Discoveries expected to include cremation urns, human remains, beakers and possibly bronze age weapons and jewellery.
When 4,000 years ago the people living on a windy stretch of magnificent Northumbrian coastline looked for a place to bury their dead, they chose a beautiful spot – a low hillock of dry land above marshes and creeks, in sight of the sea but a kilometre safely inland.
Now the sea is lapping at the ancient graves, and the Heritage Lottery Fund will on Tuesday announce a £300,000 grant to excavate the entire site at Low Hauxley, and rescue what remains of its ancient secrets.
Every storm gnaws away more of the boulder clay cliff and beach walkers regularly spot bits of 4,000-year-old pottery and cremated bone, or the edges of stone cist burial pits, poking out of the cliff face. A bronze blade was recently found lying on the beach, presumed washed out of the cliff but too heavy to travel any further in the waves.
Archaeologists believe at least half of the cemetery has already been destroyed by the sea, and the rest would inevitably follow – sooner rather than later as the nominal rate erosion, a metre a year, has been dramatically worse in the violent storms of recent winters.
“We know the stuff is in there, and if we’re ever to retrieve the information this site can give us about life here so long ago, it has to be now,” Steve Scoffing, the development manager at Northumberland Wildlife Trust’s Druridge Bay site, said. “Listing the site would give it no protection at all. The enemy here is the sea.”
The excavation, scheduled to begin in April, will be particularly tricky because the site is also classified as a Site of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its rare plants and wildlife. The archaeologists, joined by local volunteers, will first remove the entire layer of vegetation and save it. They will remove several metres of sand and stone, then excavate a 20×30 metre site of all its archaeology, and finally put everything else back, only for the sea, inevitably, to sweep away all their careful work some day in the not too distant future.
The discoveries, expected to include cremation urns, human remains, beakers and possibly bronze age weapons and jewellery, will be displayed in the Great North Museum.
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