Wearside Echoes: Is this the oldest Mackem?

The remains of one of the earliest Wearsiders - found at Hasting Hill in 1911
The remains of one of the earliest Wearsiders - found at Hasting Hill in 1911
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A PREHISTORIC window on Wearside’s past has been opened.

SUNDERLAND was once a thriving Bronze Age settlement – complete with ceremonial worship sites – according to new research.

A geophysical survey of land surrounding Hasting Hill has confirmed it served as a memorial complex between 3,700 and 3,300 BC, featuring burial chambers and ceremonial routes.

“It is a rare example of such a complex in the North East,” said Dr Jan Harding, a senior lecturer in archaeology at Newcastle University, who spearheaded the recent study.

“You don’t find many sites like this between North Yorkshire and Morpeth and, as such, it is really important. It was obviously a place of worship as far back as the fourth millennium.”

The discovery of the historic importance of Hasting Hill dates back more than a century, when eminent Durham historian Dr Greenwell spotted something “special” while out riding.

Years later, in 1911, he approached fellow antiquarian C.T. Trechmann with his theory that a burial site existed on the land – and together they developed a plan to excavate the area.

“On seeking permission from the farmer, Thomas Brown, the men were told of a skeleton with hair uncovered there in 1827,” said Douglas Smith, president of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“Local folk thought a murder had been committed, but Dr Greenwell believed that, because of its position, the body probably dated to ancient times and the hair was fibrous plant roots.

“At any rate, in early November 1911, the barrow on Hasting Hill was opened. It proved to be 40ft in diameter, nearly 3ft high, and built directly into the limestone with a cap of stones.”

The enthusiastic local historians spent four days digging on the hill, unearthing an “unusually large” number of objects – including human remains, pottery shards and food vessels.

Details of the finds were later revealed to Echo readers by Mr Trechmann, who said: “First was a small oblong cist containing burnt bones and fragments of highly-decorated burnt clay.

“Nearly adjoining was a cinerary urn, completely crushed and broken, containing calcified bones. Another cist contained incinerated bones and also a tooth, apparently of a young pig.”

More burnt bones were discovered in other caskets. Several decorated food vessels and a pick made from a stag’s antler, possibly used to build the chamber, were unearthed as well.

Other finds included the contracted skeleton of a woman, the skeleton of a second man, the remains of a “young child,” two flint saws, periwinkle shells and the bones of fish and birds.

“It was believed the site contained the cremated remains of a least six people, as well as four not burned and possibly the remains of other burials disturbed long ago too,” said Douglas.

“But there was something about the meagre objects found that suggested these early people did not possess much of value, and had little to deposit with their burials.”

The finds unearthed by Trechmann and Greenwell were later donated to Sunderland Museum, where they remain to this day, yet very little has since been documented about Hasting Hill.

“It has been known for many years that a Neolithic and Bronze Age monument complex existed in the area, but there has not been much written about it,” said Dr Harding.

“Our geophysical survey not only confirmed there is a large enclosure in the field close to the hill, possibly dating to the fourth millennium, but also a cursus monument right next door.

“This oval enclosure still has a question mark over its date, but I would say it is from the fourth millennium as well. There are several burial barrows, clusters of them, in the area too.

“It was a place of worship, where people were getting together thousands of years ago. Beyond that, we have yet to find out what else was there – something which should prove very interesting.”

Professor Harding has also discovered several other possible burial burrows through studying aerial photographs of the area, long since ploughed up however, and added:

“We looked at a relatively small area during our study but, if we had extended the site, I believe we would have found more clusters of Neolithic and Bronze Age relics.

“During our survey we found six or seven pieces of Neolithic flint in the nearby fields – all dating from the fourth millennium and products of manufacture, and all usable products.

“There were no definite tools amongst them, but I can say for definite that people were in the area of where Middle Herrington now is – making flint objects and using them.”

Dr Harding is now hoping to continue his studies of the area next year, and added: “My guess is that a little bit more research will throw up a lot more information.

“There are certainly enough Bronze Age relics to suggest a fairly large number of burial sites which, in turn, suggests that these were once part of a broader, more complex, landscape.

“There is a rich Bronze Age heritage to be found beneath the soil of Sunderland.”

Sidebar: Early findings

THE bones discovered within the Hasting Hill barrow in 1911 provided Wearside doctor Thomas Coke Squance with the chance to examine prehistoric remains at first hand.

“Regarding the primary deposit, that of a man’s skeleton, I would deduce he was about 5ft 4ins and about 50 years old,” he told a meeting of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“He probably had fair hair, blue or bluish grey eyes, with overhanging brows and very keen vision. His sense of hearing was very acute and he had the power of moving his ears.”

Dr Coke Squance believed the man would also have had high cheek bones, and a flat and broad nose – with “dilated and mobile nostrils – his power of smell being very keen.”

“His breathing capability was above our average, and he had great powers of endurance. The tips of his fingers reached below his knees,” added the doctor.

“Judging from the characteristics of his skull, he was possessed of fair intellectual power. We might look upon him as fearless, dexterous in chase, with powers of initiative in peril.”

Another Hasting Hill find to catch Dr Coke Squance’s attention were the bones of a woman, who he believed to have been aged around 60 when she died.

“The skull, while showing fair intellectual powers, was very peculiar The formation of the occipital bone (at the back of the cranium) approximating the type of the ape,” he said.

Dr Coke Squance went on to become president of Sunderland Antiquarians a few years later, but his modern-day successor, Douglas Smith, remains unconvinced of his “findings.”

“Although the doctor was certainly very well respected, both in the medical profession and as an antiquarian, he appears to have perhaps let his imagination run away a little here,” he said.

“Quite how he managed to determine eye colour from the remains of one of the men, or that he had ‘moveable ears,’ I don’t quite know. But it is certainly an interesting report.”