Delhi and Shotton surface mining sites - 2007 to 2009
Excavations at Delhi (Blagdon Hall) and Shotton surface mining sites both near Stannington are producing significant contributions to the understanding of the archaeology of the region both in the prehistoric and medieval periods. The archaeological works generously funded by Banks Mining are far from complete but it is possible to provide a provisional statement of results.
Delhi Surface Mining Site - Blagdon Hall Iron Age Site
Excavation at the Delhi surface mining site, Blagdon Hall, by TWM Archaeology in 2007-8 has revealed a previously unknown Iron Age settlement. The site had been very badly plough damaged, produced very few artefacts, and had to be excavated in difficult winter conditions. Nevertheless the Blagdon Hall site is of immense and rare value in offering the complete plan of an Iron Age site, obtained by means of large-scale area-excavation which developer-funded archaeology has only made possible in recent years.
The fairly close resemblance of the site and its structures to two other sites (East and West Brunton) extensively excavated by TWM (2002 and 2004) in advance of the Newcastle Great Park development on the northern outskirts of the City mean that an Iron Age date is hardly in doubt. However, the absence of closely datable artefacts means that radiocarbon dating will be the principal means of establishing the date of the main phases of occupation at Blagdon Hall. At the time of writing samples are still being processed and it will be some months before radiocarbon dates are obtained, so for the moment only an extremely preliminary statement of results can be given. Similarly, environmental evidence that might give an insight into the economic basis of the settlement is still being processed.
The most striking feature of the plan is an arrangement of two concentric, vaguely rectangular ditched enclosures, the outer enclosing some 130 by 100m, the inner some 50 by 45m. Remains of over 40 circular structures or ‘roundhouses’ were recorded, a number of which predated one or other of the enclosures. Only one of these lay outside the outer enclosure ditch. There are too few clear stratigraphic relationships to make it certain by what phases the settlement developed (for example, whether the two enclosure ditches were contemporary, or whether one preceded the other). Radiocarbon dating should remedy this situation. In the meantime the following sequence is suggested on the basis of the stratigraphical relationships that were apparent, on the spatial relationship of the elements of the settlement to one another, and on analogies drawn from the sites at East and West Brunton.
1. Open roundhouse settlement
Both the inner and outer enclosure either cut or were evidently later than certain of the roundhouses, and this probably means that the earliest phase represented consists of an open or unenclosed settlement of roundhouses, perhaps dating to the early- to mid- Iron Age (as at East and West Brunton). Despite the fact that such settlements appear to consist of large numbers of roundhouses, in reality all were not in use at the same time (demonstrated by the their complex intercutting relationships revealed by excavation). Allowing for the length of time that the settlement would have been in occupation (this demonstrated by scientific dating at the Brunton sites), what appears on the archaeological plan as a dense concentration of house plans really represents the continuous regeneration of a small farming community of less than half a dozen houses, and possibly only one or two.
2. A palisaded settlement?
The inner enclosure may have been preceded by a palisaded enclosure some 50 by 50m in area, containing one or two roundhouses. If so, only the east side remained, the remainder being removed by the ditch of the later inner enclosure. This occurrence of a palisade in the central part of a site but preceding the final enclosure phase was also seen at West Brunton.
3. The enclosed phase
Probably in the later-Iron Age (last two centuries BC?) came the final phase of major ditched enclosure. It seems most probable that the outer and inner enclosure were contemporary: they are linked together by a series of small ditches that partitioned the intervening space into a number of discrete areas, possibly of differing function. Between the two such subdivisions on the east side, a path or droveway ran from the outer enclosure entrance to an area immediately in front of the inner enclosure. Within the central enclosure two large and relatively well-preserved roundhouses were contemporary with its use. The same pattern of a nucleus-enclosure containing principal house(s) and outlying enclosed areas fulfilling various stock-holding, agricultural, industrial and residential functions was apparent at West Brunton. Almost certainly substantial banks lying within the ditches defined both inner and outer enclosures, but all traces were ploughed away. However there was evidence for a substantial timber gate closing the entrance to the inner enclosure.
The significance of the site at Blagdon Hall would appear to be that, taken in conjunction with the evidence from East and West Brunton, it confirms a pattern of later-Iron Age development on the Northumberland coastal plain. It appears that in this region earlier-Iron Age settlements, open or palisaded, were succeeded by extensive enclosure complexes in the later-Iron Age. Formerly, the Northumberland coastal plain was assumed to be dominated by small rectilinear enclosures of the Burradon type, interpreted in the light of sites investigated in upland parts of Northumberland. In retrospect sites such as Burradon (Tyne and Wear) and Hartburn (near Morpeth) probably display the same sequence of development from an open settlement to a later Iron Age site with inner and outer enclosures as we see at the Brunton sites and at Blagdon Hall.
Now that the complex and agglomerated nature of some these enclosed sites (note also the complex enclosure site at Pegswood, near Morpeth) has been seen for the first time in large scale area excavation, what is really striking is their affinity with Iron Age sites further south, and the Northumberland coastal plain can be seen as part of the general pattern of Iron Age settlement in lowland eastern England.
A complete absence of Roman-period finds from the excavation suggests that this settlement was abandoned either before or at the onset of the Roman occupation of Northumberland. The only prospect of establishing whether in fact the Blagdon Hall site was abandoned at some earlier stage of the Iron Age, or whether it was occupied at the beginning of the Roman period, lies with the anticipated radiocarbon dates.
Shotton Surface Mine - Shotton Medieval Site
Remains of an extensive shrunken medieval village are being revealed to the east of the present village of Shotton. A wide central open space or green on the same axis as the surviving village is flanked to the north and south by well defined plots aligned north-south. Although the excavations are far from complete it is becoming apparent that the area represented an industrial zone at the eastern limit of the village which was abandoned when the settlement contracted in size. Documentary evidence bears witness to this reduction a grant duty of 1325 recording the village as comprising thirty tenements but by the end of the 16th century only ten remained, three of which were in decay.
An understanding of the organisation and structure of the medieval village is emerging from the excavation of the plots. Structural features are concentrated towards the frontage of plots with a scatter of postholes and wall slots belonging to a succession of ill-defined structures. The excavation of the remains of a pottery kiln are underway with a second suspected kiln site to be investigated. This represents a rare and unusual opportunity to excavate a kiln within the context of an industrial zone of a medieval village. The majority of pottery recovered thus far can be dated to the 12-14th century period. Although no floors survive the excavation of surviving hearths, pits and gullies will allow the chronology and development of the settlement to be understood. Documentary evidence shows that during the 13th century Shotton and the adjacent Plessey village were held by the Plessey family and by the end of 1270 both villages are known to have chapels. Through the excavation work it is now possible to go beyond the surviving historical record to get a real insight into the everyday life in the medieval village.
This is an important site as it presents a rare opportunity to excavate a significant area of a
medieval village in its entirety, so often, previous work being limited to keyhole investigation between standing remains. As such the excavation has the potential to make a significant contribution to the understanding of the development of rural Northumberland in the medieval period.
Shotton Iron Age and pit alignment
Excavations at Shotton Open Cast Mine Site in 2008 revealed a smaller Iron Age settlement 2km NNE of the Delhi-Blagdon Hall site. Here a remarkable sequence started with a pit-alignment and unenclosed roundhouse settlement (it is not clear which was the earlier). The pit alignment resembles dated examples found by Northern Archaeological Associates 400m SW of the Delhi/Blagdon Hall site in 2005, and by TWM at Fox Covert, near Dinnington, in 2005. In these cases the alignments represent a major subdivision of the landscape into large land-units around the time of the Bronze Age-Iron Age transition (around 800-500BC). Once established they were enduring landscape features throughout the Iron Age. Once again this is a respect in which the Iron Age of the Northumberland coastal plain is coming to resemble contemporary landscapes in other parts of Britain. The pit alignment runs roughly perpendicular to the course of the river Blyth just under 1km to the NW, so it is possible that
it formed a boundary between two areas of land that each had access to the water-course – again a feature of Iron Age land division further south in Britain.
At some later stage, presumably within the Iron Age, a rectilinear enclosure of 30 by 35m was attached to one side of the pit-alignment, which was reconstituted as a continuous ditch for the relevant 35m length. The enclosure had a 3.50m wide entrance on the side facing away from the original boundary. The enclosure ditch was insubstantial and possibly represented a stock-corral rather than a settlement. Finally this enclosure was overlain by further, apparently unenclosed round houses, including one large example at least 12m in diameter. The whole sequence produced no closely datable finds and again the results of scientific dating are awaited in order to clarify the chronological context.
Historic mine workings at Delhi and Shotton mining sites
At both the Dehli and Shotton surface mine evidence of historic mining of eighteen – nineteenth century date is coming to light. This mining has been undertaken with the “pillar and stall” method with trenches 2m-2.5m wide and up to 2m in height being cut leaving pillars of undisturbed coal forming galleries aligned at right angles.