Cowpen Bewley to Warden Law Gas Pipeline Archaeological Excavation

County Durham






Up until recently, archaeological excavations of lowland Iron Age settlement sites were a relatively rare phenomenon in the North-East of England. As a consequence, the region was viewed as being somewhat marginal during this period. Prof. Stuart Piggott, the pre-eminent 20th-century archaeologist, once opined that Iron Age society in this region was composed of little more than gangs of footloose Celtic cowboys (Piggott 1958), who would have roamed the prairies of East Durham and beyond. However, over the past decade or so, more and more Iron Age sites have been discovered as a result of archaeological works undertaken in association with major construction schemes. One such scheme is the Cowpen Bewley to Warden Law Gas Pipeline. Three Iron Age settlement sites were among a number of sites identified along the 30km pipeline route. All were situated within the northernmost third of the scheme, near Haswell in County Durham. The site at Pig Hill was the largest and most impressive, while another site to the south, Harehill Moor, was equally significant but relatively small. The very edge of a third settlement was recorded at High Haswell Farm, on the high ground between the other two settlements.

The settlement at Pig Hill was located along the crest of a ridge extending eastwards from a scheduled hill-top site. It was clearly a complex multiphase site, forming part of a much larger settlement that extended some distance along the ridge beyond the 135m length exposed within the pipeline easement. The remains included a rectangular structure, a series of ditched enclosures containing roundhouses, and a number of Iron Age features on a different alignment, including another rectangular structure, all of which had been truncated by medieval ridge and furrow. The site at Harehill Moor appeared to be unenclosed and comprised the remains of three roundhouses, two of which had clearly been rebuilt. In all cases, the buildings extended beyond the pipeline easement and so were only partially excavated. A small number of associated features were also identified. At High Haswell Farm, a cobbled surface, enclosure ditches and a collection of pits containing pottery and charred crop-processing waste suggested that the pipeline had crossed part of a settlement that lay mostly outside of the area of the groundworks.

"These sites...contribute significantly to the corpus of information now emerging for the Iron Age in this region."

Finds from all three sites were largely restricted to fragments of local pre-Roman Iron Age pottery. Evidence for iron working, in the form of prill and hammerscale, was also recovered from the Pig Hill settlement. Soil samples from the sites yielded carbonised seeds and chaff of wheat, barley, and also grass and weed seeds. Radiocarbon dating suggests that Pig Hill was occupied by 200BC but was abandoned by the very late Iron Age or early Roman period.

The Iron Age settlement at Pig Hill has good parallels within the region, the closest example probably being the early phase of the complex and long-lived settlement at Thorpe Thewles, near Stockton-on-Tees, which was investigated in the 1980s. However, excavated examples of unenclosed settlement sites like Harehill Moor are a rarity in the region, although they are thought to be under-represented due to difficulties in identification. Similar examples are known from South Shields and from Melsonby, near Richmond in North Yorkshire.

Although these sites may be considered rather modest when compared with other sites in the North of England, they still contribute significantly to the corpus of information now emerging for the Iron Age in this region. Increasingly, the evidence is suggesting that the Iron Age occupation in this part of the country comprised a complex and dynamic pattern of settlement and social integration. As such, although three more pins in the distribution map of Iron Age settlement might not seem much, they do constitute three more nails in the coffin of Piggott’s theory of a marginalised North-East.

Further information can be found in the following article:

Northern Archaeological Associates (2004) Two Iron Age Settlement Sites on the Route of the Cowpen Bewley to Warden Law Pipeline. Teesside Archaeological Society Bulletin 9, 30–3.


Piggott, S. (1958) ‘Native economies and the Roman occupation of North Britain’, in Richmond, I A (ed.) Roman and Native in North Britain. Nelson: Edinburgh, 1–27.

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