Project Background

Sited as it is, on the River Eden Carlisle has historically, always been an important place: a regional centre, somewhere to meet-up and a stopping-off point for onward journeys elsewhere. Indeed, it is for these very reasons that the Carlisle Northern Development Route (CNDR) is so badly needed today. With such a long and rich history, it is little wonder that a wealth of archaeological remains should survive just below the soil of the fields that surround the city – most famously, it is still possible to stroll along the line of Hadrian’s Wall. In Roman times, the wall marked the northernmost boundary of the known world; nowadays, rightly designated a World Heritage site, it draws visitors from all over the world. Yet, this is just the tip of the iceberg and many more secrets of even greater antiquity are there to be found, if one knows where to look.

A team of archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology North (based in Lancaster) monitored by English Heritage and Cumbria County Council’s Historic Environment Services, has been excavating sites along the route of the new road on behalf of Birse Civils Ltd. It is nearly always a requirement that civil engineering projects of this scale have an archaeological programme and, as such, the engineers and archaeologists are well used to working alongside each other to ensure that the archaeology is recorded according to best practice, without causing any delays to construction. Some of the amazing finds that have been made bear testament to this spirit of cooperation, and will further bolster Carlisle’s reputation as a city with deep roots.

Archaeological and environmental concerns lie at the core of the road design plan and, over the last few years, desk-based studies, non-intrusive surveys and trial trench evaluations have been undertaken to ensure that any impact on the archaeology is minimised. Archaeologists have observed the removal of topsoil along the whole length of the new road, to ensure that nothing important was disturbed before it was recorded. Consequently, significant finds have been discovered, but those of the greatest interest lie adjacent to the banks of the River Eden. It is there that a new bridge is to be constructed over the River Eden, and Scheduled Monument Consent was granted to excavate a poorly preserved segment of Hadrian’s Wall, which had been severely eroded by the migrating river, where it coincided with the planned bridge abutment. This has provided a rare opportunity to address some of the many questions that yet remain unanswered regarding the western end of the Wall and, despite the poor state of its preservation, excavations have yielded excellent results, revealing the lowest courses of the Stone Wall, constructed on top of the original Turf Wall. Below the Turf Wall were earlier field boundary ditches that demonstrate the enclosure of the landscape, either by the Romans, who had already been in the region for fifty years by this time, or by the local tribespeople prior to the Romans’ arrival. Ancient soils sealed below the mounds of the Vallum, an earthwork to the south of, and closely associated with, the Wall, contain pollen and plant remains, which should provide information about the environment at the time of the Wall’s construction in the AD 120s.

On the floodplain on the northern banks of the River Eden, prehistoric remains were unearthed that date back to the first time the landscape was occupied, about 9,000 – 7,000 years ago, providing evidence for some of the earliest Cumbrians. These nomadic hunter-gatherers probably settled there in seasonal camps, perhaps to take advantage of marine and riverine resources, such as migrating salmon. A massive assemblage of struck stone tools – including many projectile points – associated with hearths on the banks of a relict channel of the Eden, show where people made their homes. Preserved wood in the channel bears the evidence of ancient woodworking, but also of other mammals, which shared this habitat. Tree trunks had been gnawed by beavers and dragged together by them to form lodges; it is even possible that the hunter-gatherers were first attracted to a clearing in the wildwood caused by the beavers, who can fell large areas of woodland in a very short time. Claw marks on another log seem much too big for a beaver and, tantalisingly, may hint at bears roaming the area.

Large circular cropmarks 150m upslope of these excavations suggest that two henge-type monuments mark this location on the edge of the floodplain as a once important place of congregation and ceremony for the first farming communities in the region, about 5,000 – 6,000 years ago. Elsewhere, it has been shown that, in the rituals enacted at these monuments and in their surroundings, people often make reference to and draw a contrast between wetland and dryland places. This may explain the unusual finds within the upper sequence of waterlogged channel deposits. In amongst the remains of a rudimentary wooden platform, a decorated pottery vessel, several pristine arrowheads and four stone axes were recovered. These finds are characteristic of the Neolithic period and three of the axes were made from stone derived from the central Lake District. At the same level in the channel were two very unusual wooden artefacts that have been radiocarbon-dated to the fourth millennium BC: three-pronged wooden ‘tridents’, measuring in excess of 2m in length, carefully carved by stone tools from single green oak planks. Similar artefacts were recovered during the nineteenth century at Ehenside Tarn, near Ravenglass, on the Cumbrian coast, and Armagh, in Northern Ireland, but their function is something of a mystery; it has been suggested that they may have been for agriculture or fishing, although none of the explanations proffered so far seem satisfactory.

Perhaps as much as 1,500 years later still, at the time of the first use of metal, the now silted, channel continued to remain a focus for activity. A collection of fire pits associated with spreads of burnt stone are evidence that social gatherings still took place there, which possibly involved feasting, saunas or the processing of natural resources.

As the construction of the road progresses, the archaeological fieldwork programme is coming to an end, but the work is only just beginning to make sense of all the findings. These sites, being some of the most important ever identified in northern Cumbria. It is hoped that, in years to come, the finds will form part of a permanent display at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, where they will be available for all to see.