|10 April 2004
Northumberland hills were cultivated 3,500 years ago
Archaeological research shows that farming was more intensive and widespread than now in much of rural Northumberland (England). Cultivation around 3,500 years ago was taking place on hills at heights of up to 1,400ft.
"This implies a large population largely devoted to farming," said Newcastle University archaeologist Clive Waddington. "The intensification of farming and settlement was far greater than today and with no mechanisation and hand-digging many more people were needed to work the land, and the population of many rural areas was substantially greater. It is astonishing to think that many of the valleys, particularly in the uplands, were much more heavily populated in the late Bronze Age and Iron Age than they are today."
Clive said that places such as the Breamish Valley in the Cheviots had Bronze and Iron Age populations anywhere between 10 and 20 times greater than now. Evidence in the uplands of the prehistoric farmers' round houses and fields has survived because later agriculture never again reached such altitudes.
Clive, with Newcastle University geographer Dave Passmore, has written a book which gathers together research and the evidence from excavations to plot the development of human society in Northumberland from 10,000 years ago to the coming of the Romans. Ancient Northumberland, published by CountryStore, was launched by Meet the Ancestors TV archaeologist Julian Richards. "The prehistoric landscapes of Northumberland compare with the best anywhere in Europe," said Clive.
And he added: "Northumberland is home to the finest examples of prehistoric rock art in England, the greatest concentration of henge monuments, the largest number of hillforts and defended sites, and one of the best preserved Bronze Age upland landscapes in Europe. The book is dedicated to sharing what is known about the early inhabitants of this region - their way of life, their homes and monuments, and their relationship with the land."
Geographer Dave Passmore has worked on how the landscape of what is now Northumberland has changed over millions of years. When the region became ice-free 15,000 years ago, meltwater torrents cut deep channels in hills and valley sides, which survive today as dry valleys in the high ground of the North Pennines and the Cheviots. At one stage what is now the Northumbrian coast looked out over much lower sea levels and a vast, low-lying tidal plain which formed part of a land bridge connecting eastern England to the north-west European mainland.
This landscape was gradually drowned 6,000 years ago, and at Hauxley and Druridge Bay, peat layers, ancient tree stumps and lagoons lie beneath sand dunes. By 5,000-7,000 years ago, forest had expanded across most of the county as the climate entered a period of sustained warmth with temperatures 2C-4C higher than today. As people began to domesticate animals and grow crops, deforestation began. "A vast expanse of natural forest cover was once so characteristic of the Northumberland landscape," said Dave.
Sources: icNewcastle.co.uk, The Journal (6 April 2004)
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