Ponteland’s prehistoric past: tracing life and death on the edge of the Northumberland Coastal Plain

Recent excavations on the south-western part of the Northumberland Coastal Plain have revealed an early Bronze Age ring-ditch with a remarkable sequence of human burials. Milena Grzybowska, who analysed the human remains, reports on this discovery and other prehistoric features in its immediate vicinity.


Before the Roman conquest and the subsequent construction of Hadrian’s Wall, the lowland area north of the River Tyne was a densely settled agrarian landscape. A number of Iron Age sites have been recorded during developer-funded excavations on the Northumberland Coastal Plain since the early 2000s. Many were abandoned by the 2nd century AD, and they revealed little information about the nature of settlement prior to the mid-1st millennium BC (see CA 277).

An important addition to this picture emerged during our investigations ahead of the redevelopment of Ponteland Leisure Centre. This site is located beside the Fairney Burn (a tributary of the River Blyth), 12km north-west of Newcastle, 7km north of Hadrian’s Wall, and is the site of a late prehistoric enclosure complex identified by geophysical survey. Archaeological Research Services Ltd was commissioned by Kier Group plc to excavate an area of c.2.6ha in advance of upgrading the Centre and developing its outdoor facilities. The archaeological work, undertaken in autumn 2019, proved very productive. As well as uncovering the remains of two Iron Age enclosures, our excavations revealed an early Bronze Age ring-ditch. Although this was heavily truncated by later ploughing and the creation of a trench for a modern electricity cable (which ran through it), we were able to document six burials and the remains of structures and other features relating to potential domestic or further funerary activity, both prior to and potentially associated with the development of the ring-ditch.

Excavations on the site of Ponteland Leisure Centre, 12km north-west of Newcastle, revealed an early Bronze Age ring-ditch associated with six burials. The primary inhumation was the grave of a female adolescent, shown here at sunrise.

Early activity

The oldest features encountered at the site represent the early Neolithic period, including a sub-rectangular structure dating to the first quarter of the 4th millennium BC. Measuring approximately 7m by at least 5.5m, it had been built with close-set timber posts set in a construction slot, and a piece of charred oak from one of the wall posts was radiocarbon dated to 3947-3715 BC. A nearby pit contained fragments from portions of three Carinated Bowl vessels deposited in separate places within the fill. Taken together, these remains extend the known location of early Neolithic activity in Northumberland south of the well-known traces in the river valleys of the northern and central parts of the county – and the Ponteland structure is a rare find, with no direct analogies in northern England. An early Neolithic rectangular post-built structure has been found at Cheviot Quarry in the Milfield Basin near Wooler, north Northumberland, but there the posts define a much larger structure and are much more spaced out and not set in a construction slot. A handful of other examples of post and wall-slot buildings have been found elsewhere in England, though, for example at Fengate in Cambridgeshire and Gorhambury in Hertfordshire. Both of these are of a comparable size, roughly square in plan, and have no obvious entrance. Although we do not know the purpose of the Ponteland building, it may reflect some form of settlement.

Overlooking the remains of the early Neolithic structure identified on the site, as well as the early Bronze Age ring-ditch (the primary grave can be seen in its centre). The unexcavated sections of the ring-ditch are where a modern electricity cable runs through the monument. Photo: Ana Rodrigues

After this, the next discernible phase of activity at the site takes us to the Beaker period, a part of the very early Bronze Age that saw considerable population change in Britain (see CA 338) and the arrival of people from the Continent using distinctive pottery vessels that give the cultural phenomenon its name. About 35m east of the early Neolithic structure, we found a pit containing abraded fragments from a Beaker vessel, flint flakes, and a charred barley grain that was radiocarbon dated to 2398-2146 BC. This is a useful addition to our understanding of the Beaker period in this region: recent excavations at Cheviot Quarry (CA 207), as well as at St George’s Hospital near Morpeth, located about 15km north- east of Ponteland, have produced further Beaker pits, while coastal sites such as Amble and Low Hauxley just over 30km to the north-east show that settlement of this period was spreading over the coast and its hinterland, as well as in core lowland areas previously exploited by Neolithic populations. Indeed, this wider distribution of Beaker burials and domestic activity, combined with the recovery of Beaker remains from Ponteland, indicates that settlement during the later 3rd millennium BC was beginning to expand from the Northumberland coast and river valleys into the upland areas of the surrounding landscape.

This plan shows the prehistoric features excavated at Ponteland Leisure Centre during Archaeological Research Services Ltd’s investigations on the site.

Burials begin

At the turn of the 2nd millennium BC, a female adolescent (Burial 1) was laid to rest at the base of an oval pit. She was around 15 years old at the time of her death, which radiocarbon dating indicates occurred c.2026-1896 BC. At a later date a younger child (Burial 6) was buried within the upper part of the backfill of her grave, disturbing fragments of a Beaker vessel that might have been associated with the initial interment. The pit was surrounded by a penannular-shaped ring-ditch (that is, a circle with a small portion missing from its circumference), across which an entrance causeway allowed easy access to the central area. The female adolescent had been carefully placed to face this entranceway, lying on her right side in a flexed position. By analysing her skeleton, we can tell that she was relatively tall for an early Bronze Age female from northern England (and still growing), but we can also see multiple signs of trauma suffered before and around the time of her death. As well as possible spine and hip injuries, she had suffered a basilar skull fracture (that is, a break to a bone in the base of her skull) at around the time of her death which probably led to a traumatic brain injury and premature death. As to how this may have happened, signs of blunt-force trauma to her cranium, mandible, neck, first rib, and left shoulder girdle point to a high-impact trauma that was most likely due to a high-energy fall on to the left side of her head and shoulder – either a fall from a considerable height or when travelling at speed.

The primary inhumation (Burial 1) was situated at the centre of the ring-ditch, with the cremated remains of a second individual (Burial 2) lying over her feet.

Over the young girl’s feet we found the cremated remains of an adult (Burial 2) radiocarbon dated to 2114-1905 BC. As the burnt bone fragments were extremely compact, they had probably been deposited in a bag of some sort, or wrapped in leather or fabric. Traces of bluish-green staining indicated the presence of a copper or copper-alloy object towards the right shoulder-blade (subsequently confirmed by X-ray fluorescence analysis), suggesting that this individual had either been cremated, or their remains placed in the grave, accompanied by a metal ornament, pin, or another form of clothing fastener. Burials of this nature are known elsewhere in Northumberland, for example at the Tankerville Arms Hotel, Wooler, where the crouched remains of a woman had been placed in a short cist c.2140-1971 BC, with the cremated remains of two other individuals lying over her legs. It is not known, however, whether Burials 1 and 2 had died at the same time, or if the cremated adult’s death preceded that of the adolescent, with their remains being kept until they were later placed within the ring-ditch.

This plan shows the layout of the ring-ditch and the arrangement of Burials 1-5. A sixth burial, containing the disturbed and disarticulated remains of a c.9-year-old child, was inserted into the upper backfill of Burial 1 in 1869-1621 BC.

Around the same time that these individuals were buried, a rectangular post-built structure was erected immediately to the south of the ring-ditch – a charred sedge seed from one of the post-holes yielded a date of 2133-1938 BC. Within and close to the building, four pits produced a small quantity of flint debitage, a knife fragment, and a thumbnail scraper, while the fills of the ring-ditch itself and some of the features associated with the structure yielded charred wheat and barley grains, as well as sedge seeds, suggesting that cereal agriculture had probably taken place nearby at this time. The structure may not have been agricultural in function, however – while its precise purpose remains unknown, we suggest it could be associated with the adjacent funerary activity, perhaps representing the foundations of a charnel house. Alternatively, it could have been used by the living, perhaps as part of a domestic settlement. Farms, fields, and funerary monuments built at a family scale were established by the early 2nd millennium BC in upland areas, for example in the neighbouring Cheviot Hills, where such landscapes are well-preserved.

The dagger burial

As time went on, it appears that the ring-ditch had started to silt up, leaving only a much shallower monument. The partially infilled penannular ring-ditch and its entrance were then recut to create a continuous line encircling a possible central mound. Soon after the ring-ditch began silting up, an oval pit was also cut into the infill on its southern side, opposite the original entrance causeway, and at the bottom of this was placed the body of a third individual (Burial 3), an adult of unknown sex dated to 1965-1773 BC. Like Burial 1, this individual had been laid on their right-hand side in a flexed position, with the remains of a cremated adult (Burial 4, dated to 2133-1938 BC) laid on their feet. Bluish-green staining indicated that, as with Burial 2, there had been a copper or copper-alloy object close to the right shoulder-blade of the cremated adult. There were some key differences with the earlier burials, however. In this case, Burial 3 was positioned to face south, and they had a copper-alloy dagger placed at their waist.

The occupant of Burial 3 was found with a copper-alloy dagger at their waist and the cremated remains of another individual (Burial 4) at their feet.
A close-up of the Burial 3 dagger.

The dagger blade was formed by the light forging of a cast blank produced from a two-piece mould. XRF analysis indicated that it was made from tin bronze that is likely to contain around 10% tin. Traces of arsenic and lead were detected, while zinc was identified in 50% of the samples for the blade but not in the rivets, and traces of nickel were noted in the rivets but not the blade. The apparent difference between the rivets and blade suggests they are not from the same source of metal and may indicate the range of materials available to the smith when finishing the artefact. The tin readings, coupled with the presence of arsenic and the absence of nickel in the blade, may indicate a Continental source. The blade is best classed as a ‘butt riveted’ type, a later development than tang or tang-and-shoulder riveted daggers, and the presence of three intact rivets indicates that the dagger originally had a hilt made from a perishable organic material. Burials with daggers occur elsewhere in north-east England, as well as clustering in east-central Scotland, and the Ponteland dagger is typical of other examples from the surrounding region, for example that found c.25km to the west at Reaverhill. Although the biological sex of Burial 3’s occupant was not ascertained, at this time daggers were typically deposited with males who are often interpreted as high-status individuals.

The dagger blade, with three intact rivets, during conservation.

Later burials

Within a relatively short period, a third grave was dug into the south side of the ring-ditch, partly cutting into the west side of Burial 2. This contained the remains of a woman aged 36-45, who had again been placed on her right side in a flexed position. Dubbed Burial 5 and dated to 2022-1828 BC, she was accompanied by the fragmented remains of a squat Vase Food Vessel decorated with twisted cord impressions (placed above her skull), together with a copper or copper-alloy object by her right shoulder-blade. Only preserved in the form of bluish-green staining confirmed by XRF analysis, it may have been a metal ornament, pin, or something similar used to fasten clothing such as a cloak or dress in place at the shoulder. As for the remains of the woman herself, it appears that she had suffered from a form of sinusitis, albeit apparently not stemming from a tooth infection. Such conditions are rarely identified in an early Bronze Age context, but could have been due to excessive exposure to pollutants – for example, by inhaling wood smoke inside a poorly ventilated structure – or by transmission of infectious diseases. We could also see degenerative changes to her spine and left elbow, while her cranium showed evidence of blunt-force trauma, sustained around the time of death.

Burial 5 contained an adult woman who had been laid in an oval pit alongside the grave containing Burials 3 and 4.
The woman was accompanied by a Vase Food Vessel, which had been placed next to her skull.

The food vessel accompanying this woman is illuminating, too. Beaker-period graves (both primary inhumations and secondary burials) associated with Vase Food Vessels have been recorded at many other barrows or cairns in north-east England, for example at Hastings Hill, located about 25km south-east of Ponteland, and at Low Hauxley. Dagger burials, as at Ponteland, are rarely associated with Beaker vessels, however – something that has been suggested to represent divergent social networks, with different people connected by their use of tin- bronze blades versus those using Beakers. At Ponteland, the ring-ditch was still visible as a burial monument when the dagger burial was interred, but the relationship of the monument with Beakers and Beaker users could possibly have disappeared, perhaps after a short period of it being abandoned.

This could echo a pattern seen more widely, where secondary burials accompanied by Food Vessels are known to have been inserted into or added to pre-existing Beaker period cairns in the region, such as at Low Hauxley. Such a pattern might reflect cultural or ideological change occurring in the early Bronze Age, alongside the emergence of different social networks or groupings after the initial Beaker phase. Having said this, we can also see an important element of continuity in mortuary practices at Ponteland, seen between the Beaker and dagger graves: both burials had a flexed primary inhumation with a sequentially later cremation burial laid over the feet, thereby demonstrating a commonality between these burial types through time.

The presence of copper or copper-alloy artefacts with the cremations, along with the dagger, suggests contacts with Bronze Age groups beyond north-east England, perhaps reaching as far as the Continent. The Ponteland community clearly had access to regional and inter-regional networks, whether by direct trade or down-the-line exchange. Such widespread connections could also have been the cause of the probably fatal blunt-force trauma seen in two of the burials, however – these might be echoes of interpersonal violence hinting at a time of heightened socio-political stress, perhaps ultimately linked to the arrival of Beaker-using people into Britain at this time.

The upper portion of the Vase Food Vessel from Burial 5, reassembled and viewed from above.
Jenny Doole’s drawing shows its full extent. Image: Jenny Doole

And what of Burial 6, which we mentioned briefly near the start of this article? This contained the remains of a child around 9 years old, whose sex could not be determined. The skeleton was disturbed (probably by ploughing) and disarticulated, but can be dated to 1869-1621 BC. This burial had been dug into the upper part of the backfill of Burial 1, and was the final burial within the ring-ditch for which evidence survived, but there may have been others. At the centre of Burial 5 was an oval pit that had been dug at a later date, and from its fill we recovered a fragment of a flint knife. Could this have been the base of a grave for another secondary interment, similar to Burial 6?

Iron Age endings

If there were no further burials following the creation of Burial 6, the ring-ditch seems to have been neglected after this point, continuing to silt up. Indeed, other than possibly being used as pastureland, the site appears to have seen no further activity until the 1st millennium BC, when a farmstead, represented by at least four small circular structures (one of which yielded Iron Age pottery), was established to the north of the burials. This was followed by the construction of a rectilinear enclosure surrounded by a timber palisade, the western half of which was centred on the location of the ring-ditch, perhaps indicating that traces of this monument were still evident at that time. Meanwhile, the north-western portion of the enclosure appears to have been deliberately designed to curve around one of the earlier circular structures.

Within the enclosure we found the remains of further structures: in the centre and north-eastern sections there were two structures, possibly representing domestic buildings dating to the Middle Iron Age (judging by pottery recovered from features associated with the north-eastern example), while the south-east corner boasted two more, possibly contemporary, structures. The replacement of unenclosed settlements by rectilinear enclosed farmsteads during the Middle-Late Iron Age has been recorded at a number of other excavated later prehistoric sites in this part of north-east England, such as at West Brunton (6km to the south- west of Ponteland) and Pegswood Moor, near Morpeth (about 15km to the north-east).

This enclosure would soon greatly expand, as a second was added to its north-western side, increasing the total area delineated from c.5,200m2 to c.8,000m2. It is difficult to say what took place within this space, due to a distinct lack of animal bone (probably due to the acidic nature of the subsoil) and low presence of ancient plant or pollen remains, but the funnel-like shape of the second enclosure and the absence of internal structures or domestic items like quern-stone fragments within it might be instructive. We suggest that the second enclosure probably functioned as a broad droveway for corralling livestock from pasture in the north towards the southern enclosure. It appears that both enclosures continued in use for livestock-management until the settlement was abandoned, probably by the end of the 1st millennium BC.

Recording Iron Age features situated in the northern part of the site.

As for who might have used these features, by the 2nd century BC, the Northumberland Coastal Plain was mainly occupied by rectilinear enclosures with substantial ditches and a single east-facing gateway, along with unenclosed or more lightly enclosed roundhouse settlements. The substantially ditched enclosures are thought to be associated with the upper echelons of Iron Age society, while other settlements may represent subordinate groups – it is thought that the Ponteland farmstead could be an example of this latter category.

Although medieval and more recent ploughing has truncated the uppermost part of most features and deposits on the site, erasing evidence of later activity, it is fortunate that most of the early Bronze Age graves were deep enough for skeletal remains to survive, revealing the sequence and funereal diversity of the burials associated with the ring-ditch. We hope that soon we will be able to say even more about the individuals buried at Ponteland: aDNA analysis is currently being undertaken by the Francis Crick Institute, while stable isotopic analysis is being carried out by Durham University. Together, it is hoped that these will reveal information regarding the ancestry, geographic origins, and the diet of the individuals associated with the ring-ditch.

Further information
A report on the excavations at Ponteland Leisure Centre is due to be published in Archaeologia Aeliana.
Milena Grzybowska is Osteoarchaeologist/Senior Project Officer at Archaeological Research Services Ltd and has worked with the company since 2015. She has excavated archaeological sites in England and Eastern Europe, and has reported on animal- and human-bone assemblages from multi-period sites in Britain.