North Tyneside Council
NAA were commissioned by North Tyneside Council to excavate a series of trial trenches to inform a proposed planning application for a small development at the site to improve visitor facilities and access to the Grade II listed 19th century lighthouse and its associated buildings. The site possibly represents one of the more unusual locations for an archaeological dig, with resident seals and sea birds as well as tidal working hours – time and tide wait for no man, or archaeologist!
Four small trial trenches were to be excavated around the lighthouse and visitor’s centre to identify any buried remains and assess the condition of the building foundations and the deposits on which they were constructed. Human remains had also been encountered during the construction of the lighthouse and adjacent Fishermen’s Cottages during the 19th century and periodically thereafter during small-scale construction works on the island. The human remains were thought to relate to burials associated with a medieval chapel of St Helen on the island and therefore a further key aim of the work was to potentially identify any in situ burials or structural remnants relating to this earlier phase of activity.
The trenches identified that prior to the construction of the lighthouse, the natural ground surface of the island had been capped with a thick layer of brown clay which contained fragments of brick rubble. Trench 3 demonstrated that the construction cut for the lighthouse tower was excavated through the redeposited clay, whereas the attached lighthouse-keeper’s cottage/visitor centre had been constructed later, atop sandstone foundations above the construction cut and artificial clay surface. The present ground level had then been attained by backfilling the area around the lighthouse with sand and rubble before capping it with concrete, representing a significant change to the topography of the island. A span of copper wire was also identified running across Trench 3 and is thought to have been the original earth wire for the lightning conductor atop the lighthouse tower.
Three trenches had demonstrated that the 1.2m depth limit of our evaluation trenches was mainly comprising made up ground associated with the 19th century construction of the lighthouse buildings and therefore our hope of finding anything earlier was fading. But in true archaeological tradition, towards the end of a Friday afternoon, at the base of our final evaluation trench was revealed a human burial. The burial was situated beneath the construction cut of the lighthouse-keeper’s cottages, which had unfortunately truncated the lower half of the grave. It was orientated east to west and was cut into a dark brown, sandy-clay, which presumably represented the original ground surface of St Mary’s Island. Only the top of the skull of the skeleton was revealed, which demonstrated the occupant to be facing north. Due to health and safety restrictions, no further excavation could be conducted, and the remains were recorded and left in situ in the event of further work. Although we were unable to discern further detail from the human remains, their presence represents the first archaeological evidence for the siting of a potentially medieval burial ground on St Mary’s Island.