Zoo-archaeological material in Anglo-Saxon society: products of daily life
Animals bone discoveries and what they can tell us about daily life in that era.
Archaeologists have always been absorbed in the analysis of pots and coins, the durable detritus of past societies which gives us clues about the life and times of our forebears. As Glendale Local History Society heard at the first talk of the New Year, we can also learn a lot from bones, and in particular animal bones. We listened enthralled as our speaker, David Constantine, showed us just how much can be deduced from the mix of bones to be found in the waste heaps of ancient sites.
Using the example of a Roman site, he explained how heaps of bone debris from nearby kitchens showed the range of meats eaten and how meat was cut up in the cooking process. Even the remains of small snacks of meat might find their way into the drains below a toilet. And in one instance the abandonment of a building rather than its destruction could be deduced from a debris of bones from small mammals, the residue of owl pellets, which meant the building must have retained its roof for quite a while. Sometimes it is possible to get an indication of pastoral farming practices from the age at which animals are killed, or from the bone deformations on draught animals such as oxen. In some cases, it is possible to work out that animals were killed not to eat but for their fur, as the skinning process leaves a debris of toes, claws and skulls. Bone debris can also give an indication of trading activity, especially where there is a large amount of similar material which does not seem to relate to the needs of a settlement. Some coastal sites have piles of fish debris, which seem to suggest some form of trading, and may give an indication of whether fish were dried before being traded. In Anglo-Saxon times, cuts of meat such as venison were distributed according to the status of a person. Which cuts are found at a particular site may then give a clue as to the status of the social group living in a homestead or settlement.
And bones are not the only material which survives from human use of animals. David showed us, using some actual examples, the way our ancestors collected and used antler material. Because this is much stronger than bone, such material was very valuable for tool use. We heard that there was evidence of trade between Pictish eastern Scotland and early Norwegian Viking societies because tools from reindeer antler have been found on Pictish sites, the reindeer being extinct in Scotland for millennia before then. Antlers are especially good for making combs because of their strength. Analysis of many sites around the Baltic Sea suggest that in Viking times, skilled antler-carvers travelled around from place to place, carving combs and other objects from antlers collected by local communities for this purpose, the combs being much easier to transport than the antlers. Illustrated with a range of artefacts which David had made to test how our ancestors made use of bone material, we were introduced to the wide range of objects which can be made from bone and antler material, a practice continuing from the present until the invention of plastic. Needles, pins and spindle whorls were made for use in making cloth and clothes. Pens and pins for writing and drawing on parchment and wax were much needed in Anglo-Saxon times as the development of Christian monasteries led to the production of religious books and accounts. Boxes were also needed for precious objects such as the relics of saints. The famous Franks casket was made from whalebone, and is often said to come from Northumbria. Many objects were decorated with intricate carving, and some objects found may have only had an ornamental purpose. At the end of the talk, we were all deeply impressed both by the many skills of our ancestors and by the skill of the forensic archaeologist, whose ability to work out so much from ‘bits of bone’, as enthusiastically conveyed by our speaker, was hugely impressive.
Outing to the Ouseburn Valley and the Victoria Tunnel
After meeting at The Biscuit Factory for a tasty lunch, we reported to the Victoria Tunnel office. Our guides gave an introduction and safety briefing before a short tour of the Ouseburn Valley, which used to be a hive of industrial activity. Where the Ouseburn Café now stands used to be a lead works; the Cluny music venue was once a distillery making 'Cluny' Whiskey –the iron bars on ground floor windows overlooking the burn were fitted to stop workers passing cases of whiskey to their friends in boats floated up the Ouseburn on the high tide; the Toffee Factory, now home to digital and creative offices and studios, was previously a cattle sanatorium (where the health of imported cattle was checked), then a store warehouse, and later the Maynards toffee factory from which it gets its name.
We eventually arrived at the entrance to the Victoria Tunnel where we were issued with hard hats and torches. The Tunnel is just 6'3” high and 7' wide, so taller visitors were encouraged to carry a chair to avoid aching shoulders during the many stops. The guides explained that we would walk up the Tunnel in the 1940s and return in the 1800s. We stopped to hear how during WW2 the tunnel was used as an air-raid shelter by up to 2000 people at a time. It had cost over £37,000 to adapt the Tunnel for use as a shelter, including the addition of concrete blast walls to stop potential bomb debris flying along inside. There were some basic bunk-beds for those working for the war effort, for pregnant women and first aid workers, and some benches for the lucky ones to sit on. The rest had to sit on the floor which, despite efforts to clean it up, is still covered in coal dust. The toilet facilities were very basic: chemical toilets located near the entrances, just 6 each for ladies and gents. Those sheltering were there for up to 9 hours at a time, having to wait until the German planes that had flown over en route to bombing raids in Belfast, Glasgow and Liverpool had passed over again on their way home – any bombs left over from the raids tended to be jettisoned over Tyneside!
After about an hour we reached a line of sandbags marking the end of the part of the Tunnel which is open to the public, and turned round and travelled back in time to the opening of the new Leazes Main or Spital Tongues colliery. Our second guide took over and explained that a surface wagonway, proposed by the engineer William Gillespie to replace the costly transport of the coal to the Tyne by horse and cart, had been turned down by the City Council because ‘it would cause great inconvenience and danger to the inhabitants of the town and, more importantly, compromise the Freemen's right to grazing on the Town Moor’.
Gillespie then proposed an underground wagonway running below the Town Moor, Barras Bridge, and Shieldfield 2.25 miles to the Tyne near the mouth of the Ouseburn. The loaded wagons would roll along a single standard-gauge railway track to the river, down the gentle gradient of the Tunnel. A long rope connecting the wagons to a stationary 40hp steam engine at the Spital Tongues site would control the speed of descent and winch the empty wagons back up to the pit head.
Permission was granted in June 1838 and work began 12 months later. The tunnel was finished on 8th January 1842 and was shown to reduce the cost of transporting coal to the river by 90%.
Construction of the Tunnel was remarkably free of mishaps – not so the operations. In 1843 the haulage rope broke and the wagons careered down the track and into the river, injuring one man. In 1843 the haulage engine's boiler exploded killing the fireman; nine years later it exploded again, this time killing both the engineer and the fireman.
The most serious accident happened in 1952 when the colliery was up for sale. Two potential buyers, brothers Ralph and Benjamin Arkless, were viewing the tunnel accompanied by a staithman, and a message had been sent to the colliery end to request that no wagons be sent down, as the purpose-built wagons almost completely filled the space between the walls and there were no refuges in the tunnels.
However, the message failed to reach the colliery. At the top of the Tunnel, two men assigned to clear debris had just filled a hand operated wagon and climbed aboard to take the load down to the river. Tragically, as the wagon began to move the brake-man slipped and fell off, and the wagon came rumbling out of control towards the inspection party who by this time were halfway along the Tunnel.
We were played a recording that simulated the sound of the wagon coming down the Tunnel towards us: in the darkness the initial faint rumbling sound steadily increased until it became a deafening roar. We knew there was nothing coming but even so it was terrifying: the men in the Tunnel must soon have grasped what was happening and at the same time realised that they had no means of escape. Ralph Arkless threw himself down between the rails and survived uninjured; his brother pressed himself against the wall and was badly injured but survived; the staithman, William Coulson, tried to outrun the wagon and was killed. Subsequently the colliery underviewer, George Fletcher, was charged with negligence.
Having taken two and a half years to build, operations in the Tunnel ceased less than 20 years after it had opened owing to financial difficulties.
Everyone agreed it had been a most interesting visit and an enjoyable day out in the Ouseburn Valley.
At Vindolanda in 1973, a cache of 1500 letters were discovered. They had been written on bark about 2000 years ago and had been preserved by compression in anaerobic conditions. Since Roman times there has been a need for records to be kept and documents transported. Early letters were written by the few well- educated people or else by scribes, and these were delivered by servant on horseback. Since they had to travel over private land, agreements were made between landowners for the transport of letters over their land free of charge. In 1430 the ‘Merchant Strangers’ post was established in Italy to convey mercantile documents between Merchants in Venice. This later was made available to the public under the title ‘Merchant Adventurers’.
Henry I was the first English monarch known to have officially appointed messengers to carry government documents. In 1484 Richard III developed this process by appointing horsemen at intervals of about 20 miles along a route to carry letters hand to hand at high speed. By this method a letter could be delivered 200 miles away within 2 days. Henry VIII is credited with establishing the first Post Office. In 1512 he paid Sir Brian Tuke £100 to deliver royal letters, and in 1516 he appointed Sir Brian as Master of the Post. Staging posts, usually inns, were established at 20 mile intervals for changing the horses. Tuke established routes from London to Dover and London to Edinburgh via the Great North Road.
Post boys were often employed to deliver mail, initially for a pittance, but as literacy improved and the numbers of private letters sent increased so did the post boys’ wages.
By 1603 post masters had been appointed at various stages along the Great North Road. Charles I opened the ‘Kings Post’ for the use of the public on 31st July 1635 with a proclamation setting up a letter office available day and night. A letter from London to Edinburgh took 5 days to deliver. A single letter consisting of 1 sheet of paper was charged at a rate of 2d (2 old pence) for a distance of less than 80 miles, 4d for between 80 and 140 miles and 6d for greater distances. A letter to the Borders from London would have cost 8d. If more sheets were used then the tariff increased according to the ‘bigness of the packet’. To keep costs down some people resorted to the use of ‘cross-writing’ horizontally and then vertically – for this, clear handwriting was essential! The first Post Master General was Henry Bishop, appointed at the suggestion of Oliver Cromwell in 1688. He used a post mark then known as the Bishop’s mark.
During times of war postal rates would increase, so that posting a letter could cost the average working man a week’s wages. At such times the post was rarely used except for official business. In 1834 certain areas were allowed to have their own ‘penny post’ in order to reduce the spiralling costs. The penny post became very popular and by 1840 Sir Roland Hill introduced the system countrywide . The first postage stamp, the ‘penny black’, came into use on 6 May 1840 and this was affixed to envelopes. Additionally a ‘tuppeny blue’, 2d stamp was introduced as were prepaid envelopes called ‘Mulready Covers’. We were shown one of these covers dated 2nd May, 4 days before the official date of issue, and worth £12000. Subsequently stamps with errors, omissions or printing faults have become highly prized by collectors, and hence very valuable.
The second part of the talk focussed on World War I. In the Navy letters written aboard ship had to be left unsealed until checked by a censor, normally a senior officer, who would read it, then seal and stamp it. Mail bags that were off loaded in the UK would be opened and the letters cancelled by the Post Master, this post mark giving no information about the location so as not to reveal the positions of warships to the enemy.
Letters to soldiers serving abroad were post free, but this was not true for seamen who had to pay a charge of 1d, although this was later repealed as it was rightly considered unfair.
The then King, George V, was a keen philatelist who established the Royal Collection. Every Wednesday he reputedly spent in his ‘stamp room’, and asked not to be disturbed except for matters of national importance. This only occurred 3 times between 1914 and 1918.
Various letters were on display, written by George V himself. One was to his artist, Chevalier de Martini, another to Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland who cared for wounded soldiers at the front. There was a letter from a navel commander at the Battle of Jutland who censored his own post. His leg was shot away during the battle, and patched up by a stoker who applied a tourniquet. The ship’s ensign was also shot away but swiftly replaced so as not to infer surrender. The ship was later torpedoed and sunk with just 7 survivors. The commander’s body was washed up in Sweden and a medal awarded posthumously. A letter from bandsman drummer Morley to his wife recounted how his ship was sunk off South Africa. The band played on as the ship went down, the crew alone being initially rescued, but finally a further rescue ship arrived and picked up the band.
All in all this was a fascinating talk.
The Romantic North: picturesque landscape before photography
Peter Regan’s talk encompassed works 1750–1840, and he addressed the questions ‘What is Beauty? How has landscape painting developed? How has this related to Northumberland? and Was there such a thing as Landscape Painting?’
Peter, who at one time worked for the trustees of Dovecote Cottage, considered paintings of Cumbria and the North as well as in Northumberland. He began by showing us a slide of an Elizabethan ‘chart’ of Newcastle, now in the British Museum, by Giovanni Viscala, and addressed the question ’Is this a painting? or a map?’ It represents Newcastle and the artist, a military engineer, emphasised the well-defined walls, castle, and half-moon battery. The map was used to give information, despite being decorative.
He went on to consider drawings and painting which were often topographical, starting with Thomas Miles Richardson, showing Newcastle from Windmill Hill in Gateshead (1816), a rustic scene, less topographical and more influenced by the growing popularity of Claude Lorraine.
Matthias Reade, 1720, was a signwriter who produced a bird’s eye view of Whitehaven to emphasise the wealth of his patron, Lord Lowther. Similarly, the Buck Brothers made an engraving of Warkworth Castle for the Duke of Northumberland. It was Cannelletto who painted Alnwick Castle in a pleasing rural scene for him.
The main influences on painting in Georgian times were the 16th century painters Nicholas Poussin, Jacob van Ruisdael, Claude Lorraine, and Salvadore Rosa. Peter displayed examples of their works and explained how these men had developed styles of depiction which we could see in subsequent slides of later, Northern artists. Lorraine, for example, painted the most sought-after landscapes including water, trees, a ruin or folly – and a romantic couple in the foreground. He set the tone, showing that a painting should be inspiring and calm, with these typical elements. Von Ruisdael’s works were darker but contained the same elements. Despite Poussin’s similar formula, in his Ovid’s Metamorphosis the calm is somewhat contradicted by the snake attack in the foreground. Rosa, the Spanish artist, was a portraitist, but he shares the same formula in in his Travellers asking the Way.
In the days of The Grand Tour the aristocracy liked to record their journeys with pictures as mementoes, either using their own skills to paint or draw memorable scenes, or, if they were rich enough, to take an artist with them. Richard Wilson thus painted scenes such as The Temple of Sibyl in Tivoli in 1765, before carrying out similar commissions in Wales, but the formula remained the same as in his Italian paintings.
One of the best-known slides was of Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews in which the eponymous couple show off the extent of their (vast) estates in a painting of themselves, squeezed into the edge of a landscape typical of the time – a vista stretching into the distance.
Samuel H. Grimm, a Swiss clergyman-traveller who did over 2000 drawings for Sir Richard Kaye throughout the 18th century, also drew Warkworth Castle, an ink-and-wash of Morpeth Castle and one of Alnwick’s Lion Gate.
William Gilpin was one of the first artists to produce a book on landscape painting where he emphasised the ‘wild beauty off the North’. Once again he used water, trees and a ruin as his subject matter. He used the ‘Claude Glass’, a device using mirrors to aid composition, which produced an oval shape.
Books on landscape painting followed: by Thomas West, a clergyman in Cumbria; Peter Costhwaite, and for the Lake District, books by Joseph Farrington, William Green and even Wordsworth.
Closer to home, Bewick did an engraving of Chillingham Castle. Carmichael and Ward both completed pictures of the new railways, illustrating new features of the landscape – as did Turner.
Turner’s paintings of the North, with his dramatic skies, include many of our own castles of which Warkworth was perhaps the most exciting, with a thunderstorm approaching at sunset (1799). To complete the talk, we were shown a Constable, Seascape with Rain Clouds.
Peter Regan displayed a remarkable insight into this fascinating subject, which he delivered in an accessible and engaging way, and he was thanked with warm applause.
The Fortifications of Berwick upon Tweed
The talk, illustrated with maps showing the different plans of the ramparts as they were built, re-designed, allowed to fall into disrepair, were re-built, strengthened and altered over the last millennia, gave a detailed insight into the strategic importance of Berwick as a bulwark between England and Scotland.
Not only were we informed about the walls themselves, but also of the weaponry, military developments, sieges and changes of power which led to the need for advances in protection.
The current walls are largely Elizabethan, but fortifications have been present since before the 12th century. We know that there were wooden walls and a castle even before King David l of Scotland in 1124 made considerable improvements to an existing castle.
When Edward l (The Hammer of the Scots) pushed north in 1296 he overwhelmed the forces of the Scots at Dunbar and ordered a deep moat to be dug at Berwick, added a palisade ‘a spear height’ above the walls and enlarged the site considerably. The following year William Wallace recaptured the town for the Scots briefly, and over the next 9 years power fluctuated between Scots and English until Wallace was decisively beaten in 1305.
Edward II managed to maintain some control in Scotland until 1314. He added 14 towers to the walls and held on to Berwick until 1319, but after Bannockburn (1314) there was no longer any real chance of succeeding in the north. The walls fell into serious disrepair until after Homildon Hill (1402).
In 1408 John of Gaunt spent £6000 over 14 years to rebuild and defend the ramparts.
We were told that although one cannot be certain how many times Berwick changed hands, at least 13 can be accounted for. It continued to be fought over during the Wars of the Roses, with Henry IV being defeated but Richard of Gloucester recapturing it in 1482.
Henry VII improved defences as artillery power required stronger protection against cannon fire; thus Coxon’s Tower was built as a great bulwark guarding the entrance. Henry VIII added a tower at the foot of the White Wall, and at Lords Mount, gun emplacements and a self-contained edifice with kitchen and latrines.
The later Tudors continued improvements, until Elizabeth developed, with Italian
designers, a 20-foot-high rampart with a parapet of 17 feet. Six bastions were designed to completely surround the town, but only two-thirds were completed. There were brass demi-cannons, heavy mortars, Venetian cannon and breech loading guns. The Bell Tower was erected and the whole project was the most expensive of Elizabeth’s reign. A huge moat can be seen on a contemporary map.
When James VI of Scotland marched south in 1603, a cannon was fired symbolically and the garrison reduced to 100 men. He was crowned James I of England, an event re-enacted colourfully in Berwick recently. There was no longer a need for a barrier between the countries.
Although improvements to weaponry continued to be made, and even in WWII defences were added - this time to protect the coast, the walls were never again breached.
Berwick has a unique place in British history, its ramparts a fascinating reminder of conflicts in times past.