In the very north of Northumberland lies an old, dried-out glacial lake that is surrounded by raised gravel terraces, known as the Milfield Basin. Throughout prehistory, the rich fertile soil of the gravel terraces attracted settlement from the earliest times, and the hills around were crowned with a number of striking hillforts. The best-known of the archaeological sites is the Anglo-Saxon royal town called Yeavering (also known as Ad Gefrin).
Here, between 1952 and 1962, Dr Brian Hope-Taylor conducted a campaign of brilliant, controversial excavations, revealing a series of massive timber halls as well as a possible pagan temple and what appears to be an open-air auditorium. But what is the background to the splendours of Yeavering? Where did the workers live?
At the centre of the basin lies Lanton Quarry, where Tarmac have opened an extensive area. However, mindful of the archaeological significance of the area, Mike Young, Estates Manager at Tarmac, led an informed dialogue with the local authority and Archaeological Research Services Ltd that led to a an innovative and comprehensive investigation of the 40-hectare site in advance of extraction. This has led to the discovery of multi-period remains from the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon periods. Among the most fascinating results thus far is the discovery of one of the best examples of a lower-status Anglo-Saxon site in north-east England; could it be that this is the village where the workers associated with the royal site of Yeavering plied their trades?
The Milfield Basin is well known for its Anglo-Saxon remains with the royal sites of Yeavering, and its successor Maelmin, referred to by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History. As a heartland of the early Anglian kingdom of Bernicia, later to become Northumbria with Deira to the south, research has tended to be focused on the high-status sites, which create the most visible crop-marks. In addition to Hope-Taylor’s work, a group of substantial rectangular timber buildings were excavated at Thirlings by Colm O’Brien and Roger Miket. What is interesting about these sites is that until the excavations at Lanton Quarry, there has been very little evidence for the substantial local communities that would have supported the royal centres.
At Lanton Quarry, stripping off the soil at the south end of the site revealed what had always been missing from the Anglo-Saxon jigsaw: the lower-status working settlement associated with the high-status centres.
Four post-built timber buildings have so far been revealed: two rectangular timber houses defined by double posts (placed in the same posthole 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 the eight sunken-feature buildings, or GrubenhÃ¤user, the largest group found thus far in the north-east. Rich in the material culture absent on the higher-status sites of the area, they have provided pottery assemblages, metalwork and domestic items. There has been considerable discussion recently about whether these formed the cellars below a timber floor (the West Stow argument), whether they were simply the sunken floors of workshops, or whether people actually lived in these structures. The GrubenhÃ¤user at Lanton Quarry were of uniform construction with no evidence for raised timber floors and were certainly too small to have formed living accommodation. Based on their artefact associations, all appeared to be workshops. One hut in particular produced a cache of loom weights in a line over what was thought to be the base of a warp-weighted loom, which surely would have been scattered had they fallen from a floor above. This workshop also produced one of two beautifully crafted glass polychrome beads as well as fragments of leather and an iron hook.
What is a Grubenhaus?
A Grubenhaus (plural GrubenhÃ¤user) is a type of sunken-floored building, common to northern Europe, England and south-east Scotland between the 5th and 7th centuries AD. They were built over a shallow sub-rectangular pit, with two wooden posts; one at either end. Some appear to have had a wooden floor was suspended over the pit and the space beneath was used for storage or to control damp. A gabled roof supported by the timber posts covered the hut, which are unlikely to have had windows and only a single entrance. GrubenhÃ¤user are usually interpreted as domestic dwellings, although their small size, proximity to other buildings and frequent associated finds of loom weights has led to theories that they had a specialised purpose. The new discoveries at Lanton Quarry suggest specialist craft-working associated with each hut and all are consistent with their use as workshops.
The forms of the timber and sunken buildings show clear Anglo-Saxon affinities and compare directly with those discovered at nearby Thirlings and New Bewick. In addition to the Anglo-Saxon structures, a small circular post-built building was found. This was partly cut by one of the sunken buildings which means that stratigraphically it predates the Anglo-Saxon building. A date of c.AD 550 was taken from a charred hazelnut shell found in one of the post-holes of the circular building. This form could represent a native British structure in the circular tradition, or possibly an early Anglo-Saxon building, though the construction of circular buildings is not normally a feature of the Anglo-Saxon architectural repertoire. Is this a rare glimpse of the post-Roman British inhabitants of the region?
So far, 13 hectares of the site have been excavated with a further 27 to go. Without the quarrying, the archaeology would remain unknown, and therefore it is possible to say that quarrying at this — and the neighbouring Cheviot Quarry site — has been an advantage, for it has allowed this archaeology to be found, in many cases for the first time.
With more than half the site still left to excavate, Lanton Quarry no doubt has more surprises in store. Over the next few years, in addition to focusing on exploring the Anglo-Saxon settlement, we fully expect that further remains of Neolithic activity will be revealed, together with Bronze Age farmsteads and potentially, more Iron Age burials. This work will be combined with further scientific analysis of the various finds, including a radiocarbon dating programme. We look forward to involving the public with further opportunities for volunteers and schools to be involved in this exciting project.
What the stakeholders had to say
Simon Phillips, Executive Director, North and Scotland, Tarmac
‘Recording archaeological remains is a key feature of sustainable quarrying and we are proud to be able to work with professionals who have made these important discoveries relevant to our nation’s past and relevant to the local community.’
Sarah Rushton, Northumberland County Council
‘In the case of Lanton Quarry, the results have added significantly to the picture of the complex settlement history of the Milfield Basin, and demonstrate clearly the archaeological potential of the gravel terraces.’
Clive Waddington, ARS Ltd Project Manager
‘There has been a huge amount of research flowing from the project, and being able to communicate this to local residents, schools, academics, volunteers and visitors has been a real pleasure. None of this would have been possible without the open dialogue and co-operation of Tarmac and the local authority.’
Dr Clive Waddington, Managing Director, Archaeological Research Services Ltd: Clive@archaeologicalresearchservices.com
To read this article in its entirety, see Issue 239 (February 2010) of Current Archaeology.