Heathery Burn Hoard, image 1
A selection of bronze objects from the Heathery Burn Hoard: sword, two spearheads, axe-head, nave-band, pins, tweezers, rings and knife-blade.
Source: British Museum website
Copyright: © Trustees of the British Museum
Heathery Burn Hoard, image 2
Bronze bucket from Heathery Burn, with other finds. The bucket is of thin sheet bronze and survives in a fragmentary state; here it has been mounted on a modern support. Other finds shown (all bronze) are: a pair of ‘phalerae’ (probably from a horse harness, these are cast shallow-domed discs with central perforations and four loops on the reverse, presumably for straps); a spearhead; an axe-head; an axe-head mould; a bronze knife blade; bronze tongs.
Source: British Museum website
Copyright: © Trustees of the British Museum

Heathery Burn Hoard, image 3
Gold penannular bracelet from the Heathery Burn hoard. The flat body is concave in the inner circumference. The edges are bent towards the inside. The solid terminals are plain & oval in section.
Source: British Museum website
Copyright: © Trustees of the British Museum

Heathery Burn Hoard, image 4
Three of the eight bronze nave-bands from the hoard. These are annular bands cast with two ribs and a flange; they served to strengthen the hub of a wooden spoked wheel and prevent splitting.
Source: British Museum website
Copyright: © Trustees of the British Museum

Heathery Burn Hoard, image 5
Gold penannular lock-ring. Thought probably to have been worn in the hair, it has a triangular cross-section with beaten face plates soldered together and secured by a C-shaped binding strip.
Source: British Museum website
Copyright: © Trustees of the British Museum

Eastgate Roman Altar
Original Location: Heathery Burn Cave, Stanhope Dene
Current Location: British Museum, London (& various others) Theme: Religion/Industrial
Period: Bronze Age
Date: c.900BC

What is it?
The Heathery Burn hoard is one of the most fascinating and important ritual hoards of late Bronze Age metalwork ever found in Britain. The objects were deposited in the centuries around 900BC in a cave, extending more than 150m underground, through which the Heathery Burn flowed above its confluence with the Stanhope Burn, about a mile north of the River Wear. The cave was destroyed by quarrying in the mid 19th century, when most of the finds (more than 200 objects) were made.

The finds, some of which are lost, are now mostly in the British Museum (196 objects). They include: bronze swords, axe-heads, spearheads, knives, horse fittings, rings, a razor, and a bucket; a bracelet and lock-ring of gold; objects of carved bone, antler, tooth and sea-shell; lots of pottery (now mostly lost) and a few flints. Of particular interest are eight bronze ‘nave-bands’, thought to have been mounted on the hubs of wheels of carts or chariots; these represent the earliest known evidence for wheels in Britain. Some human remains from at least 3 skeletons were also found, though there is no proof that these are contemporary with the Bronze Age artefacts.

What is its relevance to the North Pennines?
Although several other hoards of late Bronze Age date are known from the North Pennines, the range of objects and the nature of the cave render Heathery Burn unique. Ritual hoards are often associated with wet places, and the fact that the burn actually flowed through the cave must have been of considerable significance. The ‘sensible’ thing to do with old bronze objects was to recycle them into new objects, but here the choice was made to deposit them in a sacred cave, presumably as offerings to the gods. Whether the site was used exclusively by local communities, or whether people came here from afar, is not known, but it is unlikely that all the objects were made locally. The presence of sea shells demonstrates links with the coast, presumably the North Sea coast, but whether or not people actually came here from the coast is not known; the objects could have been traded between communities.

The actual discovery of the objects is in itself a fascinating story. The earliest archaeological discoveries in the cave were made in the mid 18th century, through the full significance of the site did not become known until the latter half of the 19th century during quarrying operations. The finds were recorded by the great Durham antiquary, Canon William Greenwell in the 1860s and early 1870s; he described the hoard as ‘one of the most valuable discoveries ever made in Britain of weapons, implements, ornaments, and other things belonging to the Bronze Age’. Given the area’s industrial history, it is perhaps appropriate, if unfortunate, that the site was destroyed by quarrying operations.

It is possible that other comparable sites may survive elsewhere in the North Pennines, perhaps, for example, in limestone formations near Middleton-in-Teesdale, but for now the Heathery Burn hoard provides us with a unique and spectacular record of everyday objects, together with a tantalising glimpse into the mysterious spiritual lives of local people, during the early first millennium BC.

Why is it important?
The Heathery Burn hoard is arguably the single most important prehistoric find from the North Pennines. Although the exact thinking behind the deposition of these objects here must remain forever a mystery, it seems clear that the cave was a sacred place, perhaps visited by generations of people over several centuries around 900BC to make offerings to their gods. Those objects that survive offer many possibilities for further research into ancient technology and society.

Further Information
    Text References:
  • Britton, D. 1971. "The Heathery Burn Cave Revisited: Towards the Reconstruction of a Well-Known Archaeological Discovery", The British Museum Quarterly 35 (1/4), 20–38.
  • Britton, D. & Longworth, I.H. (1968) Late Bronze Age finds from Heathery Burn Cave, County Durham. Inventaria Archaeologica 9th Series, GB 55M. British Museum, London.
  • Elliott, J. (1862a) On the discovery of human and animal bones in the Heathery Burn Cave, near Stanhope. The Geologist 5: 34-37.
  • Elliott, J. (1862b) Further discoveries in Heathery Burn Cave. The Geologist 5: 167-171.
  • Greenwell, W. 1894. "Antiquities of the Bronze Age found in the Heathery Burn Cave, County Durham", Archaeologia (2nd Series, 4), 87–114.
  • Harding, A.F. & Young, R. (1986) Pictures of an exhibition: new discoveries concerning the Heathery Burn hoard. Durham Archaeological Journal 2: 1-5.

  • External Links:
  • British Museum accession of Heathery Burn Hoard

 



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