In my travels around the country on behalf of Current Archaeology, I have never written a column with so many twists and turns as that which follows, on County Durham and Tyne & Wear. This is a part of the country with a rich, distinctive, and, at times, brutal past linked to battles fought over and industries built upon its lands – and its archaeology reflects that complex history.
People of the Frontier
I will begin with my first twist in the tale: of unexpected finds in unexpected locations. The bulk of this month’s column focuses on the Roman archaeology of this area; but what of its earlier inhabitants? CA 88 (August 1983) visited the excavation of an Iron Age farming community at Thorpe Thewles (just north of Stockton-on-Tees); 40 years later, CA 282 (September 2013) visited another Iron Age community, this time a coastal, industrial one at Greatham Creek (a suburb of Hartlepool), presenting the first known evidence of prehistoric occupation on the north bank of the Tees. A useful follow-up to both these stories came in CA 389 (August 2022), exploring the indigenous communities of the wider Roman frontier – and you can find further insights on this subject on p.42 of this issue.
Moving into the Roman era proper, there are some seriously stunning sites and finds in this region associated with Hadrian’s Wall (see also my column in CA 326, May 2017). An exceptional starting point is CA 239 (February 2010), which explored the widespread impact and legacy of the Roman occupation of modern-day County Durham. From there, it is best to head on to specific sites and finds – and wow, does the magazine’s archive deliver. Starting inland and moving anti-clockwise up to the coast and back west along the Tyne, I will commence in Binchester (Roman Vinovia/Vinovium), just north of Bishop Auckland. CA 263, 291, and 295 (February 2012, June 2014, and October 2014) all visited the fort there, revealing what life was like at such a location right at the end of the period of formal Roman control, including a find, made in 2014, of a rare early-Christian ring.
Heading south, we next come to Piercebridge, a few miles to the west of Darlington, where the fort and associated bridge over the River Tees appeared first in CA 40 (September 1973), when the bridge was being hastily uncovered in advance of quarrying, and again in CA 55 (March 1976), when the full extent of the site was starting to be understood. CA then went quiet for 30 years until issues 220 and 221 (July and August 2008) revisited the site in the wake of the 1970s excavations being properly published, revealing a more nuanced story of interaction between the Romans and the existing local elites than had first been thought. Most recently, CA 378 (September 2021) dived (literally) into these waters to explore the more-than 3,600 artefacts discovered there – were they ritual, or just rubbish?
Heading north and east, I arrive next at South Shields (Roman Arbeia) on the north-eastern coastal tip of the Tyne’s south bank. This is another well-known site – the best-preserved permanent military supply base in the Roman world – that has featured repeatedly in the magazine, including in CA 15 (July 1969), which examined the early history of its discovery in the mid-19th century; in CA 116 and 133 (August 1989 and March 1993), revealing the luxury that some of its residents enjoyed at the height of its success (see also CA 295, October 2014, on finds from the site); in CA 164 (August 1999), examining the fort’s later life in the 5th century AD; in CA 215 (February 2008), when a full-size reconstruction of one of its buildings was erected; and most recently in CA 353 (August 2019), which provides an overview of the latest thinking about both this site and nearby Wallsend (Roman Segedunum). As for the latter, beyond this most recent review, again the magazine has paid repeated visits down the years, including in CA 50 and 55 (May 1975 and March 1976) when the fort was first formally excavated in advance of new housing; in CA 116 (August 1989), by which time it had become the most extensively excavated fort along Hadrian’s Wall (see also CA 155, December 1997, on fieldwork in this period); in CA 164 (August 1999), after millions of pounds had been invested in the site in order to turn it into an archaeological park as part of the wider economic redevelopment of the neighbourhood; and in CA 240 and 277 (March 2010 and April 2013), which tell the more recent story of the site and its place in the overall history of Hadrian’s Wall.
Finally, I conclude this Roman holiday, first in Byker and Throckley, and then in Ouseburn, further west along the Tyne towards central Newcastle. CA 195 (December 2004) visited the first two districts when fieldwork there revealed unusual evidence probably associated with the Wall’s defences: 49 pits extending for 32m, which appear to have been the supports for a form of early ‘barbed wire’ where sharpened tree branches were embedded in the bases. And bringing things bang up to date, CA 400 (July 2023) was most recently at Ouseburn, examining a newly discovered turret, not only the first such discovery in 40 years, but also the largest identified to date.
Tales of the Tyne
After so much Roman richness, readers might wonder: can later periods compete? Thankfully, yes, but as I flagged in my introduction, in unexpected ways. For the early and later medieval periods, the story is a more conventional one. The great site and great supervisor are Monkwearmouth-Jarrow and Rosemary Cramp, respectively. Rosemary sadly died earlier this year after an extraordinary lifetime of archaeological achievement. The early monastery there, associated with the monk Bede and his life and writings, was one of the most important not only in the country but in wider western Christendom (see CA 346, January 2019). CA 4 (September 1967) first visited Cramp’s excavations there, which took place between 1963 and 1978, and again in 1984, and notes and news on the site periodically pop up across later years. But, surprisingly, the next big visit was not until CA 238 (January 2010), when the site was being considered for (but not awarded) World Heritage Site status – an ambiguous position that remains to this day. For those interested in this era, I would also flag a wonderful article about early and later medieval Hartlepool in CA 104 (April 1987), which celebrates the town’s own archaeological riches.
What, finally, of the post-medieval and modern eras? Here we face the most unexpected twists and turns in the tale of the Tyne and the Wear. Firstly, in CA 308 (November 2015), a mass grave discovered in the shadow of Durham Cathedral during construction works turned out to have been for Scottish prisoners who were held – and died of disease (likely a virulent outbreak of dysentery) – there after the 1650 Battle of Dunbar. Secondly, CA 301 (April 2015) featured the extraordinary survival of the first ever purpose-built structure in the world of a type that we all now take for granted: the humble railway ticket office. In this case, it was associated with the Stockton and Darlington Railway, and was visited as part of a wider review of such structures at this time (Tynemouth’s ‘greenhouse’ trainshed also receives a notable mention). Thirdly, CA 351 (June 2019) told the story of the SS Carica Milica, lost off Orford Ness in Norfolk in 1939 and rediscovered in 2016 in advance of works to a windfarm. The ship was built in 1928 in Sunderland, to which its bell has since been returned and put on display at the Maritime Heritage Visitor Centre. Fourthly, and finally, CA 276 (March 2013) told the brutal but beautiful story of Gateshead’s Trinity Square car park. Constructed in 1969, it was the star of the 1971 film Get Carter, and was demolished in 2010, which featured as part of a review of ‘carscapes’ heritage at this time.
So ends nearly a year of explorations by me in Scotland and the borders. In my next column I will head west across the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland, to explore its archaeological riches. I hope that you will join me.
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