County Durham


The Environment Agency / Greatham Managed Realignment project


Desk-based assessment



Between 2010 and 2015, archaeological works on behalf of the Environment Agency in the area of Greatham Creek and Cowpen Marsh uncovered funerary and settlement evidence spanning approximately 4000BC to AD410. The archaeologists toiled through terrible winter weather to recover significant new artefacts and record previously undiscovered remains along the fringe of the prehistoric marshes. The areas of investigation now form part of a nature reserve.

The earliest evidence found for human activity in the Tees Estuary catchment were flint tools dating from the Early Mesolithic to the Early Neolithic. A group of prehistoric features was recorded close to a former watercourse (palaeochannel) at the edge of the salt marsh. These comprised the ring-gully of a roundhouse, a few pits and postholes, as well as an associated midden deposit containing burnt stone, flint tools, pottery and a few fragments of burnt bone at the base of the channel. Bayesian analysis of four radiocarbon measurements from the roundhouse showed it was occupied during the Middle or Late Bronze Age. This confirmed the dating suggested by pottery and a jet dress-fitting, making the dwelling a rare and significant example of earlier prehistoric settlement in County Durham.

Inland of the settlement, a double burial monument formed by the remains of two small round barrows was investigated. Although no burials had survived later ploughing, fragments of burnt bone, a few sherds of pottery and a radiocarbon date suggested that they were Iron Age ‘barrowlets’. As part of the archaeological project, the former mounds of the monuments were reconstructed to how they may have once looked and now form part of the nature reserve and can be seen from the footpath that runs along the railway line south of Greatham.

Elsewhere, part of a later settlement dated by pottery to the Iron Age produced evidence of crop processing and metalworking. The settlement may have been contemporary with a long sinuous boundary formed by ditches and a bank and elements of a system of fields. Over time, the Iron Age settlement expanded in size, the ditches enclosing it being re-dug to define an increasingly larger area, and the surrounding fields became more ordered. The settlement was still in existence during the Roman period, when clay digging was taking place and the inhabitants were using mortaria and samian pottery.

Despite the seemingly ideal tidal creek location, no evidence for salt-making was found by the excavations. Historic sources note salt-winning in the area throughout the medieval period and widespread exploitation of deeper salt beds took place locally until 1970.

An open day held in Greatham Community Centre gave residents an opportunity to find out what had been discovered on their doorstep. The displays included visual reconstructions based on the excavations and a selection of finds and photographs. Over 150 people attended, including children, budding archaeologists, representatives of local schools, the press and local government.

The full results of the excavation are published in:

Fell, D. and Robinson, G. (2018) Life of Brine? Bronze Age and Later Discoveries at Marsh House Farm, Greatham, Hartlepool. NAA Monograph Series 2

To find out how to get a copy of this monograph click here

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