Kirkhaugh Gold Hair Tress-Rings

Gold hair tress-ring discovered during Altogether Archaeology excavations, July 2014.
Source: Elisabeth Langton-Airey
Copyright: Elisabeth Langton-Airey

Kirkhaugh gold hair tress-rings

The moment of discovery! Four Alston schoolboys with the newly discovered gold tress-ring, July 2014.
Source: Marc Johnstone.
Copyright: Marc Johnstone.

Kirkhaugh flint arrow heads

Two flint arrowheads discovered during Altogether Archaeology excavations, July 2014.
Source: Elisabeth Langton-Airey
Copyright: Elisabeth Langton-Airey.

The Tortie Stone
Original Location: Burial cairn at Kirkhaugh, near Alston.
Current Location: Great North Museum, Newcastle
Theme: Cultural/Social
Period: Prehistoric - Neolithic/Bronze Age
Date: c.2400 BC

What is it?
A pair of exquisitely crafted gold tress-rings from a burial mound at Kirkhaugh, Alston. One found in 1935, the other by four local schoolboys (Sebastian and Luca Alderson, and Aidan and Joseph Bell) during Altogether Archaeology excavations in 2014. This entry in the Virtual Museum relates not solely to the gold, but to the entire burial assemblage, including a ‘cushion stone’, jet button, pottery vessel (beaker), and flint objects including four exquisite arrowheads

What is its relevance to the North Pennines?
The Kirkhaugh cairn is the earliest known burial site in the North Pennines, and one of the most important early burial sites in Britain. The only other known British burial containing a cushion stone (a portable anvil used by the very earliest metalworkers) and gold artefacts is the famous example known as the Amesbury Archer, from near Stonehenge. Analysis of his teeth proved that he came from the Alps, but for some unknown reason moved to Wessex, where he died in about 2,400BC. Unfortunately, re-excavation of the Kirkhaugh site in 2014 failed to recover any organic remains that might have provided similar information about the person buried here.

The Kirkhaugh burial may be regarded as marking the very start of local ore prospecting, leading in due course to the Roman exploitation of lead and silver, and eventually to the vast post-medieval lead industry for which the area is internationally famous. Although generally regarded as an ‘early Bronze Age site’, the context is essentially Neolithic (late Stone Age) – the gold tress-rings are quite possibly the very first metal objects ever seen by anyone in the North Pennines. We assume that whoever was wearing the gold came to the North Pennines as part of a small group of prospectors  in search of natural gold and copper (both were worked cold; bronze was not yet invented), but that something went horribly wrong resulting in his death; his comrades then gave him an appropriate burial. Although it is unlikely that any gold was ever found in the North Pennines, it is highly probable that considerable quantities of copper ore were readily available at or near the surface; future research may yet locate and investigate early copper mines.

Why is it important?
The Kirkhaugh burial is important for many reasons. It is a very rare example of an early metal worker’s grave, the only other known example from Britain being the Amesbury Archer. It is one of only ten sites in Britain where similar gold ornaments (amongst the very earliest metal objects known from Britain) have been found; the Kirkhaugh examples are exquisitely made, the detail is much more intricate than that of the Amesbury examples and others.

Further Information
    Text References:
  • Fitzpatrick, A. 2009. The Amesbury Archer and the Boscombe Bowmen. Bell Beaker Burials at Boscombe Down, Amesbury, Wiltshire. Salisbury, Wessex Archaeology Report 27.
  • Fitzpatrick, A. (forthcoming) The grave of the Bell Beaker metalworker at Kirkhaugh, Northumberland: a new study. – (This will be the main publication about Kirkhaugh; this page will be updated when the article is published).

    External Links:

    Other Information that might be useful:
    Note – the 1935 finds are on display in the Great North Museum, the 2014 finds are still undergoing analysis but will hopefully find their way to the GNM in due course.

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