Byrness : Prehistory
The attractions of the upper reaches of the valley of the Rede for early hunter-gatherer populations can be readily appreciated and in an extensively forested landscape would have provided such groups with a convenient route for seasonal migration from the coast to the uplands allowing access to a wide range of resources.
Communities in this Mesolithic - Middle Stone Age - period would have been small - essentially extended family groups - and foraged over very extensive areas. Following the introduction of farming c. 4000-3500 BC, more permanent settlement was possible, but evidence for Neolithic - New Stone Age - occupation and dwellings has proved elusive in this part of Northumberland.
The possible persistence of regular seasonal migration, or 'transhumance', but now with domesticated flocks and herds, along the lines practised in the medieval and early modern periods, cannot be excluded. The adoption of agriculture and pastoralism enabled population sizes and densities to increase. Kinship groups probably grew larger as a result, whilst occasional festivals may have prompted wider population gatherings for the purposes of exchanging goods and marriage partners etc., providing a mechanism for the development of wider clan or tribal associations.
The long cairn on Dour Hill, east of Byrness, provides an impressive and atmospheric relic of these early communities. The long mound above the Old Rectory is also intriguing in this regard and merits further investigation, although a prehistoric date cannot yet be confirmed. Such monuments would have been the focus of communal burial practices centred on worship of the ancestors. It has also been suggested that by placing such a prominent monument to their forefathers in the landscape these early farming groups were also establishing a powerful ancestral claim to this land.
The Three Kings, a four-poster burial monument located on the southern slopes of the valley above Low Byrness and Cottonshopeburnfoot, may be somewhat later in date, perhaps relating to the early-middle Bronze Age. It would have performed a similar function, although individual burials were generally interred in these monuments, rather than collections of bones from many individuals, disarticulated as a result of outside exposure of the corpses, typical of the Neolithic long cairns. Such changes in burial practice are considered important indicators of social change, perhaps signifying a move towards a more stratified society led by a chiefly elite.
However, relatively few hillforts and palisaded hilltop enclosures, typical of the late Bronze Age and Iron Age, have been identified in this part of Redesdale. Such sites represent obvious central places or focal points for entire communities. In their absence, it is difficult to map a clear settlement pattern, and the valley may have been relatively sparsely populated at this time.
Picture: Possible Burial Mound at Byrness