As a young archaeologist in the 1980s, I had the enviable job of excavating Hadrian’s Wall from Castle Nick to Highshield Crags, including the site of Sycamore Gap and its famous tree. The spiteful act of vandalism in cutting down a hugely popular natural icon has received extensive commentary worldwide, and I would like to set the tree in the context of past archaeological work, and what is known of the landscape history of this part of the National Trust’s Hadrian’s Wall Estate.
For many visitors, the first sight of the Sycamore Gap tree came while travelling along the Military Road (the modern B6138), as it stood just over 500m to the north. The long crest of the Whin Sill crags is pierced in places by ancient glacial overflow channels, and at this point a distinctive sequence of twin gaps creates a unique W-profile between Peel Crags to the west and Highshield Crags in the east. The western gap is filled by Castle Nick, the site of Milecastle 39. Then to the east is a prominent but lower hill known to archaeologists as Mons Fabricius, named after a visiting German frontier specialist in the 1930s. From there, the Wall makes a precipitous descent into Sycamore Gap, before climbing east towards Highshield Crags, which includes one of the highest standing lengths of the Wall.
The 1980s excavations of Hadrian’s Wall were part of a joint project by the National Trust and English Heritage to investigate those lengths of Wall in the central sector where footpath erosion was damaging the fabric of the fortifications. Work started on either side of Milecastle 39, and in 1983, heading east, we began the steep descent to the sycamore and the Wall on the north side of the tree. Deeper than expected, the Wall stood eight courses high above the whinstone foundations, and of especial interest were a series of worked stones including a roughly carved window head, as well as pottery dating to the later 2nd century AD: evidence for the repair of Hadrian Wall after the withdrawal from Scotland c.AD 160.
Dating the tree
While the north face of the Wall at Sycamore Gap had never been excavated before our investigations, parts of the high-standing stonework climbing to the east had remained uncovered since the Roman period. The earliest record of this length appears in the unpublished journals of the great Northumbrian historian John Hodgson (1779-1845). An entry dated 18 October 1832 (vol. Z, p.402) shows the profile of the gap with a stone enclosure and the outline of a tree, the first representation of the sycamore. The enclosure had been constructed to preserve the tree from grazing cattle or sheep, and appears on the first six-inch Ordnance Survey map (1860). The date in Hodgson’s notebook gives a terminus ante quem for the sycamore, but when was it planted? Some recent newspaper reports have suggested it was under George I (r. 1714-1727), a century before Hodgson’s sketch, but future dendrochronological dating may yield greater precision.
In practice, we can narrow down the date by considering the radical landscape changes that the central sector of the Wall and surrounding farms saw during the second half of the 18th century. Two significant events need to be considered. First, the construction of the new Newcastle-to-Carlisle turnpike, which was financed by local landowners in the 1750s. Known as the Military Road (not to be confused with the Roman Military Way, which runs behind the Wall), this lies only 530m south of Sycamore Gap, and runs over the north edge of the Vallum, the great ditch and bank barrier constructed south of Hadrian’s Wall. The 1749 planning map for the Military Road illustrates farmsteads, many of which are known to date from the later 17th century, with attached fields but set within wider unenclosed land. Two and a half centuries later, a similar pattern was revealed on the ground during the detailed field survey that we undertook for the National Trust during the 1980s excavations. The road opened up this remote district, and the indomitable Wall walker William Hutton found a bed at the old Twice Brewed Inn among a crowd of hungry carters in 1802.
The second major change was the enclosure of Henshaw Township in 1787. The enclosure map defines the pattern of regular stone walls, often set at right angles to the Military Road, that is still seen today. Much of the land to the east of Sycamore Gap was owned by the Blackett family, and these farms only passed to the National Trust in the 1970s. North and south of Sycamore Gap, however, the fields are marked as belonging to John Lowes Esquire. Coming from a local family, the surname must derive from the lakes beside and beyond the Wall, which are known locally as ‘loughs’ or ‘lowes’. Hodgson’s depiction of a relatively immature sycamore within a stone enclosure suggests that the tree was planted at the time of the enclosures, serving as a landmark between John Lowes’ fields south of the Wall and the open ground on the north side that runs along to Steel Rigg farm, now the site of the National Park car park. The Northumberland landowner John Clayton, whose stewardship secured much of the Wall and forts in the central sector, purchased Steel Rigg farm (including Castle Nick and Sycamore Gap) in 1834.
Exploring the landscape
Having provided a context and scenario for the planting of the sycamore, it is worth considering the tree in what is known of the landscape history of this part of Hadrian’s Wall. Petra Day’s study of a pollen core from the west end of Crag Lough, 120m north-west of Sycamore Gap, revealed a cleared landscape dating from the late Neolithic period. Cereal pollen is attested from the Bronze Age and later in the Iron Age, and clearance continued in the Roman period, probably for grazing with limited re-afforestation after the Romans.
Further pre-Roman archaeology was uncovered during our field survey, when we located the line of a ruined boundary running south from Sycamore Gap at the west end of Highshield Crags. Made of whinstone rubble, these remains were demonstrably earlier than the Roman Military Way running behind the Wall, and as they ran south they became obscured beneath a later peat bog. Environmental archaeologists suggested that this early wall dated to the Bronze Age. There is also an Iron Age farmstead, which was excavated at Milking Gap in 1938; although the finds from this investigation show significant contact with Roman culture, the settlement does not seem to have lasted long after the building of the Wall. During our own work we identified the outline of a similar farmstead further west near Bradely Farm, and the traces of stone structures located in the valley south of Milecastle 39 may represent the truncated remains of another such settlement. Other Roman Iron Age farmsteads are known from aerial photographic surveys by Tim Gates, both north and south of the Wall, but their chronology remains uncertain.
As for the post-Roman period, the key medieval evidence survives around the central hill, Mons Fabricius, where shielings (single- room stone huts) were built for seasonal grazing or transhumance. One group of three huts, constructed from recycled Wall stones, was located on the hilltop, and seven more of different build are clustered around the base. This phase of pastoralism ended in the 17th century, when the first farmsteads at Steel Rigg and Bradely were established.
Overall, then, survey and environmental data reveal a pastoral and farmed landscape that had been largely cleared of trees since the later Neolithic, 4,000 years ago. It is a mistake, therefore, to describe the Sycamore Gap tree as a relic of an ancient woodland cleared by hunting squires, as has been claimed in the media. Instead, I would suggest that it was planted as a landmark, to be seen from the new road. Celebrity came via Hollywood and Kevin Costner in 1991, and for a later generation the sycamore was voted Tree of the Year in 2016, becoming an active and much loved symbol of the natural world. Tragically now reduced to a stump, it ultimately became a victim of human frustration and anger.
Jim Crow is Emeritus Professor of Roman and Byzantine Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, a visiting professor at Newcastle University, and a former member of the Management Committee for the Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site.
The field survey and documentary sources are discussed in Robert Woodside and James Crow (1999) Hadrian’s Wall: an historic landscape (National Trust, ISBN 978-0707803555).
All images: J Crow, unless otherwise stated