The earliest example of a house with surviving timbers to be found in the United Kingdom is thought to have been identified in North Yorkshire.

The timber platform under snow
The timbers found at Killerby Quarry were exceptionally well preserved, as they had been buried in peat. Here they are pictured under snow with a 2m ranging pole. [Image: ©ARS Ltd]

Archaeological Research Services (ARS) discovered the remains of two timber structures preserved in peat while working at Tarmac’s Killerby Quarry site. One was found in a layer dating to the later Mesolithic or Neolithic period (6000-3000 BC), while the other, identified in a lower, early Mesolithic level (dating to c.10,000 BC), may be the oldest example of a house with wood surviving in the UK today. Thanks to the anaerobic conditions of the peat in which the timbers had lain for thousands of years, they were so well preserved that the marks of the stone axes used to prepare and trim them could still be seen.

The younger of the two structures (in the upper layer) comprised two Y-shaped timber poles, about 6m long, used to construct an A-frame shape. It is thought that they could be part of a temporary encampment that was built on the edge of a pond and used during the summer. Of the older structure, five 6m- to 7m-long poles have survived, although the original total is unknown. They were situated around the edge of a roughly circular hollow, in a way that suggests that they may have produced a cone-shaped roof, which could have been covered with animal hides, reeds, or other material. The well-preserved remains of a fire were also found immediately below the collapsed roofing timbers within the hollow. The function of the structure is currently uncertain, but it is thought likely that it may have been a short-lived settlement site used during the summer months.

This is the only example of a Mesolithic settlement site in the UK where the structural timbers have survived; they are described by Clive Waddington, managing director of ARS, as ‘so well preserved that they look like they were felled yesterday’. It is hoped that the innovative enhanced palaeoenvironmental assessment that took place on the site could influence how archaeological work in similar landscape settings is undertaken in future.

The excavation formed part of a ten-year collaboration between Tarmac and ARS: previous work has revealed other evidence of prehistoric occupation, including a Mesolithic timber platform extending out into a small pond, which may have been used as some sort of animal-hide tanning pit, an assemblage of Mesolithic flint and chert tools, Neolithic pits and stone tools, and a pit containing Beaker pottery. Traces of several Romano-British farmstead enclosures that are thought to have supplied the Roman fort and settlements at Catterick have also been identified.

Plans for further analysis to help increase understanding of the site include direct dating of both timber structures and analysis of the material in the hearth pit, together with detailed analysis of the sediment sequence, the lithic assemblage, and a cluster of pit features around another wetland edge. It is hoped that this will provide information about the food being eaten and the activities taking place at the site, as well as the time of year it was occupied.

More information on the project can be found at www.archaeologicalresearchservices.com/projects/killerby-quarry.


This news article appears in issue 358 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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