Prehistoric North East England

Timeline : Prehistory in the North East 10,000 BC to 43 AD

Duddo stone circle.
Duddo standing stones, a small stone circle in north Northumberland. Photo © David Simpson 2018

There has been a human presence in North East England for close to 10,000 years. Beginning with a scant population of ‘hunter gatherers’ in the Stone Age, followed by the first farmers with their ‘ritual landscape’ of henges and standing stones, through to the tribal Britons of the Iron Age on the eve of the Roman Conquest.

It is only then, after the first 8,000 years had passed, that our region’s recorded history begins with the arrival of the Romans. Even then, for the first four centuries, our story is left to Roman chroniclers for whom we were one small and distant part of a remote province in an empire that stretched across Europe.

Bamburgh Castle
Bamburgh Castle. Bamburgh is one of the longest continuously occupied sites in Britain. The castle rock has been occupied since the late Iron Age and the locality was familiar to Stone Age man. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Long before the Romans set foot on our shores, many long-forgotten stories were no doubt told and lands explored as they were shaped by the hand of man.

Season by season, year by year, setting suns would come and go and the skies of the scattered stars were worshipped. Tools were crafted, used and perfected. Families were loved and lost. Most of this vast era of time will remain forever an unknowable past, an enigma, but something of the story of those first 8,000 years can still be told thanks to archaeology and science. It is a grand and epic story, that is very much a part of our journey to the present, written into our landscape and into our very genes.

No going back | Timeline  | Go forward  to Roman era

350,000,000BC –  Rocks, Rivers, Mountains and Sea

The rocks and rich resources that shaped so much of our region’s future story were forged and fashioned long before man evolved, creating a landscape that set the scene for stories of settlements, saints, borders, battles, castles and coal.

We say a little about the rocks of our region in a feature covering North East Geology but our timeline intends to tell the human story. Yet, even in the course of human occupation our landscape has seen many changes, not just through natural erosion, or shifting sea levels but often through the changes brought about by man.

North East geology. A simplified map
North East geology. A simplified map © David Simpson 2020

100,000 to 10,000 years ago – Early Man in the World

Around 100,000 years ago early humans began their vast journeys out of Africa, gradually populating all parts of our planet. From 12,000 to 7,000 years ago (10,000  to 5,000 BC) the first agricultural societies began to emerge, initially in the Middle East. For a perspective on our region’s place in time, we might note that the familiar ‘ancient’ pyramids of Egypt were built from 2550 to 2490 BC, some two and a half thousand years before the recorded story of our region begins.

c10,000BC – The frozen North in ‘the Old Stone Age’

It was literally freezing in the North East at the beginning of its human story, with temperatures averaging zero degrees Celsius. Our sub-Arctic region was an unpopulated, sparsely vegetated Tundra that had only recently emerged from the retreating glacial ice sheet.

As the climate grew milder, vegetation and animals would move in: birch trees, fruit-bearing shrubs and of course larger animals, such as deer, providing a potential source of wood and food for wandering hunter gatherers in harsh conditions.

The very first of these men appeared in the North in the ‘Upper Late Palaeolithic’ period. Palaeolithic means ‘Old Stone Age’ – ‘lithic’ being an ancient Greek word for rock. The ‘Palaeolithic’ era marked an age when hunter gatherers survived using basic tools carved from antlers and bone.

The Tyne at Corbridge
The Tyne at Corbridge looking south west. Photo © David Simpson 2018

c10,000BC-8000BC – The First Northerners

Tools from this Palaeolithic period are relatively rare in our region but have been found as far north as the Tyne and Tees valleys. More prominent evidence comes from further south, notably the Victoria Cave near Settle, in Yorkshire’s Ribble valley which has revealed several bone and antler tools of the period.

Such early pioneers may not have been the first Northerners. In fact there had been a brief, warmer period during the Ice Age when the glacial Ice had briefly receded. If there had been any human visitors at this time, their traces were destroyed by the natural forces of the returning ice.

c8000BC – 4500BC – Middle Stone Age Men

The Palaeolithic age was succeeded by the Mesolithic or ‘Middle Stone Age’ period from around 8000BC though in general, these ages are defined by the kind of tools that were used or by the way in which man interacted with his environment. Generally and in the North in particular, the different prehistoric periods overlap considerably and should only be considered a general guide.

The Mesolithic period was an era characterised by the use of microliths, or small flints crafted into tools or spearheads for hunter gatherers. DNA studies seem to show that Mesolithic people and their predecessors in Britain and much of Europe had genetic similarities to modern day populations found in Estonia and Finland. They would have been the first to colonise Britain after the Ice Age.

c8000BC – Lake Pickering and Star Carr

Some of the earliest, most important sites in Britain for evidence of Mesolithic man are clustered on the fringe of our region around the former site of a shallow post-glacial lake to the west of Scarborough.

Here, a freshwater lake of prehistoric times was situated in the Vale of Pickering in the Seamer and Flixton areas. As well as the Mesolithic occupation, the site has evidence of activity from the earlier Palaeolithic era too. Archaeologists refer to this lake as ‘Lake Pickering’. Its best known archaeological site is Starr Carr where Mesolithic tools were manufactured. It was situated on a slope just above the shore of the lake.

Northumberland coast near Howick
Northumberland coast near Howick © David Simpson 2020

c7600BC Howick : Britain’s first known house

The remnants of a house discovered near a cliff at Howick on the north Northumberland coast by an amateur archaeologist in 2010 proved to be what was possibly Britain’s oldest known house. Highlighted initially by a collection of flints, a further investigation revealed the charred post holes forming a circle in the ground, marking the location of a prehistoric house with the remnant of a hearth inside its perimeter.

Using the analysis of roasted nuts consumed on the site, archaeologists dated the house to 7600BC and proved that it was inhabited for around a 100 years. Permanent habitations were thought to be rare in the Mesolithic period, when hunter gatherers mostly moved from site to site, though this was perhaps a settlement in seasonal use. The sea at Howick provided a source for food, including seals and fish and the site also had the advantage of a supply of fresh water, close by.

Budle Bay with Lindisfarne Castle in the distance. © David Simpson 2015

c7000BC – Mesolithic man loved the coast

The sites where Mesolithic flints have been located cover the entire Middle Stone Age period and are often located along the North East coast. Location sites include Tynemouth, parts of the Durham coast and locations in the Bamburgh area such as Budle Bay and Spindlestone Crags. There have been a few Mesolithic finds inland too, along valleys like the Tyne, Wear and Tees but Middle Stone Age man seems to have been especially attracted to the coast.

Old Hartlepool
Hartlepool, a submerged forest lies just off the coast near the docks. Photo © David Simpson 2018

c6810BC The ‘Filpoke Culture’ at Hartlepool

From the beginning of the era around 8000BC most of the microliths used by Mesolithic man in Britain fell into a category called ‘Broad Blades’ but a more geometric style of microlith called ‘Narrow Blades’ thought to originate on the Continent has been identified in what was once the then heavily forested area near Hartlepool. This is the earliest appearance of this type of microlith in what we now call England.

A local culture of using these blades at a location called Filpoke was identified as the earliest in Britain and dates to 6810BC.  At this time the Hartlepool area lay roughly at the end of a land bridge connected to Europe. This prehistoric link is still revealed by a submerged petrified forest of Special Scientific Interest just off the shore near Hartlepool docks. Further finds of the narrow blades in Scotland have since led to a new theory that an independent narrow blade culture developed there and spread south.

c5900BC – Britain literally breaks from Europe

Around 5900BC rising sea levels cut off Britain from the Continent, flooding the land bridge that connected the two.

c4500BC – A few hundred people in the North East

The human impact on the landscape of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic man was minimal and the estimated population for the entire North East region was in the hundreds. There were likely no more than 500 people living in the entire region of the North East and Yorkshire. In fact the whole population of Britain was still in its thousands. Man’s impact was to change this in extraordinary ways during the revolutionary Neolithic period.

The Neolithic Age 4500-2200BC

c4500BC – Ancestral links

The people of the Neolithic or ‘New Stone Age’ era were much more numerous than their predecessors and it is likely that they absorbed the earlier Mesolithic peoples. Research into identifying the origins of the Neolithic people in Britain and their practices have produced significant shifts in opinion over time and in truth this is still an area of ever-increasing knowledge.

Most recently new research has shifted towards (not for the first time) a view that the changes of the Neolithic era were due to an immigration of Neolithic people from Iberia into Britain. This is backed up by studies of DNA and reflects a late stage in a long-term movement of Neolithic people from Anatolia (modern day Turkey), where the Neolithic culture originated. The farming techniques that these people developed enabled rapid expansion of population and the subsequent colonisation of areas throughout Europe previously inhabited by smaller numbers of Mesolithic people.

Neolithic influences came to Britain several centuries later than neighbouring parts of Europe and the northern parts of Britain, including the North East, saw this  transition much later than  other parts of the island.

c4000BC – It’s getting warm

By around 4000 BC the climate had vastly improved and risen to its highest levels since the long-passed Ice Age. By this time it was on average some 4 degrees warmer than it is today in the 21st century.

c3500BC First Farmers

The development of farming and the associated cultures that sprouted from the changes it brought had a revolutionary effect on the landscape that in Britain is only comparable to the Industrial Revolution some 6,000 years later.

By 4000BC food production in the form of farming was adopted in the region, though hunter gathering still continued alongside these developments for many centuries to come. Utilising the land for keeping animals, along with new techniques such as the coppicing of woodland and even the preservation of meats with salt, enabled people to live a more settled life.

However, farming was perhaps not so well developed in the early Neolithic period in the North East as it was elsewhere. It was not until around 3500BC that man’s impact on the landscape started to gain ground. Even then it did not bring a complete end to the earlier ways of life. Hunter gathering activity continued in places where flints, a feature of the earlier Mesolithic era, were still in use as late as the Iron Age, at for example Riding Mill in the Tyne Valley.

c3000BC – The ‘Ritual Landscape’

The Neolithic or ‘New Stone Age’ was a revolutionary era that saw a physical impact on the landscape through extensive modifications and clearances for faming but also from the impact of permanent physical reminders of the human presence and culture. Henges, standing stones, cup and ring rock markings and stone circles became part of what archaeologists call ‘ritual landscapes’ serving as lasting reminders of the ancient human presence.

Milfield Plain, site of Maelmin
Milfield Plain, site of Maelmin Photo © David Simpson 2018

c2500BC – Milfield Basin : A Neolithic heartland

The most remarkable prehistoric ‘ritual landscape’ in the North East is the Milfield basin (or Milfield Plain) near Wooler in North Northumberland and this was perhaps the most populous part of the region in Neolithic times. Remarkably, in addition to the numerous prehistoric sites it accounts for over 90% of the North East’s Neolithic pottery finds.

Forming a broad basin, the centre of Milfield Plain is drained by the River Till which here is joined by the Wooler Water from the south and the River Glen from the west. Milfield Plain is enclosed by the Cheviot Hills on its west side and by Doddington Moor to the east.

Six Neolithic henges can be found in this basin. Their locations are at Milfield North, Milfield South, Coupland, East Marleyknowe, Ewart and Akeld Steads. All are situated on the west side of the basin between the River Till and River Glen along with an outlying henge at Yeavering on the south side of the Glen.

Three of the henges (Marley Knowe, Coupland and Milfield South) lie close together and are more or less linked by an ancient avenue that passes through the Coupland Henge at the centre. This seems to be the largest and oldest of the Milfield henges. Although the henges have been excavated they are all now buried monuments, ploughed over with little or nothing visible on the ground or even in aerial photographs. However a reconstruction of the North Milfield Henge can be seen within the Maelmin Heritage Trail. It stands a short distance from the site of the original henge, which has been dated to 2300BC.

Henge reconstruction at Maelmin.
A Henge reconstruction at Maelmin in the Milfield basin. Photo © David Simpson 2018

c2500BC – Henges

When people think of a henge they might picture a stone circle such as the famed Stonehenge in Wiltshire. In fact a ‘henge’ is not a stone circle but a circular or oval feature consisting of an earth bank and an inner ditch. Henges form a space that perhaps served as some kind of temple or location of sacred significance. Henges are Neolithic and early Bronze Age in origin and mostly developed from just before 2000BC. Sometimes standing stones or stone circles (as happened at Stonehenge) were later erected within these spaces.

The Bendor Stone
The Bendor Stone near Wooler. Photo © David Simpson 2018

c2500BC – Milfield standing stones

Associated with the henges on the southern fringes of the Milfield Basin are two Neolithic standing stones to the south of the River Glen. One is the ‘Bendor Stone’ near Humbleton Hill in the east and the other is the so-called ‘Battle Stone’ near Yeavering Henge to the west.

c2500BC – Thornborough Henges : Orion’s Belt

Like the Milfield Basin, the Vale of Mowbray, between Boroughbridge and Northallerton in North Yorkshire seems to have been a significant heartland of Neolithic activity. The most remarkable monuments here are the Thornborough Henges in the open fields of the vale just north of the River Ure. If truth be known it is best appreciated from aerial photographs. The henges at Thornborough are thought to be roughly contemporary with those at Milfield and most notably comprise of three close together henges, with the most northerly now forming a circular wooded copse.

The three henges are linked by a belt-like, mile long cursus with a slight kink in the alignment that quite remarkably matches the three stars of Orion’s belt in the constellation of that name. Nearby are a number of associated burial tumuli. Neolithic people were much more tuned to the stars and celestial activity than we are today and of course there was no light pollution.

The cursus itself – a typical cigar-shaped avenue-like feature bordered by ditches, predates the henges. A further three henges can be seen further to the south east on the same alignment as the others but are quite distant and separate from the three main henges of the belt and are not close together. They are located to the east of Ripon. All of these aligned henges point in the direction of the Devil’s Arrows.

c2500BC – Devil’s Arrows and the Rudston Stone

It may be significant that even allowing for the slight kink in the alignment of the main three, the six aligned henges at Thornborough point to the Devil’s Arrows at Boroughbridge, some nine miles to the south of Thornborough’s ‘Orion’s Belt’. The Devil’s Arrows are situated just to the east of the old A1 (here roughly following the Roman Dere Street) and consist of three very prominent standing stones (menhirs) that are 20 feet high with a further 5 feet buried beneath the ground.

The Devil’s Arrows are not the tallest standing stones in the United Kingdom as that honour goes to the Rudston Stone, a monolith that stands 25 feet from the ground in the East Yorkshire village of Rudston near Bridlington. The stone that was excavated for this Neolithic or Early Bronze Age monument came from Grosmont in the North York Moors, some 28 miles away.

View from the top of Hastings Hill on the outskirts of Sunderland. The most important Neolithic site between Wooler and Thornborough. The Neolithic site includes the hill and the whole length of the field you can see in the photograph. © David Simpson 2021

c2500BC – Hasting Hill and Copt Hill

Hasting Hill (or ‘Hastings Hill’) is the most notable Neolithic site between the Tyne and Tees and as a location continued to be of importance into the Bronze Age. It is situated on the western outskirts of Sunderland close to the A19 on the Magnesian limestone hills that dominate the eastern part of County Durham. The Magnesian Limestone area has extensive evidence of Neolithic woodland clearances.

Hasting Hill’s Neolithic site consists of a causewayed Neolithic enclosure plus a 400 metre long cursus that disappears into neighbouring fields. There are associated surrounding barrows with burials dating from the Bronze Age. Pottery has been found in the neighbourhood that dates from the second millennium. The layout of the Hasting Hill site indicates that it was not defensive and possibly represented a tribal market centre.

The Copt Hill Neolithic burial site near Houghton-le-Spring

About three miles to the south near Houghton-le-Spring and possibly linked to Hasting Hill is Copt Hill, a prominent Neolithic burial site with trees growing from within. It has traces of activity going back to Mesolithic times. The site is known locally as the Seven Sisters. Just to its east, Warden Law forms the highest point in the area and hosts a barrow tumulus that contained the burial of a woman and child.

Cup and Ring markings on Doddington Moor
Cup and Ring markings on Doddington Moor. Photo David Simpson

c2500BC – Northumberland’s Cup and Ring Enigma

Incised ‘Cup and Ring’ rock markings associated with the Neolithic and early Bronze Age period are an enigmatic feature of the time. They are primarily focused upon the northern and central parts of Northumberland which form Britain’s cup and ring heartland. Markings are focused upon the sandstone fells such as Doddington Moor on the east side of the Milfield Basin near Wooler and near the Routing Linn waterfall.

Further to the south in Coquetdale, a particularly dense concentration occurs around Lordenshaws hill fort near Rothbury, though the fort itself is from the much later Iron Age. Cup and Ring markings usually consist of concentric rings, a central cup-like recess and an adjoining channel. However, their actual purpose and meaning is unknown.

c2500BC – Cup and Ring markings beyond Northumberland

Cup and ring markings have been identified at Prudhoe in the south of Northumberland and at Ryton to the south of the Tyne. They can also be found in County Durham, Cumbria, Yorkshire and some places beyond. A number of examples can be found in Teesdale, notably at Barningham Moor and a small number have been found in central Durham at Witton Gilbert in the Browney Valley to the south of Charlaw Fell. In Yorkshire they are significant at Rombald’s Moor and Addingham Moor near Ilkley. Other cup and ring markings have been found as far away as Ireland.

Duddo Stone Circle
Duddo Stone Circle. Photo © David Simpson 2018

c2500BC – Stone circles in the North East

Although Northumberland’s prehistoric landscape is extremely rich, the few stone circles that can be seen in the county are relatively modest. The little stone circle known as the Duddo Five Stones is particularly pleasing and has some very fine views across to the Cheviots and north to Scotland. Other stone circles include the Three Kings near Otterburn in Redesdale.

View of the Cheviots from the Duddo stones.
View of the Cheviots from the Duddo stones. Photo © David Simpson 2018

c2500BC – Cumbrian Stone Circles

Stone circles can be the most spectacular Neolithic monuments and in Britain some of the best examples are just outside our region, across the Pennines in Cumbria. Here there are twelve prominent examples, the two most notable being Castlerigg and the intriguingly named ‘Long Meg and Her Daughters’.

The larger of the two is Long Meg and her Daughters (Long Meg being the name of the prominent stone that dominates the others). It lies to the east of the River Eden between Penrith and Alston so it is not very far outside our region.

Castlerigg, near Keswick, has perhaps the best setting of any English stone circle and some may find it more atmospheric than Stonehenge, being surrounded by the Cumbrian mountains on all sides which create an almost outer distant circle that frame the whole setting.

The Bronze Age 2200BC – 700BC

2000BC Bronze Age and Beaker Peoples

In many respects the Bronze Age seems to have been a continuation of the Neolithic period and particularly in the North East. The use and manufacture of Bronze in this period within our region was less substantial than in other areas of the island including neighbouring Yorkshire and Scotland.

Another important feature of this era was the development of the Beaker Culture which included a number of distinct associated cultural features and artefacts including drinking beakers. The archaeological impact of this culture is not particularly significant in the North East but it seems to have had a major impact on Britain’s Neolithic society.

Until around the 1960s it was thought that the Beaker culture came about as a result of significant immigration into Britain but then the shift in opinion moved towards the view of cultural exchange through the import of ideas, styles, fashions and technologies – a cultural import.

However, in 2017 opinions shifted once again when a paper was published exploring genetic evidence that demonstrated a profound change in the genetic make up of the people of Britain resulting from an influx of people associated with these Beaker developments. The evidence pointing to a Lower Rhineland and Low Countries origin for these new people has been identified. They seemingly came to be the dominant people of Britain within a few centuries.

c1440BC – Getting cold and becoming defensive

Whether it was due to a new influx of people is not clear but there were certainly some signs of change in the Bronze Age North East, with a move into enclosed sites in upland areas that seemed increasingly defensive in nature.

Eston Nab
Eston Nab © David Simpson 2021

Some defended Bronze Age sites like the prominent Eston Nab just south of Middlesbrough would develop into tribal hill forts, during the later Iron Age. The increase in population and the more marked social hierarchy that first started in the Neolithic age may have contributed to a more defensive focus in the competition for land.

Climate was likely another factor in the increased competition for resources. From around 1440BC Britain experienced worsening climate conditions which may have left the occupation of some upland areas increasingly difficult.

Upper Weardale scenery near Westgate.
Weardale. Photo © David Simpson 2018

c800BC Heathery Burn Cave Bronze Age Hoard

One major late Bronze Age find of national significance in the region was the discovery of over two hundred items in the Heathery Burn Cave near Stanhope in Weardale, County Durham. First identified in the eighteenth century, the cave site was investigated more thoroughly in the mid 19th century and the impressive array of items are now in a number of museum collections including the British Museum. Items included a gold bracelet along with copper alloy swords, rings, axe heads, spearheads and a bucket.

Pottery was also included in the hoard as well as other items manufactured from flint, bone and antlers. Some of the most intriguing features from the Heathery Burn find are four copper alloy nave bands – or broad band-like rings that formed the central hub of spoked wheels. This seems to be the earliest evidence for the use of the wheel in Britain. The Heathery Burn cave hoard was excavated by the famed northern archaeologist, Canon William Greenwell from 1859 to 1872 but the cave itself was later destroyed through quarrying.

Kirkcarrion © David Simpson 2021

A rather enigmatic Bronze Age site can be found at Kirkcarrion, a hill top location in the Pennines near Middleton-in-Teesdale. Here a copse of pine trees (planted in Victorian times) cover a Bronze Age tumulus.

In local folklore this is reputed to be the burial place of an ancient chief called Prince Caryn. Indeed the name is thought to derive from the Brythonic Caer Caryn – the fortified place of Caryn. If this were true the name would be a spectacular survival from distant times, given that we only know the names of a small handful of people from the ‘prehistoric’ period and all of those lived in the very late Iron Age at the time of the Roman Conquest.

Iron Age 700BC to AD43

c700BC Metallurgy

Although the use of iron in the manufacture of weaponry and agricultural implements became a feature of this period, its impact  within the North East was limited and relatively late though its utilisation had a notable effect on agriculture and deforestation within the last century BC.

Brandon
Countryside to the west of Brandon near Durham City where iron smelting took place in the Iron Age. Bronze Age burials have also been discovered in the Brandon area.  © David Simpson

One notable find relating to iron production were bowl-shaped furnaces cut into rock with recesses for bellows and used for smelting. This was discovered at a palisaded Iron Age round house site at West Brandon in the hills to the west of Durham City.

c700BC – The Age of Hill Forts

The Iron Age era, like the Bronze Age that preceded it was marked by increased social change and pressures that were exemplified by the relatively rapid emergence of numerous defended upland habitation sites called hill forts.

Yeavering Bell
Yeavering Bell. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Some of these forts were developed from earlier defensive Bronze Age enclosures and initially the early defended Iron Age sites were enclosed by timber palisades. The need to defend was especially noticeable in the pastoral culture of the Cheviot Hills from around 700 BC. As well as providing secure defended shelter for people, the palisaded enclosures were used to corral animals.

Their defensive nature reflected tensions over land ownership associated with increasing population and scarcity of resources. In time, the larger hill forts (which were in effect defended towns containing many habitations) abandoned the palisades in favour of walled ramparts created from deep ditches. The very largest and most sophisticated hill forts were built with ramparts in multiple layers.

Hill fort site at Old Bewick.
Hill fort site at Old Bewick. Photo © David Simpson 2018

c700BC – Iron Age hill forts in Northumberland

Iron Age hill forts of varying sizes are extraordinarily numerous in Northumberland. They include Lordenshaws, Old Bewick, Ros Castle and Yeavering Bell, as well as notable coastal sites such as Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh and Tynemouth. Yeavering Bell is the largest of the Northumberland hill forts where archaeologists have uncovered the sites of 130 huts for occupants who lived within its walls, making the Yeavering hill fort site a virtual town.

Hill forts in the north are most dense in the area extending from the River Coquet in mid Northumberland to the Firth of Forth in Scotland. It seems to represent the area associated with the Votadini and Selgovae tribes. This highly defended region corresponds closely with the much later Border frontier zone situated between the later kingdoms of Scotland and England. However, it would be in the post-Roman era, several centuries later, that the English (Angles) arrived from the continent and Scots (Scotti) arrived from Ireland to settle in the respective countries that bear their names.

The two biggest hill forts in this heavily fortified region lie in what are now the Scottish Borders. They are Traprain Law and Eildon Hill which were possibly the respective capitals or ‘Oppidum’ of the Votadini and Selgovae. Eildon Hill or the ‘Eildon Hills’ near Melrose overlook the River Tweed and consist of three peaks. It is the most northerly peak of the three that formed the hill fort. Later the Romans would build an important fortress on Dere Street nearby, which they called ‘Trimontium’.

Eildon Hills from Carter Bar
The three peaks of the Eildon Hills in the Scottish borders viewed from Carter Bar in Northumberland. The most northerly peak on the right was the site of a huge Iron Age hill fort. © David Simpson 2020

c700BC – The Brigantes and their territory

The territory of the Brigantes seems to have stretched across much of the North and they formed the biggest tribe in the whole of Britain at the time of the Roman invasion. Roman historians described the Brigantes’ territory as stretching from coast to coast. The Brigantes’ Roman name means ‘high ones’ and reflects their dominance of the hilly terrain centred upon the Pennines.

In fact the Brigantes formed a confederacy of several smaller tribes in what seems to have been a sturdy alliance. It is thought the Brigantes’ confederated territory stretched north of the Tyne but perhaps not into north and central Northumberland. It is not altogether clear whether neighbouring tribes such as the Votadini and Selgovae in the North; the Carvetti in the west or the distinct Parisi tribe in East Yorkshire formed part of the Brigantes’ confederation but there were likely fluctuations in tribal relationships over the centuries.

Main Iron Age tribes at the time of the Roman invasion of Britain.

Interestingly, hill forts in the vast heartland of the Brigantes’ territory are relatively sparse when compared to the Cheviot area of north Northumberland. This suggests a greater degree of stability within the Brigantes’ territory that was perhaps due to a successful centralised authority.

The Yorkshire hill forts of Carl Wark, Wincobank Fell and Mam Tor in Derbyshire are all situated in the Pennines near Sheffield and lie along what were the borderlands of the Brigantes and the neighbouring rival midland tribes called the Cornovii and Corieltauvi. Intriguingly this border corresponds quite closely to the much later border between the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia in post-Roman times.

Ingleborough from Ribblehead
Ingleborough Hill (on the right) in Yorkshire, the site of an Iron Age fort © David Simpson 2005

Another major Brigantian hill fort is situated at Barwick in Elmet and it is interesting that Barwick would lie at the heart of a later post-Roman ‘Celtic’ region called Elmet that was absorbed by the Kingdom of Northumbria at a relatively late stage in that kingdom’s development.

A significant number of the few hill forts that can be found in the Brigantes’ territories are of considerable size and some are found on very prominent locations such as Ingleborough Hill in the Pennines. Others include Almondbury near Huddersfield and the aforementioned Barwick, both impressive hill fort sites occupying strategic locations that were later utilised after 1066 by the Normans who built castles within these ancient sites.

The River Tees at Piercebridge.
The River Tees at Piercebridge. Photo © David Simpson 2018

c700BC – Stanwick and Hill forts in north ‘Brigantia’

Hill forts in the Tyne to Tees region include Shackleton Beacon near Heighington, Eston Nab on the hills overlooking the south side of the Tees Valley, Toft Hill near Bishop Auckland and possibly Maiden Castle near Durham City.

The biggest and most significant hill fort in the whole Brigantes region is, however at Stanwick St John. It is located only two miles south of the River Tees near Piercebridge and considered to be the late Iron Age capital of the Brigantes at the time of the Roman invasion. Stanwick is situated in a relatively low lying location and was likely more of a town and trading centre than a defended site.

c700BC – Parisi – ‘Arras culture’ and ‘chariot burials’

It was the Romans that gave the names to the tribes of Britons who inhabited our islands. These names were often lazily designated from observations of the tribal culture or simply derived from the tribal locations. What the tribes actually called themselves, we do not know.

‘Brigantes’ was the name the Romans gave to the biggest tribe in Britain but also the name given to a presumably quite separate tribe in Ireland. The island of Ireland was never conquered by the Romans and it’s not known if there was a  specific connection between the two tribes of that name.

Just as intriguing is the name of the Parisi tribe in East Yorkshire and the Yorkshire Wolds. Parisi was also the name the Romans gave to a Celtic tribe in Gaul (modern day France) and their name survives in the name of the present day city of Paris. Paris was the tribal capital of the Gaul-based Parisi tribe though Paris itself was then called Lutetia.

The Romans may have recognised that the East Yorkshire tribe of the same name had strong cultural links to the continent and this has been verified by archaeology. One notable aspect of the Parisi of Yorkshire was their ‘Arras culture’ (named from an East Yorkshire village near Market Weighton). This features so-called ‘Chariot burials’ in which two-wheeled traps were buried with the dead.

c700BC – Iron Age farms and settlements

Hill forts are the most impressive feature of Iron Age occupation in the north but in truth most people would have lived in small enclosed farmsteads with thatched round houses situated across the lowland areas and upland fringes. There were hundreds upon hundreds of these and many are revealed by aerial photographs or archaeological investigations.

Excavated examples include a settlement at Thorpe Thewles near Stockton and another a little to the north at Coxhoe near Durham City. Such settlements would continue to be occupied or develop throughout the three and a half centuries of Roman rule, their simplicity contrasting with the sophistication of the Roman forts and their associated trading settlements and towns. Many Iron Age settlements were very likely lost to the subsequent development of later medieval villages in post-Roman times.

No going back | Timeline  Go forward  to Roman era

Prehistory, continuity and legacy

Despite the absence of records that mention actual people and actual events, the legacy of the prehistoric period cannot be ignored in the consideration of the later periods of our region’s history.

Comparison of timescales for modern and prehistoric periods. Only that part of the Palaeolithic period in which the North East became habitable by man is shown. The bright-coloured sections at the bottom represent eras from our Timeline and encompass the entire period from the Roman invasion in AD43 to modern times.

Firstly DNA studies have demonstrated that most Britons today can trace their origins back to these early peoples, despite the waves of Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans that followed the prehistoric era. Many places and settlements and the creation of the landscapes and perhaps even the regional identities we can still find today may have been developing their roots long before the Romans arrived.

On the maps we can only see the legacy of these ancient times in the countless vestiges of  barrows, ‘howes’, ‘tumuli’, hill forts, henges and standing stones, but how many of our landscape features and settlements with their mostly Anglo-Saxon names actually have their beginnings in these earlier times?

River-names, language and Cumbric culture

In the names of locations it is notably our river-names that still provide one strong link with the distant prehistoric periods. River-names are generally the oldest surviving name features in the landscape, being ‘Celtic’ in origin or linked to a much earlier conjectural early proto-European language called Indo-European.

It is not entirely clear, or even certain, but it seems that most of the Britons who were the inhabitants occupying our island on the eve of the Roman invasion spoke a Celtic ‘Cumbric’ language akin to the Welsh spoken today.

It is also unknown when this language may have been introduced to Britain. Had a Celtic language already evolved by Neolithic times for example? How long Celtic had been spoken in the North and in Britain as a whole we cannot say and we cannot even be certain if it was spoken everywhere.

We can’t even turn to the Romans for an answer on the languages of Britain at the time of their conquest and beyond. The Romans had only a passing, superficial and vague interest in the culture and languages of the countless ‘Barbarian’ tribes who they brought under the wing of their Empire across Europe. They used Latin or at least Latinized names for tribal people and the places they inhabited.

Survival beneath the surface

However, during the three and half centuries of Roman occupation those late native Iron Age, cultures somehow survived beneath the surface, albeit in a suppressed and Romanised form. Something survived despite the lengthy Roman occupation with all its historical focus on campaigns, conquest and consolidation of power enforced through the freeways and forts of the Roman system of roads and rule.

As the tribal natives re-awoke into the dark and dangerous world of the post-Roman era there were still traces of the cultures and characteristics of those tribal regions and ancient peoples that had existed long before the time of the Romans.

In the far north of the region the Votadini re-merged in the Forth-Tweed region as ‘the Gododdin’ their new name perhaps reflecting their true Celtic identity name rather than a Romanised label.

At the far southern extremity of the new ‘Northumbria’ region in East Yorkshire, in what would be early ‘Deira’, lay a Celtic kingdom that was subtly and gradually brought under the control of the mercenary Anglo-Saxon leaders. The land of Deira focused upon the wolds and forests of the Yorkshire Derwent with its ‘Celtic’ name   and corresponded almost exactly with that of the earlier territory of the Parisi tribe just north of the Humber. Further south still in a region near Leeds, a small kingdom called  Elmet was centred upon Barwick, still dominated by the old site of its Iron Age fort.

Whatever happened to the Brigantes?

The Brigantes, who had of course been the largest tribe in pre-Roman Britain are harder to trace in the post-Roman era. Perhaps this was because their territory lay mostly to the south of Hadrian’s Wall in a highly militarised zone where the Roman subjugation of the north was at its strongest. Perhaps it was due to their confederated nature, that left their role in uniting those minor tribes, redundant under Roman rule.

During the Roman occupation the Romans made York, (an ancient pre-Roman Celtic settlement) their Roman and military capital but they also established a civilian Roman tribal ‘capital’ or ‘civitas’ for the Brigantes. This they called ‘Isurium Brigantum’ a centre from which they administered, taxed and attracted civilians showcasing their sophisticated urban life. It was situated at Aldborough on the edge of Boroughbridge – the very place where the Devil’s Arrows of Neolithic times can still be found.

To the north of here, half way towards the ancient Thornborough Henges, lies the little city of Ripon near the banks of the Ure with its great cathedral forming an eye-catching landmark for miles around. Ripon’s seemingly Anglo-Saxon name is unusual as it designates a significant tribal group ‘the Hyrppe’ who are remembered also at Ripley to the south. Ripon was of course a place that would play a key part as a spiritual centre of Northumbrian culture in the age of St Wilfrid and St Cutbert, the latter of whom had been a noble who began his Christian career in the Northumberland monastery of Melrose in the shadow of the Iron Age fortified site of Eildon Hill.

Ad Gefrin palace site
This field was once the site of the Ad Gefrin palace. Photo © David Simpson 2018
Northumbrian palaces in the ritual landscape

We mentioned the close connection of the south Brigantian border to the Northumbria-Mercia frontier of later times but yet another compelling case for continuity comes with the re-emergence of Milfield Plain as a centre for cultural focus in the post Roman era.

It was King Edwin, a Deiran and early Anglo-Saxon King of Northumbria who established the palace of Ad Gefrin in the valley of the Glen nearby. Here it lay, in good company, at Yeavering, shadowed by the Iron Age fort of the Yeavering Bell on the overlooking hill top and nearer still to the neighbouring Neolithic henge and a standing stone of much earlier times.

It was at Yeavering that mass Christian baptisms took place in the Glen, overseen by Edwin and the missionary, Paulinus of Rome. Here too at Yeavering alongside the palace, an auditorium was erected for the grand assembly of the elite, and maybe including a commoner or two, where the king and other nobles, or perhaps poets and performers could address the Northumbrian people.

Later, another powerful Anglo-Saxon king, a Bernician, Oswald, built a new palace site, this time near Milfield itself, at a place called Maelmin. And so, two successive Royal palaces of the Northumbrian kings would stand, built long after those ‘wall country’ Romans had gone, leaving behind their arrow-shot roads and stone-hearted, fancy forts. In the far north on the magical Milfield Plain, the timber palaces of the kings would fall and fade too, yet another faint trace of a forgotten past in an ancient ritual landscape nestled beneath the stars; another closed chapter in a story that was already thousands of years old.

Looking towards the Ad Gefrin site from the roadside
Looking towards the Ad Gefrin site from the roadside. Photo © David Simpson 2018.

Go forward in time (Roman Conquest timeline)

Timeline | Home

North East England History and Culture