Building 2-east elevation

Project Profile

Project Title :

Sedling Burn Dressing Floors

Client :

Durham County Council

Type of Work :

Emergency Building Recording (Industrial)

Project Gallery 

Remains of the covered the culvert looking downstream   Detail of culvert wall  
Possible Level entrance   Remains of a wooden buddle eroding out of the west bank of the burn  
Detail of joint work in wooden buddle   Wooden chute  


Sedling Burn Dressing Floors

The heritage costs of the 2012 floods: emergency archaeological recording of Sedling Burn dressing floors

The heavy snows of last winter, followed by the spring and summer deluge, dampened everyone's spirits in 2012. The television news was full of dreadful pictures of flooding and landslip across the country. Perhaps one of the lesser-known victims of all that atrocious weather has our heritage sites, particularly the county's industrial remains which by their very nature are generally located next to exposed moorland streams and burns. One such site which has been severely damaged by water scouring and erosion has been the Sedling Burn Dressing Floors, located on both sides of Sedling Burn, approx. 0.5km north-east of the Cowshill Bridge, at the western end of Weardale

In June 2012, Clare Henderson, DCC Senior Archaeologist, along with representatives from the Environment Agency, AONB and Coal Authority held a site meeting at Sedling to discuss the issue of heavy metal contamination in the surrounding water sources, something the Environment Agency have been tasked with reducing under the EU Water Framework Directive. During this visit Clare noticed archaeological remains, associated with a potentially multi-phase dressing floor, eroding out along the lower banks of the burn. In an attempt to record this evidence before it was lost forever in further bouts of flooding, the County Council funded a programme of emergency recording, undertaken by Northern Archaeology Associates with kind help from Peter Jackson of the Nenthead Mines Conservation Society.

Ore dressing was the final phase in the lead mining process and involved the separation of the valuable ore - the galena- from the native rock and other 'waste' minerals - or gangue. This usually began at the minehead, where the waste rock - or deads - were separated from the unprocessed ore - or bouse. The ore would then be crushed by hand or machine into thumb sized pieces and the smaller gravelly material sent to the dressing floors where it was passed through a series of jigs and buddles - basically filters and sieves - so that even the most minute traces of lead could be extracted. The resulting prepared ore - or bing - was then transported to the smelt mill for the final extraction process.

The majority of the refining processes relied on good access to running water and so dressing floors are found arranged ergonomically down a burn bank, with the heaviest materials coming into the crushing floors at the top and the lighter, finer material being processed in the filtration beds - or slimes- at the bottom, along the water's edge. The archaeological remains exposed along the Sedling Burn therefore related to the latter phases of dressing and included evidence of chutes, launders (wooden water channels), revetment walls, fragments of masonry, flagstone floors, planks, platforms, iron fittings and buddles. The latter were sloping wooden troughs through which ore was washed and separated. Several phases of dressing floor were observed and there appeared to be localised episodes of abandonment, with spoil deposits overlaying the earlier floors and then new structures being built on top. The earliest of these lay directly over bedrock and could date back to the 17th or early 18th century.

The Sedling dressing floors served both the Sedling and Burtree Pasture mines. The earliest documentary evidence of the Sedling mine dates to the early 18th century, although lead is known to have been worked along the burn at least since the 15th century. Burtree Pasture mine may have been founded slightly later but was clearly being worked by the end of the 18th century. It subsequently became one of the largest mines in Weardale, working 17 levels and drifts and employing over 174 men. Both mines were owned by the Beaumont Lead Company later to become the Weardale Lead Mining Company who, together with their rivals, the London Lead Mining Company, dominated mining in Weardale for nearly 200 years. Towards the end of the 19th century, lead production at Burtree Pasture was eclipsed by the extraction of fluorspar; a previously worthless mineral then in considerable demand by the burgeoning West Durham steel industry where it was used as flux in the steel making process. In 1948 the mine eventually closed, but later re-opened in 1960s for fluorspar extraction. It remained in operation until 1981 when it was finally abandoned.

The dressing floors are clearly shown on the First Edition OS map (1860) but by the publication of the Second Edition map (1898), the burn had been enclosed by a covered culvert and the upper dressing floors abandoned. The remains of this stone culvert was perhaps the most distinctive and impressive of the structural features recorded during the survey. Built of roughly squared sandstone blocks, some of which show signs of re-use, ran along the base of the burn and survived to a height of approx. 0,50m along the sides. Unfortunately, much of the culvert had been destroyed when a concrete pipe was inserted some years ago, although sections remain intact further upstream.

The continued use of the site through until the 1980s has resulted in a considerable depth of made-ground and spoil overlying the dressing floor, reaching a depth of over 4m in places. This means that any excavation of the underlying floors would prove difficult, if not impossible. It could also be detrimental to the long-term preservation of the site, the overlying soil serving to protect and conserve the archaeology beneath, except for those areas along the burn. The stark truth is that little can be done to protect the archaeology in these vulnerable areas, an issue which affects not only Sedling but also huge number of similar sites up and down the country. The only way to mitigate against the loss of these remains is by preserving the evidence through such records as the Sedling Emergency survey. In this way the information gained will hopefully continue to contribute something to our overall understanding of this important industry which has shaped the Durham Dales landscape.

icon-pdf-smallEmergency archaeological recording report
icon-pdf-smallSedling Dressing Floors final report