Washing finds back at the office

Project Profile

Project Title :

Seaham Community Excavation

Client :

Durham County Council & Limestone Landscapes partnership (HLF Funded)

Type of Work :

Excavation, Community Outreach

Project Gallery 

Lynne from NAA explaining the recording system works to Rory   Maurice and Sue, beginexcavation one of the Seaham burials  
Tony and Jackie excavating one of Seaham's former residents   Excavations underway in Trench 1  
The copper alloy finger ring in-situ   Composite elevated photograph of Trench 1 showing the two rows of burials  


Seaham Community Excavation, December 2013

Rain may fall and winds may blow: The Seaham Community Archaeology Project

Bolstered along by numerous cups of hot tea and coffee, a group of local volunteers, together with archaeologists from Northern Archaeological Associates, braved the December weather on the North Sea coast to undertake an excavation of the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Flower Fields Seaham. The project was organized as part of the Limestone Landscapes Partnership initiative and was the third to investigate the remains of the 7th to 9th cemetery. Each has been commissioned by Durham County Council with the aim of actively engaging local people in the archaeology of this nationally important site, providing training in excavation, survey and recording. Volunteers were also encouraged to take part in discussions on the research questions driving the work: What was the extent of the cemetery? Where was the related settlement? Why was the burial ground so far away from the Anglo-Saxon church of St Mary's? Who were the people buried here? How were they buried? Have natural processes affected what we find? Over what period did the site operate? How do we sensitively approach the archaeology of the dead?

Excavation focused on a small area in the north-eastern corner of Flower Field; a piece of land to the east of Seaham Hall. Until the late 18th century, the village of Seaham had centred around the parish church of St Mary's on the headland. This was first mentioned in a land charter of AD 933, when it was in the hands of the community of St. Cuthbert (the precursor of the Palatinate estates) but from as early as AD 700 it is likely to have been owned by the double monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow. During an earlier phase of restoration work on St Mary's church, four small round-headed windows, dated to the Anglo-Saxon period, were uncovered high in the walls of the nave, linking the foundation of the church with Seaham's monastic past. However, in the early 19th century, the then owner of the Hall, Lord Londonderry, undertook a phase of rebuilding and landscaping at the Hall, demolishing much of the old village and relocating the residents to his new development at Seaham Harbour, which grew rapidly with the expansion of the coal industry.

Burial remains were first uncovered at Old Seaham during the digging of a drain in 1861 near to Seaham Hall Lodge. These were first interpreted as the remains of a battle cemetery, lying as they do some 200 yards north of the church. The first modern investigation began in 1997 with the excavation of small trench in the garden of the Lodge; this was closely followed in 1999 by a larger evaluation in Flower Field. Both were undertaken by NAA together with local volunteers. A total of 35 skeletons were exposed during these two seasons, dating to a period between the late 7th to the late 10th or early 11th centuries AD. This correlates with the dating evidence from the church, indicating that the two were both in use at the same time, although the cemetery may have begun slightly earlier.

The current investigations were aimed at locating the eastern edge of the cemetery and discovering more about the individuals buried there and their community.

The Cemetery
A new trench was opened in the cemetery area (Trench 1) where the remains of a further eight skeletons were identified. Of this number, four were fully uncovered and recorded in-situ, one had been partly destroyed by a later burial, and three could only be partly exposed. Each of the individuals had been laid to rest on their back with their head at the west, as was the case with the previous excavations and is typical of later Anglo-Saxon Christian burials. All eight had died as adults, with estimated ages at death ranging between the mid 20s and mid 40s. Four were men and three were women, while the sex of the final individual could not be determined. Although no evidence of coffins or surface grave markers were found, the arms of the four fully exposed skeletons lay tightly against the sides of their chests, suggesting they had been buried wrapped in shrouds. There were no grave goods, although one of the women had been buried with a simple copper alloy ring on her left hand.

The burials appeared to have been laid out in rows, a feature noted in the previous excavations, suggesting a relatively ordered arrangement. This was not universal, however, and some later burials cut through, or overlay, earlier ones. This might indicate that the cemetery was in use for quite some time and that the positions of the earlier graves had been forgotten by the time the later ones were interred. It also suggests that there were no grave markers. Three of the bodies had their right arms across the torso and the head turned to the left. This may have been a deliberate mortuary practice or may simply reflect the way they were buried. If both hands had been placed over the lap prior to burial, the final position in the ground could result from the bodies being placed or rolled into the graves from the south side.

The excavation did establish the eastern limit to the cemetery but, unlike other cemeteries of the period, it does not seem to be marked by any formal boundary feature, or at least not one that has left any archaeological evidence. The work undertaken so far has concentrated on only a small fraction of the site, with a potentially larger area lying to the north and west, and it is anticipated that the cemetery could contain in excess of several hundred bodies.

Anglo-Saxon settlement

The three other trenches excavated this season were positioned across potential features identified through geophysical survey. To the south of the cemetery there appeared to be a series of small enclosures and Trench 3 was excavated to investigate two linear features within this area. Both proved to be ditches containing evidence of occupation, suggesting some, if not all of the anomalies in this area are archaeological in nature. The later of the two ditches was filled by the medieval plough-soil and contained no finds, but a soil sample taken from the fill was later found to contain over 60 charred cereal grains of which more than half were oat, which only became common as a crop during the medieval period.

The earlier ditch, contained over one hundred fragments of butchered animal bone, comprising horse, cattle, sheep/goat, pig and bird bone, including part of a highly polished goose wishbone, possibly used as a good luck charm. A soil sample revealed a few more charred cereal grains, although barley was the most common species. It also contained an iron pin, a probable brooch or buckle pin and a fragment of antler comb, dated to between the 7th and 12th centuries. While possibly post-conquest in date, the comb is probably Anglo-Saxon and the ditch therefore is likely to be contemporary with the cemetery. This is the first evidence we have of any form of settlement between the church and the cemetery and at least some of the other enclosures visible on the geophysical survey are also likely to date to this period.

The location of the cemetery 200m from an apparently contemporary church remains something of a mystery, although it is a pattern seen elsewhere. At both Norton-on-Tees and Ripon, burial grounds of this date have been found, several hundred metres away from known churches. At Seaham, we can perhaps suggest that some or all of the ground between church and cemetery held the settlement of Anglo-Saxon Seaham. But the reason why so many people were not buried around the church remains unclear. Were there two distinct communities with separate customs and graveyards? Is there a second church to be discovered at the cemetery site? As is often the way with excavation, the work at Seaham has raised as many questions as it has answered, but thanks to the hard work of those volunteers who braved the winds and storms we now have a much better idea of the nature and extent of Anglo-Saxon settlement on the headland, and the lives of those living and dying in Seaham over 1000 years ago.

NAA would like to extend their thanks to all those involved in the project. Including the staff at Seaham Hall. Results of the earlier cemetery excavations can be found in Issue 2 of Archaeology County Durham (2007).