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Archaeo News 

22 December 2004
The old stones say: 'This land is ours'

Fanning out from the edge of the Cheviot Hills in Northumberland is the Milfield Plain: a special area in its own right, not least because it is one of the best prehistoric landscapes in England. Evidence for some of the earliest agriculture in Northern England from around 6,000 years ago has been found there. It also happens to have one of the most dense concentrations of henge monuments in Britain. So far nine henges have been discovered on the Milfield Plain, with most dating from around 4,500 years ago. Henges are ritual, circular monuments formed by an outer mound or bank and an inner ditch with one or two entrances. Sometimes they contained an inner feature of burials and stone or wooden uprights.
     Newcastle University archaeologist Clive Waddington has carried out extensive research and excavation on Milfield Plain. He says: "The area is clearly a focus for the earliest inhabitants because of the fertile soil and also because they had access to a wide range of resources." These included different types of stone, such as the hard volcanic Cheviot rock for axes, and flint from the gravels for tools.
     Border Archaeological Society vice chairman Barrie Evans tells how members hired an aircraft to fly over the area. "The henges stood out like huge signposts," he says. The henges are in a line across the plain, and probably served as a processional way or sacred route. The first, Milfield North, is aligned on Yeavering Bell and nearby Humbleton Hill, which are the most prominent hills on the edge of the Cheviots. Mr Waddington estimates that it would have taken a full day to process through the henges to Yeavering Bell - the site of the last henge - and back again. In outlying areas such as Duddo, Doddington Moor and Threestone Burn, there are stone circles. There is speculation that the circles and henges were used at different times of the year.
     Bronze Age finds, including swords and axes, have come from the plain area. Reconstructions of the Milfield North henge and a hut shelter from up to 10,000 years ago which was excavated at the coast at Howick have been created at the Maelmin heritage trail site. Another insight into prehistoric life in the area was provided by an investigation undertaken by Border Archaeological Society members at a pear-shaped cairn on the side of Scald Hill at nearby Langleeford. Mr Evans says: "There is a lot of pink andesite rock and quartz in there and it would have gleamed on the flanks of the hill. It would have said: 'This land is ours'."
     Bracketing the Milfield Plain are sandstone ridges and moorland which harbour their own prehistoric surprises. They are studded with panels of rock art, created 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. The most spectacular example is at Roughting Linn, near Kimmerston. It is a large domed sandstone outcrop 60ft long and 40ft wide; the symbol-covered rock, looking towards the Milfield Plain, is the biggest decorated slab in Northern England. It was once even bigger, but half as much again was quarried away. According to rock art expert Stan Beckensall, this is one of the most important sites of its type in the world. The rock is in a partly-hollow ancient routeway leading to the Milfield Plain and the coast in the opposite direction.
     More carvings at Broomridge lead to Goatscrag Hill, where there is further rock art and animal figures etched on to the wall of the hill's rock shelter, under the floor of which burials were discovered. Dod Law on Doddington Moor, Buttony, West Horton, the Ringses hillfort and Weetwood and Fowberry moors all have their panels, making the area the home of one of the most dense clusters of rock art in Britain.
     The proliferation of rock art, together with the henges, reinforces the feeling that this was a prime area for prehistoric people. Mr Beckensall says: "When you mark the rocks you are saying 'this belongs to us' and perhaps you are marking places which are important to you." People moving around the landscape would almost certainly have followed natural features like cliffs, ridges and rivers. The rock art appears in places which were prominent and would have been passed frequently by people on the move. Another clue comes from what can be seen from the rock art sites. "What is important is what you can see when you get there and that must have determined the choice of sites in the first place," says Beckensall.

Source: The Journal, icNewcastle.co.uk (20 December 2004)

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