North Northumberland case study area visit

As we are rapidly approaching the second half of the second year of the project, data collection for the English Landscapes and Identities project has now practically reached its end. Whilst Chris Green spends his time pondering temporal fuzziness and creating nationwide trend surfaces (well, in between hanging out with surfer dudes on a beach in Western Australia…), Zena, Anwen, Laura and myself are starting to focus in earnest on our case study areas. Here is our most up-to-date map with the latest case study areas highlighted, now displaying a clear preference for random transects across various landscape zones:

Case study areas EngLaId, March 2013
Case study areas EngLaId, March 2013

Unlike the national survey, which will use data in an uncleaned format, we intend to work with ‘clean’ data-sets for our case study areas. We are still developing the cleaning methodology at the moment, which should hopefully be finalised by the time Chris Green is back from Down Under.

In the mean time, I decided to go on a little field trip to the North Northumberland case study area. The current area is depicted in more detail below, cutting across the upland zone of the Northumberland National Park as well as the more low-lying coastal zone:

Northumberland case study area: modern land use
Northumberland case study area: modern land use

Those that know the region will immediately see that this area includes a number of recent and ongoing projects that fall within the broad EngLaId period, such as recent work at Yeavering (http://www.gefrin.com/), Bamburgh (http://www.bamburghresearchproject.co.uk/), quite a few sites covered by the Historic Village Atlas (http://www.northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk/understanding/historyarchaeology/historicvillageatlas) and the Discovering our Hillforts Heritage project (http://www.northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk/understanding/historyarchaeology/hillfortheritageintroduction), but also, of course, the fantastic discoveries made by Archaeological Research Services at Lanton Quarries (http://www.archaeologicalresearchservices.com/lantonwebsite/index.htm).

The rationale behind the field trip was therefore two-fold. First, I wanted to familiarize myself with the landscape of this region of England – which, in terms of the coastal landscape at least, is not entirely dissimilar to my native country the Netherlands (note the particularly ‘prominent’ contours on the photo below…). (Once you turn around and go inland, though, the landscape looks totally different – too many hills!)

Holy Island, as seen from the tidal causeway
Holy Island, as seen from the tidal causeway

The second reason for my trip was to talk to as many people as possible about the archaeology of the region, trying to identify possible collaborations or at least shared interests. A big Thank You must therefore go to staff and students at the Department of Archaeology at the University of Durham, for organising a seminar where I could present the EngLaId project and discuss methodologies and ideas. In particular, I would like to express my gratitude to Rosemary Cramp, Sarah Semple, Tudor Skinner, Brian Buchanan and Sofia Turk for their feedback and suggestions.

The following day, I had a very informative discussion with Rob Collins, FLO for Northumberland, who showed me some really cool finds including a recently conserved ritually destroyed sword from a potentially new Anglo-Saxon cemetery site. Over the days that followed, I went out to visit two potential new Anglo-Saxon cemetery sites in the case study region, and looked at their wider landscape setting – for obvious reasons I won’t be able to show any photos here, but it was interesting to note some clear similarities between the two sites.

Following my meeting with Rob, I had a discussion with Sam Turner of Newcastle University about the use of Historic Landscape Characterisation. Although HLC is obviously first and foremost a planning tool, and therefore not optimally designed for academic research, we agreed that it’s use is nevertheless important, as the early medieval period remains frustratingly hard to detect in the archaeological record. To give an example, below is a pie chart detailing the relative quantities of entries relevant to the different EngLaId periods as detailed in the Northumberland HER, with the early medieval period representing only 6%:

Northumberland case study area: HER data by period
Northumberland case study area: HER data by period

And here is another one, this time comparing entries from the National Record of the Historic Environment:

Relative number of entries for each EngLaId period from the National Record of the Historic Environment for the Northumberland case study region
Relative number of entries for each EngLaId period from the National Record of the Historic Environment for the Northumberland case study region

As Rosemary Cramp stated after my presentation in Durham, the under-representation of the early medieval period is of course to a degree caused by the fact that the interest in the early medieval period in this part of the country is relatively recent, at least compared to antiquarian and earlier 20th-century archaeological interests, which focused largely on surviving prehistoric earthwork sites in the National Park. It will be interesting to compare this pattern to other parts of the country, especially those away from upland regions with good survival of earthworks.

One glimmer of hope for the early medieval period is provided by Rob Collins’s work within the PAS, as here, the data-set for the case study area comprises no less than 42% early medieval records! However, with a grand total of 51 finds in total (compare to several thousands for the Humber case study area, for example), much more metal-detecting and reporting remains to be done here.

PAS finds for case study area by period
PAS finds for case study area by period

Over the weekend, I spent some time visiting the Cheviot hills to explore the landscape around the two aforementioned cemetery sites, as well as the better-known landscape around Yeavering, climbing the Iron Age hillfort of Yeavering Bell to obtain a better picture of the royal palace site Ad Gefrin.

The eastern end of Ad Gefrin (the yellow field in the centre of the image), as seen from the eastern end of Yeavering Bell
The eastern end of Ad Gefrin (the yellow field in the centre of the image), as seen from the eastern end of Yeavering Bell
Yeavering Bell, as seen from Ad Gefrin
Yeavering Bell, as seen from Ad Gefrin

It was interesting as well to see some relict field systems on the slopes in the Cheviots from Yeavering Bell.

Cheviot Hills as seen from Yeavering Bell looking south, with faint traces of relict field system visible
Cheviot Hills as seen from Yeavering Bell looking south, with faint traces of relict field system visible lower down the north-facing slope, just below the darker vegetation

On Monday morning, Graeme Young of the Bamburgh Research Project was kind enough to come meet me for a chat and a tour around the castle and the excavation trenches (now covered in tarmac). It was very informative and inspiring to hear him talk about the project, and many thanks must go to him for taking the time off to come down despite the weather getting noticeably worse!

Hope-Taylor's old trenches reopened
Hope-Taylor’s old trenches reopened
Site of an early medieval coastal cemetery, as seen from Bamburgh Castle
Site of an early medieval coastal cemetery, as seen from Bamburgh Castle

That evening the rain and sleet started coming down in earnest, so it was good timing to have a HER visit arranged afterwards, where I went through a pile of grey literature to get a general sense of what was going on and request copies of a selection of reports, focusing on those which reported on relatively large-scale investigations. Many thanks must go to Liz Williams and other HER staff for arranging a desk, answering my questions and providing endless cups of tea!

The course of the Roman road known as the Devil's Causeway
The course of the Roman road known as the Devil’s Causeway

All in all, a very fruitful visit that resulted in a lot to think about, the most important conclusion I could draw from it probably being the importance of talking to local archaeologists. No matter how much the digital era has revolutionized the archaeological practice, local in-depth knowledge remains vital to our understanding of the past.

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