Rescued from the Sea

Excavation begins! © Copyright ARS Ltd 2018
Volunteers hard at work in a trowelling line. © Copyright ARS Ltd 2018
The half-eroded Bronze Age burial cairn once exposed and cleaned of loose sand. © Copyright ARS Ltd 2018

Low Hauxley, located at the northern end of Druridge Bay in Northumberland, is experiencing continuous erosion of the cliff face due to climate change which has caused sea levels to rise. The sand dune cliffs that line the coast are receding which means that archaeological and palaeoenvironmental remains contained within and below them is being destroyed.

The site of Low Hauxley lies to the south of Amble on the North East coast, close to Northumberland Wildlife Trust’s nature reserve. This particular part of the coast is very picturesque and is popular with cyclists, dog-walkers and bird-watchers. For the past 35 years, however, the site has caused concern amongst local people and archaeologists who have been keen to rescue the incredible, and very vulnerable, archaeological remains that have been eroding from the dunes.

A number of excavations since 1982 have successfully excavated and rescued parts of a Bronze Age cemetery consisting of cists (stone built coffins) containing both inhumations and cremations that were buried beneath circular mounds of stones known as ‘cairns’. What is more, discovered beneath the cemetery was a Mesolithic occupation layer that has produced over 20,000 worked flints and above the cemetery an Iron Age house rebuilt in Roman times was also discovered. Further evidence of Mesolithic and later activity has been found in adjacent ancient peat beds located to the north and south of the cemetery site. Impressed into the southern peat were over 100 animal and human footprints, thought to have been created in the Neolithic period. Both adult and child footprints have been identified as well as those of wild boar, red deer and aurochsen (a much larger ancestor of modern cattle). In addition, worked pieces of timber and a red deer antler have been recovered from the peat. Radiocarbon dating has confirmed that red deer antler is around 5000 years old and it is likely that the footprints are of the same age.

We were lucky enough to be visited by Time Team. © Copyright ARS Ltd 2018
We were joined by students from Newcastle University. © Copyright ARS Ltd 2018
A short-necked Bronze Age beaker that was found intact within one of the burial cists. © Copyright ARS Ltd 2018

Rescued from the Sea’ is a Heritage Lottery-funded project which aims to excavate and rescue what is left of the Bronze Age cemetery site, and underlying Neolithic and Mesolithic deposits before they are eroded into the sea. The erosion problem is only worsening and, if left untouched, the entire site will be lost to the sea within a few years. Enlisting the help of volunteers, local school children, university students and a number of experts and specialists, Archaeological Research Services Ltd, the Northumberland Wildlife Trust and Northumberland County Council ran a 13 week excavation from June to September 2013 to rescue and record as much as possible from the site prior to further erosion. The response from the local community was overwhelming and hundreds of people took part in the excavations.

Aside from its vulnerability, the site is important as it has the potential to shed light on Mesolithic settlement and Early Bronze Age burial practices in the coastal area of Northumberland. The excellent preservation of the archaeological remains and their direct link with environmental deposits that reveal what the landscape and vegetation were like in the past make the site a rare and valuable time capsule. They will offer many new insights into the prehistory of the region as well as Britain more generally once the analyses are completed.

Erosion and sea level change are not only major threats to coastal archaeology but also to the various forms of wildlife that inhabit the coastline. If you would like to know more about the investigations visit the Project’s website.

Copies of our Popular Book, ‘Rescued from the Sea: An Archaeologist’s Tale’ (£10) and of our monograph ‘Archaeology and Environment on the North Sea Littoral’ (£30) can be purchased directly from ARS Ltd, or from Hauxley Wildlife Discovery Centre. Instructions on how to order from ARS Ltd can be found here.

Wildlife Trusts
Archaeological Research Services Ltd