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For its first lecture of the autumn, the Border Archaeological Society welcomed Dr Ian Kille, community geologist for the Peregrini Lindisfarne Landscape Partnership, who spoke on the geology of Northumberland and how the landscape shaped history.
Dr Kille passed round a Shepherd’s Crown, a smooth fossilised rock, explaining that this find in his youth got him interested in geology.
Archaeology, as opposed to geology, is very recent and manmade – it occupies only a tiny space of time in the history of the earth. The geology of the earth has had a tremendous impact on us, and now scientists are discussing the impact we are having on the earth, even designating a new age called the anthrocene.
This interaction between geology and archaeology was the theme of his talk.
The father of geology is a Scot, James Hutton, 1726-1797, who was active during the Scottish Enlightenment and seminal in changing the perception of the way the world works. Hitherto, the world was categorised into periods of before, during and after ‘The Flood’, and considered to have been created a mere 4,004 years before Christ.
The world is dynamic and constantly changing.
We had a brief introduction to the geology of Northumberland. The Cheviots were formed by the clash of tectonic plates and were originally molten lava thrown up from the centre of the earth. Other parts of Northumberland were covered by vast inland seas. Continents moved, attached themselves and separated until we arrived at what we have today. Dr Kille showed charts of the various geological ages and the changes – risings of lands, grinding down of rocks, climate changes, etc.
During the Carboniferous period some 300 million years ago, the climate became more humid and temperate, flattened the earth and the sea level raised. The Whin Sill happened at the end of this period. The collision of ancient continents tilted and folded the area known as the Ladies’ Skerrs. Sedimentary rocks, comprised of muddy, soft materials that are easy to erode and colourful, started the Tweed and Till valleys, formed skerries, the Scremerston coal group and limestone areas. Fossils are abundant.
The ice age of 12,000 years ago influenced the landscape. The ice deposited a lot of rock rubble and ground down the surface. The Whin Sill was less affected, which is why it was so good for the military. Hadrian’s Wall was built on it, and fortifications and castles. It also explains why parts of the county are unsuitable for farming.
We can see how the landscape of Northumberland was shaped by geology – the coal and iron industries, lime kilns (lime was important for building materials and agricultural improvement) and more.
We can learn much by studying stone walls, where we see a variety of stones. An Anglo-Saxon church recently excavated near the tower on Holy Island, probably dating after the time of St Cuthbert and Aidan, has such a foundation. We are not sure where the stones came from, but there are Carboniferous, sedimentary and local stone, and white sandstone from Ness End.
Finally, Dr Kille moved us to the Battle of Flodden and how the landscape dictated to James IV what he should do. The Cheviots were formed by volcano, the lower lands had once been a vast sea and significant fault lines run through the area. Much of it was muddy and boggy. Surrey managed to force James IV to Branxton, and as the Scottish forces made their way down the hill it became too muddy and slippery to keep their formation. The results were disastrous for him.
Many more examples can be made of the interaction between geology and archaeology, as well as events in more modern times. We got a taster of some of the effects on the landscapes of Northumberland.