Rochester : 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 cairns on Dour Hill and Bellshiel Law, further up the valley, provide impressive and atmospheric relics of these early communities. 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.
Although relatively few hillforts and palisaded hilltop enclosures, typical of the late Bronze Age and Iron Age, have been identified in this part of Redesdale, one example of just such a defensible enclosure has been discovered through geophysical survey at High Rochester itself, in the level field immediately west of the Roman fort (Crow 2004a, 216-217).
It takes the form of a sub-rectangular, double-banked enclosure extending as far as the break in the slope down to the Sills Burn and was partly overlain by a smaller annexe associated with the fort itself. It is almost identical in shape and size to other large Iron Age enclosures known in the southern part of the county, notably at Manside Cross some 15km south east of Rochester. These well-fortified sites represent obvious central places or focal points for entire communities. Indeed Crow (ibid.) has suggested that the fact that Bremenium was included in the geographer Ptolemy’s map of the ancient world signifies not so much the presence there of the Roman fort, but perhaps its significance as a pre-Roman centre. The enclosure may have functioned as an assembly point or gathering place for the surrounding tribal community.
Settlements fortified on this scale are however much commoner further north, around the Cheviot massif for example, and their relative sparsity in Redesdale makes it difficult to map a clear late Bronze Age and early-mid Iron Age settlement pattern for this area. By the late Iron Age, in contrast, a widespread, dispersed settlement pattern of enclosed farmsteads was probably becoming established in the valley and this persisted throughout the succeeding Romano-British era. These settlements were smaller and less defensible than the examples at High Rochester and Manside Cross, previously described, but, like those two, the farmstead enclosures were predominantly rectilinear in plan.