ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 41, February 1999


Destroyed: masterpieces of 17th century carving

A church in County Durham that contained some of the most outstanding 17th century decorated woodcarving in Britain was destroyed in a catastrophic fire towards the end of last year.

No cause for the fire has yet been established, although a number of churches in the area have suffered arson attacks over recent years.

St Brandon's Church in Brancepeth, a village five miles south-west of Durham, contained the best examples of the so-called Cosin style of 17th century wood-carving, which the architectural historian Niklaus Pevsner described in his Buildings of England survey as `one of the most remarkable contributions of the county to the history of architecture and decoration in England'. John Cosin was rector of Brancepeth from 1626 to 1640, and became Bishop of Durham after the Restoration of Charles II. Other churches in the county that contain examples of the style include those at Haughton-le-Skerne and Sedgefield.

Cosin was a devotee of High Medieval style, and the furnishings at Brancepeth were marked by an unusual combination of Jacobean elements with 14th and 15th century pastiche. The work was probably paid for by the Neville family, Earls of Westmorland and owners of Brancepeth Castle. The names of the craftsmen who carried out the work, however, have mostly been forgotten.

The church contained, amongst its other furnishings, a huge pedimented oval wall plaque which was never inscribed. This has been taken to suggest that Cosin planned to turn Brancepeth into his own mausoleum, although in the end he was buried at Bishop Auckland, according to freelance buildings archaeologist Peter Ryder who made an assessment of the church shortly before the fire.

Nothing of the 17th century carving now survives. The heat of the fire appears to have been so intense that the church was turned into a kind of kiln. Much of the surviving shattered stonework has been covered in a yellow lead glaze deriving from the melted roof similar to that found on some medieval pottery.

Some curious hidden features of the church were revealed by the fire. These included the west gable end of the Saxon nave, which had been covered by the later Gothic building, and a number of carved 12th century grave slabs which had been used as the internal rear arches of the clerestory windows.

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Iron Age village for summertime only

An unusual type of Iron Age settlement that seems to have been occupied only during the summer months, to avoid regular wet-weather flooding, has been found on farmland in Northamptonshire near Rugby.

The site, excavated by the Birmingham University Field Archaeology Unit, is dominated by the silted-up channel of a former stream. Even today the site is `very wet', according to the excavators, who spent much of the rainy exacavation last year `wallowing in mud'.

The settlement which is to become the site of a new rail-freight terminal is one of the largest of Iron Age date known in Britain, covering 12 hectares (30 acres), and it contains about 90 structures. Most, however, represent the repeated re-buildings of about ten `farmsteads', each consisting of about four roundhouses and a four-post structure, possibly a small grain store.

Pottery evidence dates the buildings near the stream to the early/middle Iron Age, with later Iron Age structures further away, on the higher slopes of the shallow valley. The settlement as a whole, therefore, survived for hundreds of years but individual buildings at least in the earlier period appear to have been no more than temporary, thatched structures supported on rings of narrow stakes. No deep bell-pits suggesting long-term storage have been found, and the earlier phases of the settlement are sealed under layers of alluvium. The stream appears to have risen regularly over its banks during the time when the village was occupied.

According to Gwilym Hughes, director of the excavation, the heavy clay soils of the area would have been more suitable for pastoral than arable farming in the Iron Age, and the village may represent a summer-grazing settlement of a type more commonly associated with the transhumance culture of the western and northern uplands.

The climate is known to have become wetter during the Iron Age, and the impact of settlement itself may have increased the village's uninhabitability during wet weather, as has been suggested elsewhere. `The clearance of vegetation may have led to greater run-off of water and silts down the valley sides,' Mr Hughes said.

Despite the transient nature of the earlier structures, each is surrounded by a broken (`pennanular') storm-water gulley with the entrance facing south-east, in the traditional Iron Age way.

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No small fry in Saxon fishing industry

An indication of the nature and scale of Anglo-Saxon sea-fishing has been revealed by a recent survey of seven fish weirs surviving in and around the Blackwater estuary in Essex. The term `fish weir' may suggest a rather quaint and small-scale fishing operation, but in reality Anglo-Saxon fish weirs were often massive structures, usually V-shaped, with each arm up to 100m long, set into the gently sloping ground of a coastline or estuary. Baskets or nets were placed at the point of the V to catch fish on the receding tide.

About 500 fish weirs are thought to survive around the English coast, the majority dating from the 12th-14th centuries. Three of the Blackwater estuary examples have produced radiocarbon dates ranging from about 600AD to 950AD, with a particular emphasis on the 8th century, making them among the earliest in the country. The use of fish weirs declined after the 14th century following the growth of a commercial deep-sea fishing industry using boats.

The survey, by archaeologists from Essex County Council as part of English Heritage's Monuments Protection Programme, has established that the walls of the fish weirs consisted of pairs of upright timbers infilled with brushwood with a walkway of wattle panels alongside, to allow the fishermen to collect the catch or repair the structure without sinking into the mud. Evidence suggests that some gutting or filleting may have taken place on site. Typically all that survives today is the base of some of the uprights and a few wattle panels, which become visible at the lowest of tides.

It remains unclear who owned and operated the Blackwater fish weirs. Documentary evidence from the 10th century onwards suggests that most fish weirs belonged to large manors or religious houses, which had control over sufficient manpower as well as managed woodland to provide the timber and brushwood required.

Essex Archaeology, an annual newspaper containing archaeological news from Essex, can be obtained free of charge by sending an A4-sized SAE to the Archaeology Section, Essex County Council, County Hall, Chelmsford CM1 1LF

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In brief

Awards 1998

The 1998 British Archaeological Awards were given in November to the people and projects regarded as having made the greatest contribution to archaeology in the 21 years since the awards were first set up.

The Spear and Jackson `Golden Trowel' award for the greatest single initiative was awarded to Ian Skipper for his contribution to creating the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, whose `revolutionary techniques' had changed the way archaeology was presented to the public, according to the judges.

The ICI Award for the best project offering a major contribution to knowledge was given to John and Bryony Coles for the Somerset Levels Project, which initiated the sub-discipline of wetland archaeology. The archaeological book award was given to Alan Bowman's book about the Vindolanda tablets, Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier. Press awards went to The Times and Current Archaeology, and the best broadcast programme was Time Team.

The Heritage in Britain award for the best project securing the long-term preservation of a site or monument was given to the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry for its `imaginative rescue and conservation' of Liverpool Road Station in Manchester, the oldest passenger railway station in the world. The Ironbridge Award for innovative re-use of a historic building was given to the Leeds Corn Exchange, which was sympathetically re-furbished as a shopping centre in 1990.

The Virgin Award for the best presentation of archaeology to the public went to the Archaeological Resource Centre (the ARC) in York. The Young Archaeologists' Club Award was given to Kate Pretty, who founded the Club in 1972.

London track

A prehistoric timber trackway, dated to the middle Bronze Age, has been found on the Isle of Dogs in East London by archaeologists from the Museum of London. The trackway, the most substantial yet found in London, seems to have been part of a platform on the edge of a water channel in a boggy area close to the Thames. A number of wooden wedges were found in excellent condition which may have been used for splitting the logs to build the platform.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1999