Clues to unlock the secrets of the past

Alan Barron.
Alan Barron.

Morpeth Rotary Club

David Jones is a physicist by education, a business strategist by trade, and a skilled and highly respected archaeologist by inclination.

As Secretary and Project Manager for Coquetdale Community Archaeology (CCA), he was invited to talk to Morpeth Rotary Club about how archaeology can help us understand what happened long ago.

The group has just won the National Parks 2018 volunteer award in a national competition covering all 15 parks for a project drawing together information on all of the archaeology that can be seen near the old tracks through the Cheviots.

The result was the publication of a beautifully illustrated book called The Old Tracks Through The Cheviots and a companion guide called Walking The Old Tracks Of The Cheviots.

CCA has been going for 10 years, is based around Rothbury and has 120 members, mostly from the Coquet Valley, Newcastle, Morpeth, Durham and Scotland, but with some from as far afield as Derbyshire and Kent. Ninety of them worked on the project.

David explained that although not a science itself, archaeology is dependent on some very advanced scientific developments.

Its attraction is partly a challenge to the brain and partly an appeal to feelings and emotions. It puts together many small pieces of information to find out about past societies and how people behaved.

He described the pleasure of holding a coin or a flint, knowing that it had been dropped hundreds or thousands of years ago.

One CCA project was the excavation of a lost medieval fulling mill built on the Coquet by the monks of Morpeth’s Newminster Abbey.

The mill, which tightened cloth and removed grease so that it could be tailored and dyed, was part of the monks’ wool-based business, but five miles upstream from Alwinton, it was a long way from Morpeth. David suggested there were good reasons for this.

First, the sheep would have been clipped locally, and it was easier to transport woven cloth away than unprocessed wool. With a farm nearby, the monks had local staff to oversee spinning, weaving and fulling.

In addition, the site was well away from the rules and regulations of the Morpeth guilds. Taxes could be avoided, lower wages paid and women and children employed.

Just over a dozen people live in the area now, but estimates of the numbers of shepherds needed to manage the sheep on the estate show that, together with their families, the population in the 1200s might have been 10 times greater.

Turning to the science, one of the technologies used by archaeologists is carbon dating.

All carbon in wood or bone contains a tiny amount of a radioactive variant. Half of this radioactivity decays every 5,700 years and by measuring the amount of what remains, it’s possible to find out when a tree was felled or a creature died.

Using this at the fulling mill showed the wood there had been felled between 1190 and 1270, which tied in with historical documents placing the mill’s construction to between 1226 and 1244.

It is also possible to use tree rings to give very accurate dates, and scientists have now built reference sets of rings going back for thousands of years.

Using these, a project in Somerset has dated the felling of timber for a wooden trackway over marshland to a six-month period, the winter of 3207 BC or the spring of the following year.

Spectroscopic techniques analyse reflected light to find the exact chemical content of stone objects, and find out whereabouts they came from.

Used on ceremonial axe heads dating from around 4000 BC and made of jadeitite, it’s shown that stone from two specific mountains in the French Alps was used by an axe making ‘factory’ on the coast of Brittany that supplied axes to places all over Europe.

Ice cores, some over two miles long, have been drilled in Antarctica and Greenland and deposits in them show changes in the atmosphere. Individual seasons are found for almost 100,000 years, and events such as meteor strikes and volcanic eruptions all show up.

One example was the massive explosion of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815. The dust in the atmosphere meant that 1816 became ‘the year without a summer’, with snowfall in May killing three-quarters of Cheviot lambs.

Ancient human pollution shows up as well; the state of the Roman economy can be tracked by measuring the lead pollution from smelting silver ore. It even shows the brief pause in silver mining resulting from Nero’s devaluation of the Roman currency in AD 64.

DNA also provides a window on the past. A social change called the Beaker Culture spread across Europe between 2600 BC and 2000 BC, but archaeologists were never sure whether this was just a spread of ideas or an invasion of people.

DNA studies have now shown that 90 per cent of the existing population in Britain was replaced in little more than a century. With no sign of violence, the most likely cause was the newcomers introducing diseases for which the local population had no resistance.

Questions included one on how tree ring dating could give such exact years. David explained this and later sent some of the research findings for information.

There was a warm vote of thanks from Alan Barron.