When death was more a part of life

A commanding view from Ha' Hill.
A commanding view from Ha' Hill.

Death today is essentially a function of old age. If children or young people die, or even adults in their middle age, we rightly see this as a tragic exception to the rule.

It was not like that in earlier times. The recording of vital statistics dates only from the Births and Deaths Registration Act, 1836. But as far back as records of any kind go, even well-to-do people could expect some of their children to die young, and to meet their own end long before the biblical age of three-score years and ten.

At the western extremity of Ha' Hill, where an early Ceremony of the Dead is thought to have taken place.

At the western extremity of Ha' Hill, where an early Ceremony of the Dead is thought to have taken place.

The situation became worse with the Industrial Revolution. Working people were drawn into towns where overcrowding and insanitary conditions led to high rates of mortality.

The infant mortality rate in England and Wales, meaning children dying before their first birthday, is now 4.0 per thousand live births. But between 1850 and 1900 it varied from 130 to 170.

Death, in short, was even more a part of life then than it is now. And whereas, like it or not, we can expect to end our days in a care home or hospital, our ancestors generally did so at home.

Knowing that they could not avoid death, as indeed no one can, people in every age have coped with it by holding ceremonies and building monuments.

In this article, the first in an occasional series on the ceremonies accorded to people when they die, we look at the earliest example of such a ceremony in Morpeth.

It was discovered on Ha’ Hill by William Woodman in 1830. His memorandum of it appears in Hodgson’s History of Morpeth, p.25:

‘On Thursday, I made some further search....At the western extremity I found the remains of a cairn. It consisted of a quantity of stones piled together; and appeared to have been one of the rudest description.

‘On one part were a number of stones much larger than the rest: two or three of them were placed in a line on a level with each other, and appeared to have been formerly supported by other stones which had slipped from beneath them. On the soil beneath these stones, which were laid with some regularity, was a thin layer of very fine black earth; and, amongst it, a few fragments of bone.

‘From the stones which had been thrown aside, I picked a piece of coarse red pottery, unglazed, which had evidently been broken either from a larger fragment or from a perfect vessel....This tumulus, I am inclined to think, is of a date long anterior to the other ruins discovered on this hill, and entirely unconnected with them.

‘The top or crown of the cairn was probably removed after the veneration for it ceased, and thrown down the hill....Morpeth, 25 Dec., 1830.’

Woodman’s discovery raises questions. Received opinion is that the Normans artificially increased the height of Ha’ Hill by digging out a notch to separate it from the ridge to the west, and piling the spoil up on top.

If so, the remains Woodman found on the surface could only be about 900 years old at most, perhaps no more than the remains of a medieval hog-roast.

However, Lancaster University Archaeological Unit surveyed Ha’ Hill in 1999. Its detailed map shows the hill shaped like a hammer with a short handle, the hammer-head being the north eastern part, overlooking the Turner Garden, while the hammer-handle is the narrower south western ridge, cut short by the deep notch:

‘The south western side of the summit has an irregular surface, but across the north eastern side is a roughly sub-rectangular platform...which has an unusually level surface, in marked contrast to the rest of the summit, and is defined by sharp breaks of slope. These clearly defined platform edges, coupled with its flat surface, indicate that it is of artificial origin...”

This suggests that the spoil from the notch was piled up on the north eastern ‘hammer-head’, leaving the south western ‘handle’ with its original land surface.

No drawing survives of Woodman’s discovery, nor do we have the bit of unglazed pot or the bone fragments. But, giving it the benefit of the doubt, this looks like a cremation burial. If so, the ‘quantity of stones piled together’ would be the core of the burial mound, over which soil would have been heaped. The two or three larger stones were the capstones of the grave box, or cist, and any others its four sides. The coarse red pot was the beaker or food-vessel – more likely the latter – in which the calcined bones were placed, and the black earth the remains of the funeral pyre.

If so, it is an example of a type of burial found across Europe and the Middle East and dating from the early Bronze Age, c. 2400 to 1500 BC. But since the evidence is so slight and no material has survived to be re-examined, we cannot take this as fact.

Whatever its date, the tumulus could not have been large, and almost certainly housed a single burial. It was not one of the great communal burial mounds known as round and long barrows.

But what stands out is, first, that somebody died, and secondly that the person’s friends disposed of the body according to a well-established ritual, and interred the remains in a relatively elaborate structure where it had a commanding view of the Wansbeck valley.

It was this that caused Kennedy, in his Story of Morpeth Grammar School, p.117, to propose Woodman’s modest little cairn as the origin of the name of Morpeth. Ha’ Hill, he says: ‘is still a striking object to anyone entering Morpeth from the south and in early times, when no buildings except low huts competed with it, it must have been even more arresting...and...was the scene of one or more ancient burials.

‘We are thus led to an explanation of the name ‘Morpeth’... derived from two Celtic words, Mor – great, Beth – burial-place. In Welsh the words would appear as ‘Mawr Bedd’.’

Going back to the day, around 4,000 years ago, when the family of the dead paid their last respects to him or her, we do not know what ceremonies they performed, nor what words were said or sung. Nor do we know why they chose to cremate the body rather than bury it; but saving it from being devoured and scattered by animals is one possibility.

And although Woodman’s dismissal of the tomb as being ‘of the rudest description’ is right compared to a monument of polished marble, the trouble they took in making it was not negligible.

When the fire had cooled, the remaining bone fragments were gathered up into a pot. The grave box was made by digging a hole about two feet square, and lining the sides with flat stones.

The pot was placed inside, either right-way up or upside down, and sometimes an offering placed beside it.

The capstone was lowered into place, stones piled up over the cist and earth over the stones.

Grass and wild herbs grew over their last resting place. R.I.P.