Schoolboys find Britain's earliest gold and 4,300-year-old grave of high-status mystery maker

By Ben Miller | 05 August 2014

An ancient hair tress has been found near the grave of an early gold seeker and metal worker at a farm in Northumberland

A photo of a gold archaeological artefact against a blue background
The Copper Age hair tress found in Northumberland© Courtesy North Pennines AONB Partnership
When experts launched a dig on a burial mound on a farm on the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, they hoped to find bones and teeth which could be examined under the same techniques used to identify Stonehenge’s famous Amesbury Archer.

Despite being denied human remains by the erosive effects of time and soil conditions, their key discovery – chanced upon by an excited schoolboy ancestor of an archaeologist who made a famous find in the region almost 80 years ago – proved to be an ornament worn as a head tress 4,300 years ago, made to the amazement of the public by one of the country’s earliest metal craftsmen, whose grave was also revealed.

“When the metal worker arrived in the area I’m sure he’ll have been seen as someone very exotic and special,” says Paul Frodsham, who led 50 careful volunteers on the nine-day excavation at Randalholme Farm, in Kirkhaugh.

“We can only assume he was buried here, alone, because he was a long way from home and died unexpectedly.

“It’s intriguing to consider people from far away, thousands of years ago, may have travelled to the North Pennines in search of precious metals.

“The chances are that no-one here will have ever seen a metal object until he showed up.

“All archaeological sites are important in their own way, but this is exceptional.

“It can be regarded as marking the very start of mineral exploitation in the North Pennines, leading in due course to Roman exploitation of lead and silver, and eventually to the vast post-medieval lead industry for which the region is internationally famous.”

Professor Andrew Fitzpatrick, who led the Wiltshire dig which found the Bronze Age Amesbury Archer in 2002, says the gold ornaments and cushion stones make Kirkhaugh and Stonehenge the only known examples of early metalworkers’ graves in Britain.

“I don’t think that it is a coincidence that the grave it is on is at the edge of the Alston ore field,” he believes.

“I think the man buried at Kirkhaugh was part of a small group that was prospecting for copper over 4,000 years ago.

“The tress rings discovered at Kirkhaugh are examples of the very first gold objects found in Britain.

“The oldest dated examples, found with the Amesbury Archer, are almost 4,400 years old.

“These tress rings have only been found at 10 sites in Britain, so they must have been precious items.

“The person buried at Kirkhaugh was clearly of very high status.”

Buried alongside three “beautiful” flint arrowheads and a jet button, the intricately-decorated 33-millimetre tress dates to the pre-Bronze Age period known as the Copper Age.

Two young brothers who were involved in the dig are the great-grandsons of Joseph William Alderson – a member of a team which discovered a partner tress at Kirkhaugh during an excavation in 1935.

“We were digging carefully in the ground and I saw something shiny,” said one seven-year-old member of the dig, helped by professional archaeologists from Newcastle.

“It was gold. We started dancing with joy. It was very exciting.”

“To take part in the actual excavation, and to find things, was awesome,” said one of his friends.

“I can’t wait to go back to school to tell everyone, because they will never believe what we found,” added another.

William and Joan Raine invited the archaeologists onto the farm.

“I was lucky enough to find one of the beautiful flint arrowheads, which was a wonderful experience.” says Joan, who took part in the search.

“We always knew the burial mound existed, but we never thought there would be such interesting artefacts to be found.”

Frodsham hopes to display the old and new tresses once more research has been carried out.

“We will never know for sure why this man was buried at Kirkhaugh, who he was, or where he came from,” he says of the mystery maker.

“But he has certainly left a fascinating legacy for us to contemplate.

“We hope the newly found ornament will eventually find its way to the Great North Museum in Newcastle, where it can be reunited with its long-lost partner from the 1935 dig.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of a group of schoolboys crouching and smiling on an archaeological dig
© Courtesy North Pennines AONB Partnership
A photo of an outstretched palm holding a small gold archaeological artefact
© Courtesy North Pennines AONB Partnership
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Latest comment: >Make a comment
From the article:
. . . chanced upon by an excited schoolboy ancestor of an archaeologist who made a famous find in the region almost 80 years ago . . .
[End quote]

So, did the author of the article really mean to write:
. . . chanced upon by an excited schoolboy descendant of an archaeologist who made a famous find in the region almost 80 years ago . . .

I find the logistics of a present-day schoolboy who is an ancestor of someone a bit of a challenge to comprehend.
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