Early settlements (12,000 - 4,000 BC)
The earliest human settlers of South Tyneside probably arrived after the retreat of the ice at the end of the Ice Age. The period lasting from around 12,000 to 4,000 BC is known by archaeologists as the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age. At this time, settlers survived by hunting and fishing using small stone arrow-points or blades (microliths), which were attached to bone or wooden tools and by gathering wild plants. Mesolithic flint tools have been found on the coast at Whitburn and Marsden Quarry. A harpoon-head made of antler was retrieved from Whitburn shore in 1852. In March 1989, a probable Mesolithic site was identified by archaeologists at Potter's Hole.
The period from 4,000 to 2,000 BC is known as the Neolithic or New Stone Age. This was the era of the first farmers, who cultivated wheat and barley and raised domestic cattle, sheep and pigs. Hunting supplemented their diet. The population was more sedentary and they marked out the landscape with ritual monuments such as burial mounds, mortuary structures and communal camps. In 1929 a human burial in a cist (stone lined grave) was found during road widening at Wheatall Farm near Whitburn. Pottery vessels were made for the first time and stone tools at this time were larger, and included polished stone axes and arrowheads. Neolithic tools, including a spearhead or axe, an arrowhead and a polished axe, have been recovered from Downhill at West Boldon, Cleadon, South Shields, Marsden and Jarrow Slake.
Around 2,000 BC, bronze metalwork - tools, jewellery, armour and weapons - began to be created, leading to this time being labelled the Bronze Age. A socketed bronze axe was found at Trow Rocks in 1864 and a sword was recovered from the River Tyne at South Shields before 1892. There is also a bronze axe held by South Shields museum. During the Bronze Age settlements of timber roundhouses enclosed by palisades appeared, although no such site has yet been found in South Tyneside. A number of burial mounds are known however, one at Trow Rocks, removed during nineteenth century quarrying operations, and a male skeleton possibly within a barrow was found at Downhill in 1899 during the construction of a reservoir.
Iron was introduced after 1000 BC, but bronze objects such as a La Tene brooch and a coin of Tasciovanus struck at Verulamium (St. Albans) both found at South Shields, continued to be made. This area was under the control of the Brigantes tribe during this period. Iron Age settlements in the uplands took the form of hillforts, and scattered farmsteads in the lowlands. A round house and complex of pits, which would have formed part of a farmstead settlement, have been excavated by archaeologists beneath the parade ground at Arbeia Roman Fort at South Shields. Inside the house were the possible remains of a wattle basket for carrying grain, and several metal objects including an adze head. The house was destroyed by fire at some point between 390 and 170 BC.
The Roman invasion
The Romans invaded Britain in AD 43 but the north of England was not subjugated until after AD 71. Arbeia Roman Fort in South Shields, built during the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius, served as a supply base for the Roman army stationed on Hadrian's Wall. It was equipped with a large number of granaries for storing grain. The Fort is protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument and forms part of the Hadrian's Wall Unesco World Heritage Site. A civilian settlement, or 'vicus', of considerable size (some 25 hectares) developed around the fort. The remains of buildings, wells, roads, pottery, coins, a pipeclay statuette, and a quernstone (for grinding corn) have been recorded within an area bounded by Mile End Road (west), Costan Drive and St.Aidan's Road (south), Lawe Road (east) and Green's Place (north). Here small-scale industrial production and trade took place. Finds of human skeletons, tombstones, funerary monuments and cremations suggest that a cemetery or cemeteries were located south of the south-west corner of the fort.
The traditional end of Roman rule is taken to be AD 410, however the Roman fort was still occupied well into the fifth century and perhaps beyond. From the mid fifth century Angles from the border of Germany and Denmark and Saxons from Northern Germany settled in Britain. According to tradition, the site of Arbeia is supposed to be the birthplace of Oswin, who was crowned King of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Deira in 642. No evidence of any seventh century settlement has been found at Arbeia, but several Anglo-Saxon objects have been found, suggesting that there was occupation somewhere in the area. Finds include a gilt cruciform fitting possibly from a horse harness or the cover of a book, a stylus for writing on wax tablets, a gaming piece and dress pins of copper alloy and bone. St. Paul's Monastery at Jarrow is amongst the most important Anglo-Saxon sites in Tyne and Wear. Together with its sister site at Monkwearmouth, it is proposed as a candidate World Heritage Site. The monastery, at which Bede was a student at the age of 9, was completed by Benedict Biscop. It was built by monks from Monkwearmouth on land donated in 681. It was abandoned following Viking raids in 794, reoccupied briefly in 874-5 and revived after the Norman Conquest in 1072 by Aidan, Prior of Winchcombe. The monastery and associated cemetery have been archaeologically excavated by Professor Rosemary Cramp. Carved stonework, early coloured glass, fine imported pottery and styli for writing were amongst the finds.
There are no Viking settlements in South Tyneside, however several supposed Viking boats were recorded by nineteenth century antiquarians in Denmark Street and Mile End Road in South Shields and in the River Don at Boldon.
During the medieval period the manor, which comprised of a manor house (there was for example a fortified manor house at Hebburn, said to have been incorporated into the present Hebburn Hall, and a tower at Cleadon), one or more villages and several acres of land divided up for meadow, pasture and arable strips, was the economic and social unit. The earthwork remains of ridge and furrow, representing medieval agriculture, survive in green fields throughout the district. There were 13 medieval villages in South Tyneside - Whitburn, Monkton, Preston, Jarrow, Simonside, Westoe, Harton, Newton Garths, West Boldon, East Boldon, Cleadon, Hebburn and Hedworth, where there was also a deer park. Buried remains of the medieval buildings rarely survive due to modern developments but medieval objects such as pottery, coins, a belt tag, buckles, a stone ball and a bone ring have frequently been found. Medieval churches still survive at Whitburn and West Boldon. South Shields became a new town in the medieval period, and was certainly in existence by 1235. In 1256 it comprised of 27 houses, 2 ovens, 4 breweries, and salmon fisheries. By the beginning of the sixteenth century it had attained considerable importance as a seaport, with mills and saltpans. The early town seems to have been a long street parallel with the river, on either side of Mill Dam.
The Industrial Revolution
South Tyneside, occupying a prominent location at the mouth of the River Tyne, thrived during the Industrial Revolution, the countryside scarred by stone, clay and gravel quarries and there were collieries at Hebburn, Jarrow, South Shields, Harton, Whitburn and Boldon. Iron works, glassworks, shipyards, brick works and chemical plants were constructed along the riverside, and used cheap coal from the Great Northern Coalfield as fuel. River transport brought raw materials into the area ready for manufacture and finished goods were transported away via ship or by rail. The incoming empty ships were laden with ballast which was deposited on the riverside, burying any early archaeological remains under a considerable depth of sand and gravel. Ballast commonly contained flint and Cornish clay which could be used by local potteries.
Post-war and modern day
The modern period is of no less interest. 65 World War Two sites are known in South Tyneside including many pillboxes, 15 anti aircraft, searchlight and rocket batteries, 2 decoys, 4 barrage balloon sites, a supply depot and a prisoner of war camp at West Boldon.
You can learn more about the archaeology of South Tyneside from the Historic Environment Record (HER), the archaeology database of Tyne and Wear, which is maintained by the Tyne and Wear Specialist Conservation Team. Find more information about the Historic Environment Record or HER visit Sitelines.
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