Wearside Echoes: Unearthing the secrets of hill

Doug Smith of the Sunderland Antquarian Society with the Hasting Hill burial ground plaque.
Doug Smith of the Sunderland Antquarian Society with the Hasting Hill burial ground plaque.
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THIS year marks the 100th anniversary of the discovery of an ancient Wearside burial ground. Today we take a look back to that time.

A RIDING expedition helped open a prehistoric window on Wearside’s past 100 years ago.

Durham antiquarian Dr Greenwell was left intrigued “in his younger days” after spotting what he believed might be an ancient burial site on Hasting Hill while out riding near Offerton.

Years later, in 1911, he approached fellow antiquarian C.T. Trechmann with a plan to excavate the area.

The idea won the support of both tenant farmer Thomas Brown and landowner Lord Durham.

“On seeking permission from Brown, the men were told of a find in 1827, when a skeleton had been uncovered with hair on its head,” 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 back to ancient times and the hair was actually 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 of the hill, with a top cap of stones.”

The enthusiastic historians spent four days digging on the hill, unearthing an “unusually large” number of objects – including human remains and food vessels – dating from around 2,000BC.

Details of the finds were later revealed by Mr Trechmann, who said: “First was a small oblong cist containing burnt bones and, mixed with them, 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 that 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 during the dig as well.

“A large slab of sandstone on the limestone floor covered a grave, in which the skeleton of a man was lying on its right side, with the knees doubled up,” added Mr Trechman.

“In front of the face was a drinking cup, a small flint knife lay in front of the body and, near the shoulder, lay a bone pin, having probably fastened some garment.”

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

“It was believed that the site contained the cremated remains of a least six people, as well as four who were not burned. Possibly other burials could have been 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 today, and a cast iron plaque was placed at Hasting Hill to mark the burial ground.

The plaque is now, however, held by Sunderland Antiquarian Society, after it disappeared from the hill many years ago and was later found discarded in the farmyard of Middle Herrington Farm.

“Although the initial great interest in the burial site gradually died away over the decades, the long hot summer of 1976 brought the Hasting Hill barrow back into the spotlight,” said Douglas.

“Aerial photos showed the hillside crops had grown in such a way as to disclose shady outlines, suggesting an early settlement or even a ceremonial way leading to a place of worship.

“Whatever the case, Hasting Hill provided further proof that hunter-gatherers once roamed this area. What a different place it would have been back then, though – full of wolves, deer and wild boar.”