The Howick Mesolithic House
The Howick site lies on a particularly striking section of the Northumbrian coast near the village of Howick. The bedrock near here, interleaved layers of limestone and sandstone exposed by coastal erosion, is twisted and folded into amazing shapes and igneous whinstone cliffs are home to colonies of noisy seabirds. The North Sea batters this coast, rapidly eroding the sandy glacial till which overlies the bedrock.
In 1983 amateur archaeologist John Davies discovered Mesolithic flints, including microliths and some blades, eroding from the site. The discovery of more flint artefacts in January 2000 by Jim Hutchinson led to an investigation of the area by Dr Clive Waddington and Dr Nicky Milner of Newcastle University.
The site demanded an urgent investigation as the erosion which had led to its discovery presented a very real threat. Some areas of the site were already damaged by slippage down the cliff edge. In July 2000 a three-week investigation took place. A test excavation showed that there were archaeological remains below the reach of the plough on the site consisting of flints and charred material. A magnetometer survey hinted at the possibility of some other features to the north of the site.
A full investigation of the site took place between June and August 2002. A programme that included fieldwalking, geophysical survey, test-pitting, sediment coring, and soil analysis, as well as a large open area excavation around the site, meant this would become one of the most detailed Mesolithic excavations undertaken anywhere in Europe.
An excavation trench was opened over the erosion scar which had originally revealed the flint fragments. A series of pits and scoops emerged along with the stains ancient timbers had left in the soil. It became clear that the main feature of the site was a substantial circular structure averaging 6m in diameter. A mesolithic dwelling. The eastern portion of the structure, as seen in the photograph to the left, was lost to erosion but the remaining archaeological evidence was compelling.
The edges of the structure were defined by a line of stains in the sand and by a roughly circular series of post holes. The stains are all that remain of the ancient timbers. It is possible that the dwelling was rebuilt on the same site twice as there were successive rings of post holes discovered at higher levels sitting on top of deposits that covered the remains of the original post sockets. The building would have had a sunken floor and a series of deposits, around half a metre deep, were found containing a sequence of hearths. The structure had simply filled up with successive layers of debris indicating a long period of occupation.
It is not known if occupation at the site was permanent, semi-permanent or seasonal though it seems there were no considerable gaps between the occupations. Evidence, based on a series of radiocarbon dates obtained from hazelnut shells, indicates that the hut was used for at least a hundred or more years. The occupation layers also revealed flint, ochre, shell fragments and bone. Analysis of burnt bone from the hearths shows the presence of wild pig, fox, birds and either domestic dog or wolf.
The dwelling is truly ancient. Thirty-three radiocarbon dates from the site have been obtained and these date the construction of the first hut to around 7,800 BC. The Howick House is the earliest dated evidence for human settlement in Northumberland and is one of only a few Stone Age dwellings known from the British Isles.
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