located beside the Fairney Burn (a tributary of the River Blyth), 12km north-west of Newcastle, 7km north of Hadrian’s Wall, and is the site of a late prehistoric enclosure complex identified by geophysical survey. Archaeological Research Services Ltd was commissioned by Kier Group plc to excavate an area of c.2.6ha in advance of upgrading the Centre and developing its outdoor facilities. The archaeological work, undertaken in autumn 2019, proved very productive. As well as uncovering the remains of two Iron Age enclosures, our excavations revealed an early Bronze Age ring-ditch. Although this was heavily truncated by later ploughing and the creation of a trench for a modern electricity cable (which ran through it), we were able to document six burials and the remains of structures and other features relating to potential domestic or further funerary activity, both prior to and potentially associated with the development of the ring-ditch.
The oldest features encountered at the site represent the early Neolithic period, including a sub-rectangular structure dating to the first quarter of the 4th millennium BC. Measuring approximately 7m by at least 5.5m, it had been built with close-set timber posts set in a construction slot, and a piece of charred oak from one of the wall posts was radiocarbon dated to 3947-3715 BC. A nearby pit contained fragments from portions of three Carinated Bowl vessels deposited in separate places within the fill. Taken together, these remains extend the known location of early Neolithic activity in Northumberland south of the well-known traces in the river valleys of the northern and central parts of the county – and the Ponteland structure is a rare find, with no direct analogies in northern England. An early Neolithic rectangular post-built structure has been found at Cheviot Quarry in the Milfield Basin near Wooler, north Northumberland, but there the posts define a much larger structure and are much more spaced out and not set in a construction slot. A handful of other examples of post and wall-slot buildings have been found elsewhere in England, though, for example at Fengate in Cambridgeshire and Gorhambury in Hertfordshire. Both of these are of a comparable size, roughly square in plan, and have no obvious entrance. Although we do not know the purpose of the Ponteland building, it may reflect some form of settlement.
After this, the next discernible phase of activity at the site takes us to the Beaker period, a part of the very early Bronze Age that saw considerable population change in Britain (see CA 338) and the arrival of people from the Continent using distinctive pottery vessels that give the cultural phenomenon its name. About 35m east of the early Neolithic structure, we found a pit containing abraded fragments from a Beaker vessel, flint flakes, and a charred barley grain that was radiocarbon dated to 2398-2146 BC. This is a useful addition to our understanding of the Beaker period in this region: recent excavations at Cheviot Quarry (CA 207), as well as at St George’s Hospital near Morpeth, located about 15km north- east of Ponteland, have produced further Beaker pits, while coastal sites such as Amble and Low Hauxley just over 30km to the north-east show that settlement of this period was spreading over the coast and its hinterland, as well as in core lowland areas previously exploited by Neolithic populations. Indeed, this wider distribution of Beaker burials and domestic activity, combined with the recovery of Beaker remains from Ponteland, indicates that settlement during the later 3rd millennium BC was beginning to expand from the Northumberland coast and river valleys into the upland areas of the surrounding landscape.
At the turn of the 2nd millennium BC, a female adolescent (Burial 1) was laid to rest at the base of an oval pit. She was around 15 years old at the time of her death, which radiocarbon dating indicates occurred c.2026-1896 BC. At a later date a younger child (Burial 6) was buried within the upper part of the backfill of her grave, disturbing fragments of a Beaker vessel that might have been associated with the initial interment. The pit was surrounded by a penannular-shaped ring-ditch (that is, a circle with a small portion missing from its circumference), across which an entrance causeway allowed easy access to the central area. The female adolescent had been carefully placed to face this entranceway, lying on her right side in a flexed position. By analysing her skeleton, we can tell that she was relatively tall for an early Bronze Age female from northern England (and still growing), but we can also see multiple signs of trauma suffered before and around the time of her death. As well as possible spine and hip injuries, she had suffered a basilar skull fracture (that is, a break to a bone in the base of her skull) at around the time of her death which probably led to a traumatic brain injury and premature death. As to how this may have happened, signs of blunt-force trauma to her cranium, mandible, neck, first rib, and left shoulder girdle point to a high-impact trauma that was most likely due to a high-energy fall on to the left side of her head and shoulder – either a fall from a considerable height or when travelling at speed.
Over the young girl’s feet we found the cremated remains of an adult (Burial 2) radiocarbon dated to 2114-1905 BC. As the burnt bone fragments were extremely compact, they had probably been deposited in a bag of some sort, or wrapped in leather or fabric. Traces of bluish-green staining indicated the presence of a copper or copper-alloy object towards the right shoulder-blade (subsequently confirmed by X-ray fluorescence analysis), suggesting that this individual had either been cremated, or their remains placed in the grave, accompanied by a metal ornament, pin, or another form of clothing fastener. Burials of this nature are known elsewhere in Northumberland, for example at the Tankerville Arms Hotel, Wooler, where the crouched remains of a woman had been placed in a short cist c.2140-1971 BC, with the cremated remains of two other individuals lying over her legs. It is not known, however, whether Burials 1 and 2 had died at the same time, or if the cremated adult’s death preceded that of the adolescent, with their remains being kept until they were later placed within the ring-ditch.
Around the same time that these individuals were buried, a rectangular post-built structure was erected immediately to the south of the ring-ditch – a charred sedge seed from one of the post-holes yielded a date of 2133-1938 BC. Within and close to the building, four pits produced a small quantity of flint debitage, a knife fragment, and a thumbnail scraper, while the fills of the ring-ditch itself and some of the features associated with the structure yielded charred wheat and barley grains, as well as sedge seeds, suggesting that cereal agriculture had probably taken place nearby at this time. The structure may not have been agricultural in function, however – while its precise purpose remains unknown, we suggest it could be associated with the adjacent funerary activity, perhaps representing the foundations of a charnel house. Alternatively, it could have been used by the living, perhaps as part of a domestic settlement. Farms, fields, and funerary monuments built at a family scale were established by the early 2nd millennium BC in upland areas, for example in the neighbouring Cheviot Hills, where such landscapes are well-preserved.