South Tyne Archaeology Finds

Hay meadows in the South Tyne valley

The story of the South Tyne Valley archaeology is long and complicated. It's a tale of official incompetence and negligence and of the loss and destruction of invaluable ancient sites. It's never been properly told and this page hopes to begin to remedy that.

The writer worked as a traditional drystone waller in a small valley, in southwest Northumberland, for more than twenty years and describes himself as the last of the real drystone wallers. Working in the same place for so long allowed close inspection of land that few people have ever seen. The tourist guides say that the North Pennines are 'England's Last Wilderness' and this is partly true. There are remote spots that will only see a shepherd or a gamekeeper perhaps once or twice a year.

The walls in the Knar valley were conceived as a gigantic sculpture and support was requested from the Arts Council each and every year. This was always declined using the reason that the building work was an 'heritage' activity rather than fine art. No officer ever viewed the work. A particular focus was in restoring sheepfolds, which were perhaps a hundred years older than the fieldwalls. One large sheepfold was entirely reconstructed, over several years, and this project was named FOLD!!. News of the fold repairs must have leaked out and another artist adopted the sheepfold motif and his work was generously supported by Arts Council and many others. This resulted in an untrained person spending great sums of money on sheepfolds, which were full of beginner's mistakes, while a local traditional worker starved doing a proper job.

It may be argued that a drystone waller has inherited the skills that have passed down, by word of mouth, since stonework began, in prehistoric times. Perhaps this transmission gives an insight into which stones have been worked and which have natural origins. Certainly the need to stay in a particular part of the landscape, as progress is so slow, allows observations to be made of the immediate landscape at all times of the day. There are some unique prehistoric monuments in these hills and it is the writer's good fortune to attempt to describe them!

<   Meadowsweet almost to the horizon!

Presently metal production on Alston Moor is believed to have begun with the Romans and there is good evidence for them exporting refined lead ingots from there. A thousand years later the silver from the same mines supplied the mint in Carlisle, which stamped silver pennies on behalf of the bishops of Durham. There is now compelling evidence that the first locally cast objects were in bronze and that this early pioneer phase has been entirely overlooked.

New results from aerial surveys shows that the first copper mining in the fells around Alston was rough and ready. Vivid green malachite copper ore was identified on the surface of the moors and then chased down with picks and baskets. What remains now are series of eroded pits that are often classed by the Ordnance Survey as sinkholes. There are sinkholes in the same landscape but they differ in both size and contour. The ancient copper pits are often associated with characteristic Bronze Age small monuments while the sinkholes stand alone. The sinkholes depend on a deep limestone strata while the mined pits show limestone at the surface.

David's Cobs

Slaggyford Stone

The first thing the waller found was a big pile of rocks on the northern skyline. It had little shape, but was huge, and had been robbed, around the back, by the gamekeepers for stones. From a certain place in the valley the sun set behind it around the longest day. The next find was a big standing stone on Green Hill (picture below) and then the copper mine beside the Knar Burn. Over a few years the finds multiplied until four long cairns - as the big heaps of rock are known - were named as well as many standing stones, burial mounds and a very large stone circle. The shooting estate was sold to a ruthless mercenary, with the nickname 'White Sultan', and he comprehensively rejuvenated the shoot. New roads were built, without planning permission or sympathy for the landscape, and one of the long cairns was entirely crushed for roadstone. The waller's life was threatened, if he interfered, and repeated complaints to the county archaeologists, Tynedale planning department, English Nature and to the AONB were ignored. England's last wilderness indeed.

Two archaeologists from County Hall came out to visit the South Tyne Valley and to inspect a couple of sites. They saw the stone circle at Kirkhaugh and one of the two big stone rows at Slaggyford. Their clear intention was to obstruct the finds and they accepted that the circle was indeed a circle but said that the row was the remains of a Viking fieldwall. They recorded a cup-marked stone, in the big row, but dishonestly excluded the drystone waller from credit for the find. Professor Aubrey Burl wrote the standard textbook on stone rows and points out an association of rock art with rows. The large row at Thornhope has a zigzag plan yet no local walls, of any era, are laid out that way. The archaeology unit claimed to have sent someone to the Knar valley to look at stuff but this now seems to have been imaginary. Satellite images clearly show that the new shooting roads went into places that had no previous access but the county accepted the explanation that they were just existing tracks being upgraded. Nobody from the planning department ever came to look at them. The Knar valley is more than fifty miles from County Hall and so is, presumably, easily ignored.

 < This one's called the Slaggyford Stone and it's a part of a collection of very ancient relics. It is a very soft sandstone with large silica inclusions and this rock is covered in micro-cupmarks. Other stones lay about that also have micro-cups on one of their surfaces. None have been visited by an archaeologist.

One of the more interesting sites in the Knar valley, a mile to the west of Slaggyford village, is the long cairn on the piece of land known as Broad Mea. It is Broad Mea Long Cairn (right) and seems unique. The obvious part is the huge heap of collected stones, which is circular and has a rounded profile that can be seen for a long distance. Some of the rocks in it are very large and must've taken enormous effort to collect and transport but there's more. At the front of the barrow are the foundations for a small fold that seems to have been part of the heap. Beside the mound is another sheepfold, which is mostly intact, and which may be two or three hundred years old. The unique part of the long cairn is behind, where a long tapering tail of stone may be found. This starts at about the same height as the mound but which sinks away until, fifty yards away, it reaches the ground. From above the cairn and its appendage looks like a comet with its tail. Two or three hundred yards away is a ruined drystone structure which looks down onto the mound. At the sunrise on the longest day a shadow might be cast by the mound which would be in the same position and have the same size as the tail. Sadly the only solstice sunrise this was tested on was gloomy and shadowless.

A Victorian curate, just a couple of miles from here, was given a Middle Bronze Age two piece stone spearhead mould, and this is now in Tullie House Museum in Carlisle. Studies have been carried out on bronze spearhead types and this Croglin specimen is one of a kind. The mould was carved in soft sandstone and was intended to cast a spearhead in wax, with this wax impression later encased by fireclay, hardened and baked and finally cast in bronze. Also in Tullie House Museum is a spearhead, which is supposed to have been a second or a waster, found by a local person near Wolf Hills, four miles to the northeast. It's unlikely that a flawed spearhead would've been distantly traded and both exhibits support the theory of prehistoric bronze production on Alston Moor.

Broad Mea long cairn

Featherstone circle site in 2017

The national scheme to register small finds began from the Museum of Antiquities at Newcastle University. Each winter this writer took his haul of small found objects to the large Small Finds Officer. The small collection of stone tools, pieces of bogoak, and even a small cupmarked rock, were never recorded but simply handed back. The negligence of this behaviour is staggering and an entire field of vital research was stifled.

<  There was a little stone circle here, forever, and it consisted of seven small boulders. It's shown on the early 6" O.S. maps simply as Stone Circle. In the late 1980s the stones were prised out, by the tenant farmer, and left in a line beneath some nearby trees. By 2017 the stones had all disappeared.

This very large standing stone at Knarsdale has never been visited by an archaeologist. >

Green Hill standing stone
New finds near Ayle    <  Here's the latest find in the South Tyne Valley. It's shown in an enhanced LiDAR image (opposite - please click through) and the monument is near the middle at the bottom of the picture. The main river channel is Roberts Gill and flows into the Ayle Burn, which forms the county boundary, and then into the River South Tyne, a half mile north of Alston. The site is associated with the Bronze Age Kirkhaugh Barrow nearby and has been protected from medieval cultivation by drystone wall around it. A public footpath is nearby. Is it the remnants from a stone circle or is it some other kind of barrow complex? For the time being it will be called Ayle Henge.


David Aspinall, Westgate Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE4 6NQ, UK.
All rights reserved. Page updated: 25th November 2018