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Antiquity Vol 77 No 295 March 2003

A Mesolithic Settlement at Howick, Northumberland

Clive Waddington, Geoff Bailey, Ian Boomer, Nicky Milner, Kristian Pederson, Robert Shiel & Tony Stevenson

The University of Newcastle upon Tyne has been investigating a Mesolithic site situated on the Northumberland coast at Howick, Northumberland (Fig. 1). Fieldwork has taken place over two seasons, the first in 2000 and the final one during summer 2002. The site was discovered by amateur archaeologists John Davies and Jim Hutchinson who discovered flints eroding out of a cliff section. Upon further examination it became clear that stratified archaeological remains survived extending back from the cliff edge. On the basis of this work an initial evaluation took place and this located the remains of a structure filled with occupation debris and structural features.

The feature was eroding down the cliff edge as a result of slippage and this had caused truncation along its east edge. Building on this work a full research project was initiated that sought to place this site in its wider landscape setting. The ensuing research strategy adopted a fieldwork programme that included fieldwalking, geophysical survey, test-pitting, sediment coring, soil analysis and geomorphological characterisation, as well as a large open area excavation around the site (Fig. 2).

Figure 1 (Click to View): View east over the excavation site to the North Sea.

Figure 1: View east over the excavation site to the North Sea.
Figure 2 (Click to View): Aerial view of the site in its wider landscape setting.

Figure 2: Aerial view of the site in its wider landscape setting.

The excavation has revealed evidence for what is one of the best-preserved Mesolithic structures found in the British Isles (Fig. 3). Twenty one radiocarbon dates have been obtained from deposits within the structure producing a calibrated date for construction of c.7800 (cal.). The structure has filled up with successive lenses of debris representing what appears to be long-lived occupation. A sequence of hearths in the centre of the structure containing charred hazelnut shells are currently undergoing further dating in order to provide evidence for the timing and duration of the occupation sequence. No hiatus was evident in the stratigraphy indicating that settlement is likely to have been continuous over many years, though whether this was permanent or seasonal remains open to question. The structural evidence from the building has shown that it was completely rebuilt on the same site at least twice as there were rings of post holes and stakeholes at higher levels sitting on top of dumped deposits that covered the remains of the original post sockets. A discrete assemblage of over 16,000 lithics has been recovered from within the structure belonging to a narrow blade-based industry. In particular there are large quantities of microliths, including many scalene triangles and backed blades, together with scrapers, awls, cores and flakes. This flintwork is particularly noteworthy as it is a stratigraphically discrete assemblage and contains no intrusive material that may otherwise distort analysis.

The entire contents of all the excavated deposits from the site were passed through a flotation tank in order to maximise recovery of organic remains as well as micro-debitage. Tens of thousands of charred hazelnut shell fragments were found in the Mesolithic hut indicating the importance of gathered resources, and one particular concentration above a heat-affected area may be the remains of a roasting pit. Occasional fragments of mollusc shell were also found though not in any quantity. However, if a midden had been associated with this settlement then it is likely to have been eroded by the sea which has cut back perhaps as much as a hundred metres or more of coastline since the Mesolithic.

A sequence of inter-cutting hearths was discovered in the centre of the structure. These contained large quantities of burnt material together with charred hazelnut, burnt flint and, in some of the lower hearths, small fragments of burnt bone. Analysis of this bone has allowed identification of wild pig, fox, birds and either a dog or wolf. This indicates that a wide range of terrestrial fauna was being taken, even at this coastal site where it can be reasonably expected that fish, molluscs and mammals such as seals would have formed the staple diet. However, some of these animals, such as the fox, were no doubt taken for their pelts rather than for meat.

The structure itself (Fig. 3), though truncated along the cliff edge, consists of a circular sunken-floored hut with a ring of inner posts 0.1-0.15m diameter. Around the edge of the structure at a higher level a ring of charred stakeholes were also discovered angled in towards the centre. This evidence suggests that there was an inner ring of timber uprights, presumably to support a set of lintels to form a roof plate. Long poles then appear to have been wedged into the ground around the structure and leant against the lintels that took the weight of the roof. What the structure was roofed with remains uncertain but the solid build of the structure suggests it was a material more substantial than hides. Possible candidates include wild grass or reed thatch, bark or turf.

Although a large trench was opened up, and test pits were cut in all directions away from the site, no evidence of any other Mesolithic settlements were found. However, the fieldwalking survey has revealed widespread stone-age activity in the form of lithic scatters along this area of coast, though concentrations of material have been noted in areas close to the freshwater burn. Taken together this suggests a dispersed pattern of individual settlements dotted along the coast, separated from each other by 500m or so, focused around the freshwater stream that flows into the sea.

Figure 3 (Click to View): The Mesolithic hut during excavation.

Figure 3: The Mesolithic hut during excavation.
Figure 4 (Click to View): View of cist 4, the only adult-sized of the 5 cists, the others being those for young children.

Figure 4: View of cist 4, the only adult-sized of the 5 cists, the others being those for young children.

In addition to the Mesolithic site a completely unexpected Bronze Age cist cemetery was exposed in the excavation trench (Fig. 4). This consisted of five cists, though only one contained surviving fragments of bone. Some small sherds of food vessel were associated with another of the cists but this had been disturbed by a later linear burning pit. However, a curious association was the placing of Group XVIII stone roughouts directly on top of, or next to, the capstones of a number of the cists. This is particularly interesting as the Group XVIII dolerite of the Whin Sill outcrops just a kilometre away as a large crag visible from the site.

The fieldwork for this project has been completed and the project has progressed to the analysis stage. A further 14 radiocarbon dates are due from the hearth deposits and a dated pollen sequence from organic alluvial sediments in the nearby Howick burn are eagerly anticipated. Analysis of invertebrates from the sediment core will also help fine-tune our understanding of sea-levels throughout the Holocene along this section of coastline.

The project has been filmed by the BBC as part of the Meet the Ancestors series and was screened in the UK on 26th February 2003. As part of the programme a full-scale 'reconstruction' of the dwelling has been built based on the archaeological evidence. This is now on show to the public at the Maelmin Heritage Trail in Milfield, Northumberland. This site is free access and is open all year round.

Further information can be found on the project's home page at


This project has been funded jointly by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and English Heritage. We would like to record our thanks to the farmer, Mr. Thompson and to the Landowner, Lord Howick, for their support throughout the project. The BBC kindly provided the necessary funds to build the reconstruction for which we are most grateful. We are also indebted to the many volunteers, students and schoolchildren who participated in the work as well as the excellent team of professional field staff.

Waddington, Bailey, Boomer, Milner, Pederson, Shiel & Stevenson: All University of Newcastle upon Tyne

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