Welcome to the first of the Belief in the NE blog entries. Hopefully these will give you something to read whilst we’re all confined to barracks. I thought we might start with some basic overviews of the archaeology to help set the scene – today we’ll start with early prehistory.
Although modern humans (homo sapiens) emerged as a distinct species between 350-250 000 years ago, Britain did have populations of Neanderthals and other relatives of modern humans before this date, with the earliest evidence coming from Norfolk dating to about 900 000 years ago.
However, in NE England, we have no evidence this old. This is not because there were not any settlers up here, but because during the Ice Age the glaciers covered most of the area, pushing the early inhabitants southwards and also destroying any traces they may have left. The only hints of these early Palaeolithic occupants are a very small number of battered flint tools, such as hand-axe washed up at Redcar. Occasional survivals of animal bones, such as a fragments of hippopotamus and rhinoceros from Teesside are reminders that the climate was very different to today’s.
The glaciers receded from the NE around 13,000BC leaving a landscape of woodland, marsh and rivers. At this time, the British mainland was still connected to the European landmass. Dryland stretched across much of the North Sea. In the NE of England, there has been considerable erosion of the coastline since this period, and in some cases several miles of land may have been lost It is probably that in this era there was a large deepwater channel or inlet that separated much of the NE coast from the land that lay where the North Sea now is – this drowned land is known to archaeologists as Doggerland. The landscape of NE England was widely forested and was home to a wide range of wildlife, such as Giant Elk, wild cattle, wolves and beavers.
The first settlers moving into this landscape following the end of the Ice Age probably began to arrive around 10000 years ago. These were hunter-gatherer groups – they lived through hunting wild animals and gathering plants, fruit and nuts. Archaeologists call this period the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age). These groups probably moved around the country on a seasonal basis, perhaps following herds of migrating animals. It is likely they spent the summer in the uplands where there was good grazing and then moved down towards the coast during the winter.
The main type of evidence we have for these people are simple worked flint tools. A distinctive aspect of these early flint tools is their size. They were often very small, sometimes only a centimetre or two long. These tiny blades would probably have been set into a larger wooden or bone handle to make a cutting edge. These tools are known as microliths (small stones) because of their size. The local inhabitants probably also used bone and antler to make tools – for example bone harpoon.
These Mesolithic people, with their nomadic lifestyles, probably mainly lived in simple huts or tents – not surprisingly, these have left little trace for archaeologists to find. However, at Howick on the Northumberland coast, archaeologists did discover the remains of one such structure. All that survived of this building were stake-holes where wooden supports had once been inserted into the sand to support them. These lay within a hollow or scoop in the sand that had clearly been created to provide some shelter for the encampment. There were even traces of the hearths where the settlers cooked their meals, alongside charred hazelnut shells, which showed how important nuts were to their diet. These nutshells could also be used by archaeologist for radiocarbon dating. This showed that the settlement dated to around 7,600BC. You can read more about the Mesolithic house at Howick here and here.
Religion and Ritual in early prehistory
We know very little about the religion of these first Mesolithic settlers – although it is almost certain that they had complex rituals and beliefs. In the modern day, anthropologists have shown that hunter-gatherers often have rich and complex mythologies and sacred ceremonies. However, these may not necessarily leave traces that an archaeologist could recognise. For example, natural feature, such as trees, springs and rocks were sometimes imbued with some symbolic significance. A rare example of possible Mesolithic religious activity is a small group of crudely carved deer cut into the rock at Goat’s Crag, Ford (Northumberland) – but it is difficult to be certain of its date. Evidence for Mesolithic burial is vanishingly rare in Britain- although we know from elsewhere in Europe that individuals were often buried, sometimes with simple grave-goods.