On the trail of a prehistoric settlement

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It used to be thought that prehistoric man lived mainly on higher ground, and that the lowlands were comparatively unpopulated.

Up to about 1970, OS maps of what is now the Northumberland National Park have earthworks marked ‘camp’ all over them, while the lowlands had very few.

That changed with aerial photography. Depending on the weather, sites that are undetectable on the ground can show up clearly as crop marks.

Moreover, planning regulations now require opencast coal mines and other major developments to be preceded by an archaeological investigation, paid for by the developer. Because of this, we now know of Iron Age settlements at Blagdon, Pegswood and Great Park.

The Gubeon Cottage site was different.

In 1955 the late Roland Bibby noticed that an old plan of Morpeth Common named the field in the south western corner as Camp Field. “Although,” he says, “the Ordnance Survey large-scale maps indicate nothing of interest...the field name invited an inspection of the ground. The result was the discovery of a roughly circular, double-ramparted camp.”

He visited the site again to check its dimensions, and found it pegged out by the NCB in preparation for dumping spoil from an opencast somewhere near Tranwell. He noted that the views to north and south were long and wide, to the west, “shorter, but ample for defensive purposes”, but that a slight ridge on the east side, “wholly conceals the subsequent long descent from view”.

There were, however, two ‘sykes’ running north to the Whalton Road, which, before the days of field drainage, would have provided an outer defence of marshy ground. These are marked on his plan.

He discusses two references to a camp in this vicinity, one from Woodman and one from Hodgson, both of whom seem to have been referring to the Gubeon Cottage site, and both of whom, if so, got their bearings wrong.

Morpeth parish boundary runs along High House lane. The land west of it is in Mitford parish, including part of Morpeth Common, and Bibby identifies Camp Field with an obsolete place-name in Mitford parish called Aldworth — ‘ancient fortified place’.

By the time his paper appeared in the Proceedings of the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries (1951-56, p. 376), it was known that the site was to be opencasted so a study group from the Department of Extra-Mural Studies at King’s College, led by Mr George Jobey, later Professor Jobey, decided to undertake a series of excavations at the weekends during the early months of 1956. He was also helped by four workmen from the Ancient Monuments Branch for two weeks in April.

Jobey remarks that the site was unusual (at that time, that is) in being “on the easterly fringe of the recorded sites in the Wansbeck area”, and in being on boulder clay, rather than gravel or rock. The nearest comparable site was two miles away, at Camp House (notice the ‘camp’ again) near Whalton. But we now know, of course, of others at Blagdon and Pegswood.

The team dug a 6ft wide trench across the ramparts in the southwest corner, two larger ones in the interior, and some smaller ones. This exposed an old turf-line, representing the ground surface before the camp was built.

The ramparts had been deliberately cut down at some time, and the spoil dumped in the ditches, but the turf-line showed that the ditches went down about 3ft, and the ramparts perhaps 5ft above it. If so, the original height from ditch bottom to rampart top was about 8ft. So not a hill fort, but certainly a defended farmstead.

In the interior, they found an occupation level, “not more than two inches thick...composed of dark greasy earth containing smears of carbon, small pieces of coal and charcoal, and occasional quartz pebbles. It was from these areas that the majority of the sherds were recovered”.

These included one fragment of fine, factory-made pottery from France, called Samian ware, and the rim of a Romano-British coarse pot of the first or early second century. Most sherds, however, were of even coarser native pottery, much of it made by coiling. And although these were of two distinct types, they could not at that time be dated.

There were also three pits, which Jobey observes were not cooking pits, nor would they have been much good as storage pits, and were presumably just for rubbish. Near to one of the pits they found a rectangular sandstone slab and a pounding-stone of greywacke, a hard, coarse-grained kind of sandstone.

North of the pits was the outer rim of a hut circle, consisting of a shallow gully, about 20ft in diameter. There was evidence of a low stone wall within this circle, and a cobbled entrance on the east side. Here they found more sherds of native pottery.

Being on clay, the site was damp, and when, later, the scrapers removed the top layer of soil, they revealed a drain leading away from the gully on the north side. There was also the top stone of a rotary quern (handmill), another greywacke pounding stone, and a fragment of a first century glass vessel imported from Roman Egypt.

The second large trench produced an area of cobbles and sandstone flags, and part of the base of a rotary quern. When these were stripped away, they revealed, what looked like the edge of a second hut circle, again with a peripheral drainage gully.

When the contractors came on site to remove the overburden, Jobey spoke to the man in charge, who agreed to let the team go on site between passes of the mechanical scrapers to look around and pick up whatever they could. This revealed two more circular gullies, each of about 22ft diameter. There was just time to probe the silt in them, enough to show that they were for drainage and not foundations trenches, and to take photographs.

The last discovery, before the site was finally stripped, was particularly gratifying.

Between the two circles, “a small red stain led to the unearthing of a complete mortarium bowl of Hadrianic date (i.e. 117-138), resting in a small depression in the clay”. Mortaria are characteristically Roman kitchen utensils — heavily made bowls with grit embedded in the inner surface. To most of us, this would certainly be the most interesting find, but due, I suppose, to lack of space, there is no photograph of it.

If, in fact, the lady of one of the houses used it for its intended purpose, we have here a fascinating insight into the spread of Roman practices in the preparation of food amongst the native population.

Jobey’s report can be found in Archaeologia Aeliana for 1957, p.153.

Gubeon Cottage and the pump house have both been demolished, but you can view the surviving part of the monument, as seen from a satellite, by going on Google Earth.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to the Society of Antiquaries of upon Tyne and Mrs Kim Bibby-Wilson for permission to use the drawing by Roland Bibby.