Stone Age houses discovered at Yorkshire quarry could be UK's first surviving examples using timber

So well-preserved is the wood discovered at a quarry near Northallerton that it looks as though it was felled only yesterday, say staggered archaeologists.

But the cause for them “jumping for joy” this week is that the materials go back to the Stone Age - and may well be the UK’s first surviving example of houses on which timbers were used – so could shed new light an a still-mysterious time in history.

Rubert Lotherington, Project Manager, based at the Archaeological Research Services Ltd. Picture: James Hardisty.

Rubert Lotherington, Project Manager, based at the Archaeological Research Services Ltd. Picture: James Hardisty.

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The remains of two buildings were uncovered during excavations at Tarmac’s Killerby quarry around ten miles from the North Yorkshire town.

The rare findings have come about through a 10-year collaboration between the company, which owns the site, and Archaeology Research Services Ltd (ARS).

Clive Waddington, managing director of ARS, said the find was “unprecedented” and could reveal new stories of how people lived in a period which is still not known about in too much detail.

The remains of a Mesolithic structure found at Killerby.

The remains of a Mesolithic structure found at Killerby.

“It’s going to shed brand new light on these huts, these little shelters, living spaces, when Britain was being reconstructed after the last Ice Age. It’s completely solid information.”

The remains are believed to be from the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, which in Britain date back to around 12,000 and 6,000 years ago respectively.

One is made from two Y-shaped poles around 2.5 metre to three metre in length and constructed in an A-frame shape, and the remnants are thought to be part of a structure that was built on the edge of a pond and used as a temporary encampment during the drier summer months.

Another structure located at a lower level, radiocarbon dated to around 10,000 years ago, was formed by six metre to seven metre long poles that appear to have been used to make a cone-shaped structure.

This would have been covered with reed thatch, hides or other forms of covering, similar to a tepee, and has the remains of its last fire still present, experts have said.

Evidence for the trimming of the poles can be seen as well as marks made by stone axe heads used on the timbers.

The find also signals the success of innovative methodology for archaeologists.

“Very specific circumstances” led to the preservation of the remains, which have rested in peat without oxygen.

Usually, environmental scientists would “core down” into the earth using a mechanical device similar to a drill, taking samples from below ground so sediments and layers can be analysed, but archaeologists have not “systematically excavated” such sites before, said Dr Waddington.

He said: “When these timbers came in we were jumping for joy.

“We realised this approach had paid off and it was a significant achievement. We’re really pleased.”

He said that “satisfying curiosity about the past is what drives people like myself,” but discoveries such as this one provide new fact-based stories for the wider public about the country’s history.

“This [method] has really shown its utility and I think it’s going to probably give rise to a new approach going forward, and establish some of the great sites in the coming years.”

He added: “We will be undertaking further analysis, including precise dating, and analysing the material from the hearth pit to tell us what kind of activities were taking place, what food people were eating, and what time of year the site was occupied.

“No other Mesolithic settlement structures have yielded timbers, and these are so well-preserved they look like they were felled yesterday. We are still in the process of understanding whether this could have formed part of an ancient seasonal camp or whether it relates to some other form of activity, but a settlement site seems the most likely at the moment.”

ARS Ltd has carried out a wide range of archaeological works, which includes fieldwalking, evaluation trenching, excavation, desk-based research, as well as geomorphological mapping and coring.

Various remains from the Mesolithic era (9,700 BC to 4,000 BC) to the Romano-British period (43 AD to 410 AD), including rare flint arrowheads, axe-heads, knives and scraping tools, have been discovered.

Alan Coe, production manager for North Yorkshire at Killerby Quarry, said: “We’re very excited with this latest finding from Killerby.

“It’s extremely important that items of historic interest are catalogued and thoroughly researched during our preparatory work, so that they can be recorded and the information shared with the public.

“Without this work being carried out at the quarry, findings such as these would have never seen the light of day.”

Tarmac, a CRH company, describes itself as the UK’s leading sustainable building materials and construction solutions business.