Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust
With the fieldwork well under way, it seems like an ideal time to share some of the fabulous discoveries made at Berwick-upon-Tweed Infirmary, where a large team of NAA’s archaeologists have been working with Northumbria NHS Trust to investigate extensive archaeological remains surviving beneath the hospital.
England’s most northerly town has a fascinating history, which remains central to its identity and a source of interest and pride for its inhabitants. Berwick’s origins lie in the Anglo Saxon period and the name derives from an Anglo Saxon word berewic, meaning ‘corn farm’, more specifically the bere refers to barley, which was among the key local products generating wealth throughout the medieval period, when the site was a hive of activity.
Once demolition of the outdated hospital buildings began in late Spring 2021, it became clear that archaeological deposits of historic importance and substantial research value were remarkably well-preserved across the development area. Consequently, it was quickly agreed with local planning archaeologists that the remains should be examined and recorded thoroughly before being lost during demolition works. While these extensive investigations are expected to continue for several months, we are keen to share some initial impressions inspired by the wonderful suite of artefacts, animal bones and structures revealed so far.
As we investigate each zone within the site, remains of varying character and date are starting to reveal what activities took place centuries ago, and more recently. Along the northern and eastern boundaries, we have uncovered dense concentrations of medieval rubbish pits and latrines, each infilled with mixtures of organic materials that have rotted down. These features are goldmines for archaeologists as they contain people’s everyday waste, such as pottery, animal bone and fish bone, which often reveal what the people were eating and sometimes what work they were doing.
Occasionally, we are lucky enough to find metallic items, such as this bone handled knife! There are a growing number of wooden bowls and leather shoes, preserved for centuries in the oxygen-free waterlogged soils filling each of the wells located in the northern part of site. All of these objects, and the features they were found within, relate directly to life during Berwick’s turbulent medieval past. By the time of the Domesday survey in 1086, the growing settlement had become a busy gateway market town, the River Tweed having been adopted as the border between England and Scotland in 1018. Thereafter, the town was adopted as a key port for the international wool trade and even incorporated a royal mint, but Berwick’s strategic position and economic prosperity also attracted numerous English and Scottish military campaigns that sought to gain control of the border town, which famously changed hands fourteen times between the 11th and 15th centuries.
In 1296 Edward I of England took control of Berwick and instigated the construction of a defensive circuit which comprised of a stone wall with a number of half-round towers, fronted by a V-shaped ditch. The medieval defences are still visible running along High Greens, a short walk to the north of here. The medieval town developed mainly within the confines of the defensive wall due to the need for security, and this site would have fallen within the limits of the walls at that time.
Early illustrations suggest that one of the main roads through the medieval town existed on what is now Low Greens, which borders the eastern edge of this site. The northern part of the walled area, encompassing this development area, functioned as a medieval ‘backland’ or open area associated with agriculture and small-scale industrial practices.
The construction of the larger Elizabethan town walls in the second half of the 16th century further isolated this area from the main focus of the newly walled town, as it was located between the two lines of defences. Over subsequent years this area of Berwick was not as intensively occupied as the town’s core, meaning that a snapshot of Berwick’s medieval past was largely preserved.
From the analysis of the archaeological remains we will be able to learn more about the ordinary people who lived here in the medieval period, what types of agriculture and industry took place in this part of the town and how it changed over time.
This high-profile project has attracted frequent attention both from local and national media, with BBC news features appearing in April and November!
Over the summer holidays, more than a thousand residents and holidaymakers attended our acclaimed open days, culminating in a Heritage Open Day hosted at the site. We have even hosted an event attended by local MP and Secretary of State for International Trade, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who clearly enjoyed a guided tour along with a cohort of senior NHS executives.
Amidst all this excitement, however, it is most important that we repay the hospitality shown by the residents of Berwick by producing an engaging account of how their forebears lived in this stunning part of the country.