Durham Dales – The Castles

Graham and I headed over to Hamsterley to have a look at a strange site called The Castles. Graham told me that despite modern archaeological investigations, including a visit by the Time Team Archaeologists, no one has been able to fully explained this strange site.

Mao

An archaeological evaluation was undertaken by Channel 4’s Time Team at The Castles, a Scheduled Monument at West Shipley Farm, Hamsterley, believed to be the remains of a fortified site of Late Iron Age, Romano-British or post-Roman date. The investigation included evaluation trenching and geophysical and standing remains surveys, the results of which are briefly summarised in this article. Although clearly constructed by a substantial workforce as a defensive fortification, there is little evidence to indicate what the site was used for or its date.

Abstract from McKinley, J. I., (2014). ‘The Castles’, West Shipley Farm, Hamsterley, Co. Durham. Durham Archaeological Journal (19). Vol 19, pp. 105-106.

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The monument remains enigmatic both in terms of date and function. Though clearly constructed by a substantial work force as a defensive fortification, there is little evidence to support by whom and for what it was used. It may have served as a demonstration of power, its use may have proved unnecessary by change of circumstances, or occupation may only have been temporary or seasonal. The date of  the original construction seems most likely to be Late Iron Age, with possibly post-Roman reuse of parts of the structure 

Summary detail from ‘The Castles’, West Shipley Farm, Hamsterley, Co. Durham
Archaeological Evaluation and Assessment Results. Wessex Archaeology. Report reference: 65303.01. May 2007

 

We drove along the narrow lanes to the farm entrance and walked along the public footpath to the farmyard. The friendly farmer was busy unloading a feed tanker but stopped to point out the right of way across his land. We walked down the extremely sodden fields towards the copse of woods that enclosed the site.

The site is located on a hillside midway between the ridge top and the valley bottom. It has views along the valley to wards to confluence of the Harthope and Bedburn Becks and then further east to the Wear Valley.

Lidar

Wessex Archaeology / Time Team report here

Map reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

LIDAR  Image from here

Into Eden

For the past two decades or so I have been researching the links between Cumbria and North Yorkshire. For most of that time my researches have focussed upon Prehistory and the movement of people, objects and beliefs.

In recent years my focus has broadened and I’ve become interested in the post- Roman period, a time when our identity was more about being Northern than being English. With this in mind I decided to return to Cumbria and spend a couple of days travelling around the Eden Valley.

On trips like this I can never completely detach myself from Prehistory but I consciously  decided to limit the megalithic sites to a couple and loosely focus upon looking for remnants from the post-Roman period onwards.

The journey started at the western foot of the Stainmore Pass at Brough. For me, Brough has always been the gatekeeper of the Eden valley. The Romans recognised the strategic value of the place and built a large fort there called Verteris, later in the 11th century the Normans chose to build a castle on the Roman site.

When seen from the A66 the ruined castle of Brough is generally my first glimpse of the red sandstone of the Eden valley.

St Michaels Church Brough

In the bible, Michael the archangel was Gods’ General, leading the forces of heaven in the  fight against Satan. It is fitting that the a church built within the confines of a ‘pagan’ roman fort should be dedicated to him. Perhaps the site was once occupied by a Roman temple and continued to be used by local people until the arrival of  Christianity. The current church was founded in 12th century and has undergone a number of improvements in the years since.

Mason Marks

There are many masons marks on the exterior walls of the church. Most of them are in the form of a crossed ‘Z’. I am guessing that the stones as they were quarried and were marked with the orientation of the cross indicating how the stone should be aligned, but this is only a guess.

Cross Slabs and Roman Inscription

Built into the wall of the porch of the church are a number of large cross slabs and a tribute to the Roman commander of the fort. The stone was found in 1880 during building work to the church. The inscription translates as For the Emperor Caesar Lucius Septimius Severus Pius Pertinax Augustus and for Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Caesar … in the consulship of Lateranus and Rufinus. 

The Brough Stone – A Roman tribute, written in Greek, to a young Syrian who died a long way from home.

A lovely Norman arch

A possible Celtic/Romano-British carved head and a hexafoil, a symbol of purity that has been used elsewhere as a folk-magic symbol of protection.

Pin Cone

 Andy Goldsworthy has built one of his beautiful Cone Pinfolds in the grounds of the local school.

Barningham Moor

Barningham

Light constantly changes as weather moves rapidly from the west

 A stoat tracks my progress across the moor

The ruins of an ancient settlement can be found in the bracken

An ancient cairn, four millennia of beaten bounds

The reliable instability of limestone – the stone circle slowly sinking, the gill slowly growing

Eel Hill – scrying stone

Barningham Insulator

Maiden Castle

I’ve visit Maiden Castle a number of times, every time I visit I come away a little more confused.

OS Map 1857

The site is cut into the side of High Harker Hill, above an old Corpse Road, if you weren’t aware of its location you would be unlikely to stumble across it.

Maiden Castle Lidar

There are two long barrows/cairns associated with the enclosure, one is located on high ground to the west of the site, the other is at the eastern end of a massive stone avenue. The barrows are thought to be late Neolithic/Bronze age in date

Two linear mounds of stone up to 1.5m high form a unique feature, an avenue which runs for over 100m from a large ruined barrow to the entrance of the enclosure.

The enclosure ditch is up to 4m deep in places with the bank rising between 4-5m above the ditch. The counterscarp on the south side of the enclosure rises above the rampart top. This means that it is possible to overlook the enclosure from the outside implying that the enclosure was not built for defence.

MC From Hillside s

Inside the enclosure there are two circular settings that are thought to be hut circles. A recent geophysical survey has revealed other possible hut circles within the enclosure. There is also small cist visible within the centre of the structure.

Cist s

Due to its uniqueness and the lack of any dateable material, Archaeologists are unable to suggest a definitive time period for the monument. A date range from the Bronze Age to Romano-British period has been suggested.

This monument should not be seen an an isolated site.  The location of the monument in the wider landscape may give some clues to its purpose.

  • Situated within a landscape that has rich evidence of occupation since the Neolithic period. On the moor above the monument there is a stone circle, ring cairns, cairnfields and linear dykes.
  • Good access to a number of trans-Pennine routes linking the Vale of York with northern & eastern Cumbria
  • Situated within the Pennine ore fields surrounded by deposits of lead, zinc, silver and copper. A pig of lead inscribed with the name of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138) was discovered at the Hurst mine at Marrick. Lead was a valuable and abundant metal in the Roman empire.
  • The road beneath the monument turns south into Wensleydale and leads directly to the Roman fort at Bainbridge (Virosidum) and the junction of up to five Roman roads.
  • Other resources – coal and large quantities of chert. Chert was important resource for making tools in prehistory.  Across the river at Fremington Edge there are sufficient quantities of chert for it to be exploited commercially up until the mid 20th century for use in the Staffordshire pottery industries.

Sources

Map reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

LIDAR survey via data.gov.uk
Reassessment of two late prehistoric sites: Maiden Castle and Greenber Edge in Archaeology and Historic Landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales, Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Papers No.2. Mark Bowden and Keith Blood. 2004

Why did the Romans build a fort at Bainbridge?  Swaledale & Arkengarthdale Archaeological Group. 2009

A History of the County of York North Riding: Volume 1. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1914.

 

 

 

Maiden Castle and West Hagg Swaledale North Yorkshire geophysical surveys. Archaeological Surveys Durham University 2011