Howick Archaeological Project
An archaeological site near Howick was first found in 1988 by John Davies from the discovery of flint eroding out of a sheep scar at the top of the cliff. In 1999 Jim Hutchinson also found some struck flints and marine shells eroding out of a sheep scar and molehills in the same region. These were brought to the Department of Archaeology, University of Newcastle and shown to Dr. Clive Waddington and from preliminary flint analysis they were interpreted as Mesolithic. The area was visited and assessed and it was found that both a sheep scar and molehills were severely eroding stratified deposits and therefore a decision was made to excavate in June 2000.
A trench, 30 metres by 8 metres, was laid out to encompass the main areas at risk, and volunteers from the University of Newcastle and Northumberland Archaeology Group helped to excavate. The site exceeded expectations in that once the topsoil had been removed a range of stratified features were uncovered. Not only were large quantities of struck flint found, but also marine shells, ochre, charcoal, and charred hazelnut and acorn shells.
An area of major importance is a structural feature thought to be a dwelling which contains occupation deposits at least 0.29m thick. This sunken floored structure was clearly visible as a dark stain in the sand. It is roughly 5 metres across, extends 3 metres from the edge of the trench but unfortunately probably half of it has already eroded down the cliff face. The deposit contained large quantities of charred hazelnut shells and flint, together with some ochre, charcoal and shell and evidence for internal features including a hearth, pit and post holes. The occupation area has a sub-rectangular shape but its shape and extent to the east remains unknown due to erosion. The imprint of a timber lies north-south delimiting the west end and there are at least 2 other timber features associated with it. There are also at least 2 postholes and a pit on the edges.
Two samples of charred hazelnut shell from stratified contexts within the structure have been submitted for radiocarbon assay. These produced two dates in the early-mid 9th millennium bp (uncal.). These early dates (8730 +/-40bp, 8555 +/-60bp) make the site an early Late Mesolithic site with dates which correspond to the earliest radiocarbon-dated Mesolithic sites in Scotland. This is the period at which the land bridge between Britain and the Continent was being breached and the dispersal of communities occupying the North Sea area was taking place. Dates from these features provide important dates for the lithic typology in the region. The nearest parallels for the area of the site that has currently been investigated are the sites of Fife Ness in eastern Scotland and that at Kinloch, Rhum, in the Western Isles.
The site is also of importance in providing evidence for one of the earliest postglacial coastal sites in Britain. At the time when it was occupied, sea level was still somewhat lower than the present, and the shoreline was a few hundred metres further out than today. The faunal remains are very poorly preserved but include bones of seal as well as of fox and wild boar, indicating that the inhabitants combined exploitation of marine resources with hunting and gathering on land. Coastal sites of this period are rare because on most other coastlines they would have been vulnerable to erosion or inundation by the final stages of sea-level rise. Howick has been preserved thanks to its elevated position on a low ridge above the beach and because this part of the Northumberland coastline has undergone minor isostatic rebound.
A further full season of work took place in 2002. and the final results are now being prepared for publication.