Brakes Farm, Sedgefield Rural Excavation

County Durham


Theakston Farms LLP



Geophysical Survey

Trial Trenching


In 2009, NAA was commissioned to carry out an excavation in advance of construction of a new caravan park at Brakes Farm, to the west of Hardwick Hall, near Sedgefield in County Durham. The site lies on the northern side of the A689. Geophysical survey and trial trenching identified a number of potential archaeological features, including a 23m-square ditched enclosure. Subsequent excavation demonstrated that this did not contain any internal features, and no datable finds were recovered from the ditches. The enclosure is of a type common in the North-East that is usually dated to the later Iron Age or Roman period and was probably associated with a settlement complex known from cropmarks at Home Farm on the opposite side of the A689.

A grave had been cut into the infilled ditch at its south-eastern corner. It contained the poorly preserved skeleton of a woman aged 46 or older, who was lying in an extended supine position with her head to the west-southwest. She had suffered from extensive degenerative joint disease and osteoarthritis, and there was also evidence for muscle trauma in both upper legs. In addition, she had extremely poor dental health, with extensive tooth-loss (only two of her lower teeth remained) and a dental abscess.

Burials cut into ditches are a common find on Late Iron Age and Roman sites, and hence the discovery at Brakes Farm was not unexpected. However, several radiocarbon dates obtained from the skeleton showed that the woman had died not during Roman times but in the Saxo-Norman period, sometime between AD1030–1155.

By the later Anglo-Saxon period the Church encouraged burial in churchyards (not least for the resulting revenues that it collected) and, until recently, such ‘rural’ or ‘field’ burials were considered highly unusual and interpreted as the graves of those denied churchyard burial, including those who had committed suicide, been executed or excommunicated, or had been victims of murder. However, the routine use of radiocarbon dating is beginning to identify more of these rural burials. It seems clear that, despite the silence of historical sources on the subject (many of them written by churchmen), a proportion of the rural population continued to bury their dead closer to home. The practice seems to have largely died out by the later medieval period, perhaps as a result of the continuing concentration of the rural population into villages, with their centralised cemeteries.          

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