The term ‘prehistoric’ is used by archaeologists to refer to all time prior to the Roman occupation; this is divided into the Stone Age (up to c2,300BC), Bronze Age (c2,300 – 800BC) and Iron Age (c800BC – AD100). The Stone Age is in turn subdivided into the Palaeolithic (‘old stone age’, during which we have no certain evidence for human occupation in the North Pennines), Mesolithic (‘middle stone age’, c10,000 – 4,000BC), and Neolithic (‘new stone age’, c4,000 – 2,300BC).
Mesolithic (c10,000 – 4,000BC).
The earliest known occupation sites in the North Pennines date from about 10,000 years ago during the Mesolithic Period when nomadic ‘hunter-gatherers’ wandered into the area after the last glacial phase of the Ice Age. The earliest known site is at Staple Crag, on the south bank of the Tees near Low Force, where many lithics (worked stone artefacts, including waste material from the manufacture of artefacts) have been found eroding out of the riverbank. This was probably a campsite to which groups of people returned for a short time each year, as part of a seasonal cycle which involved spending time at a range of different places to take advantage of various natural resources. The lithics include objects of chert, found locally in the limestone, and also flint, which must have been brought in from afar, probably from Yorkshire. Another Mesolithic campsite, apparently of slightly later date, perhaps about 6,000BC, has recently been discovered eroding out the banks of Cow Green reservoir; this was excavated by Altogether Archaeology volunteers in August 2015 and results will be added to the NPVM in due course. Other Mesolithic sites have been recorded in various locations throughout the North Pennines, mostly through the recovery of lithic scatters from disturbed ground, usually from beneath the peat in upland areas or from ploughed fields in lower lying locations.
Neolithic (c4,000 – 2,300BC).
The Neolithic saw one of the most profound developments in human history – the introduction of farming. We still don’t know how or why farming was adopted by local communities, it may have been largely due to the migration of farmers into the area, the adoption of farming by local Mesolithic groups, or a combination of the two. Settlements from the period have been identified through lithic scatters, but none has been studied in detail or excavated within the North Pennines. Several examples of distinctive polished stone axes, including several from the axe factories at Great Langdale in the Lake District, have been found in the North Pennines; these had a variety of uses including the clearing of woodland for agriculture. The Neolithic also saw the introduction of pottery, and the creation of great communal monuments such as stone circles. One of the finest stone circles in Britain can be seen at Long Meg, near Little Salkeld in the Eden Valley on the fringes of the North Pennines. This is a complex monument that probably developed over several centuries and was linked in some way to transport and communication networks across the North Pennines, but exactly why it was built here, and how it was used by local people, will always be to an extent a mystery. A further Neolithic mystery is provided the enigmatic ‘cup-and-ring’ marked stones, several of which survive in the SE of the North Pennines, for example in Baldersdale and on Barningham Moor. No-one knows for sure what these circular motifs, carved into bedrock, actually meant to the people who made them, but they offer intriguing prospects for future research. On the opposite corner of the North Pennines, in the NW near Hallbankgate, is the Tortie Stone, a further example of cup-and-ring art, but there are no recorded examples anywhere in the uplands of the North Pennines between here and Baldersdale.
Bronze Age (c2,300 – 800BC).
A pair of gold hair-tress rings from a burial at Kirkhaugh (Alston) are amongst the very earliest metal objects ever found in Britain. They date from about 2,300BC, when gold and copper were used for the production of special artefacts, but bronze technology had not yet been introduced. Numerous other Bronze Age burial mounds are known throughout the North Pennines, sometimes in isolation and sometimes grouped in cemeteries. From about 2,00BC, permanent farmsteads of round houses and small fields appeared in the North Pennines landscape. One such farmstead, at Bracken Rigg on the line of the Pennine Way not far from High Force, was the first Bronze Age settlement to be excavated in northern England; dating from about 1,500BC, it consisted of a single roundhouse associated with a fieldsystem. Many tools and weapons were made of stone, wood and bone as they had been in earlier times, but some were now made of bronze. A spectacular hoard of late Bronze Age objects, dating from about 1,000BC, was made in the nineteenth century within Heathery Burn Cave, Stanhope. This is now in the British Museum; it includes spearheads, axes, knives, tongs, bracelets and cheek pieces from a horse harness, all of bronze, together with rings of jet and gold. Other substantial Bronze Age metalwork hoards have been found at Eastgate (Weardale; currently ‘lost’) and Gilmonby (Bowes; now in Bowes Museum).
Iron Age (c800BC – AD100).
From about 800BC, iron technology was introduced into the North Pennines, marking the onset of the Iron Age. Settlement continued to expand gradually throughout the lower slopes of the dales during the Iron Age and into Roman times; it can be impossible, without excavation, to distinguish between Iron Age farmsteads from before the Roman Conquest and similar sites occupied during the Roman occupation known to archaeologists as 'Romano-British' farmsteads. Two such settlements were excavated in the 1970s at Forcegarth Pasture, near High Force in Teesdale: finds included Roman and native pottery, quern stones, spindle whorls, loom weights and evidence of iron smithing. Similarly, the recent excavation of a stone-built roundhouse on Bollihope Common (Weardale) uncovered evidence for agricultural activity and iron working. More recently, a roundhouse settlement at Gilderdale Burn, near Epiacum Roman fort, was excavated by the Altogether Archaeology volunteers; although scientific dating is still awaited, this seems to have been an Iron Age farmstead that had been abandoned by the time the Roman fort was founded.
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