The story of the Ancient Don Gorge
The Don Gorge is a rich archaeological landscape, spanning over 150,000 years of human activity and occupation. We have been able to build up a detailed picture of the history of the Don Gorge thanks to the discoveries made not by archaeologists, but by you, the members of the public. You have uncovered an astonishing collection of artefacts, telling a fascinating and incredible story of life in the Don Gorge from the last Ice age to the Viking settlements.
In the early eighties, Alan Peace a DMBC employee; after attending lectures on Archaeology at Doncaster Museum, began to systematically survey an area known as Cadeby cliff in the Don Gorge by field walking, and made an archaeological discovery that has changed the picture of prehistory in the Doncaster area. He recorded his finds in meticulous detail and deposited them with the Museum Service for future research and safekeeping.
Thanks to his kind donation, this material is now in the care of Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery, where it can be appreciated by everybody.
UPDATE: You can now read Alan's account of how he became involved in archaeology and the Don Gorge by clicking here.
The Museum also holds many artefacts recovered by metal detector users such as Mr D. Holdsworth. These objects along with the information of where they were found were gifted to the Museum, so that we could build up a picture of the past.
The story can be split into six distinct periods:
The Ice Age
Very little was known about the early Prehistory of the Don Gorge, until recently, when a museum volunteer, Mrs Andrea Marshall, discovered a forgotten article in the archives for the Doncaster Chronicle, dated 5th July 1878. The article told of the discovery of Ice Age animal remains by workmen during the digging of tunnels near Cadeby Viaduct. The remains turned out to be woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros and horse. Some of the bones also displayed the teeth marks of hyena.
At the nearby site of Creswell Craggs evidence for the same animal remains have been found in far greater quantities, and with them evidence for early humans (both Neanderthals and Homo-Sapiens). The caves at Creswell Crags, near Worksop, have produced flint tools, decorated animal bones and rock art. It is possible that the same evidence exists in caves and fissure deposits in the Don Gorge. The very same humans who lived and hunted at Creswell may also have done so in the Don Gorge.
There is definite evidence for human habitation by 8,300 B.C (the start of the Mesolithic). At this time people are living a nomadic lifestyle, following the herds of deer and horse across large geographic areas, and supplementing their hunting diet with foraging for edible plants, nuts and berries. As they moved across the landscape they would set up temporary seasonal camps, as bases from which they could exploit the surrounding wilderness. Evidence suggests that throughout the Mesolithic from 8,300 - 4,500 B.C (The start of the Neolithic) such a seasonal camp existed in the Don Gorge, close to the river. Here, in the Don Gorge, they were perfectly placed to fish in the river, hunt wild boar, deer and horse in the forests and open grasslands and forage for all kinds of plant food.
Into the Neolithic (4,500 - 2,150 B.C), these transient hunter-gatherers gradually began to settle in the Don Gorge. As they domesticated the wild plants and animals around them to provide a more frequent and reliable source of food, the need to follow the migrating herds lessened. People began to build small farming settlements, altering the wild landscape around them. As their leisure time increased, they constructed burial chambers (known as long barrows) and social/religious monuments (called henges) close to their settlements. Artefacts found in the Don Gorge suggest that the high ground overlooking the river gorge served as a social and religious focal point for the dispersed farming communities in the area.
Evidence for the Bronze Age (2,500 - 800 B.C) suggests that the area around Cadeby cliffs and Cadeby Viaduct continued to be a focus for religious rather than domestic activity. This period witnessed the intensification of farming and a social hierarchy who had their own burial monuments (known as round barrows). Along with the invention of bronze, came the manufacture of prestige personal items which indicated social status, such as bronze weapons, gold and silver jewellery, and high status beautifully crafted flint objects such as the plano convex knife, thumbnail scrapers and barbed and tanged arrowheads which were often deposited as grave goods in burials.
There is very little physical evidence for the Iron Age (700 B.C - 43 A.D) in the Don Gorge. The only artefact from the study area is the decorative sword scabbard mouth guard and chape, which date to the late Iron Age (c100 B.C) into the early Roman period (c 50 A.D). They were carefully placed together (the mouth guard slotted over the chape) and buried. It is possible that they were buried as part of a religious ritual, perhaps around the time of the conquest of the North 55-79 A.D.
The Romano-British period
Our evidence from the area, for the Roman period, is roughly concentrated between c 150 A.D to c 375 A.D, covering the height of Roman rule in Britain towards its gradual decline in 410 A.D. This part of northern Britain (north of Doncaster) had remained independent of direct Roman military and civil intervention until 55 A.D. By 79 A.D the area was brought completely under Roman rule. The river Don had probably been the tribal boundary between the Corieltauvi (to the south) and the Brigantes (to the North), who brought Roman conquest on themselves, through expelling the client Queen, Cartimandua and revolting against Roman rule. By 150 A.D the Doncaster area was controlled by a fort in the centre of Doncaster sitting at a crossing point of the River Don. A number of villas (large wealthy estate farms) scattered across the area and a concentration of potteries, suggest that the area had become economically prosperous under Roman rule. Other than the presence of the Roman army (auxiliary and cavalry units) most of the population are likely to have been indigenous. The finds from the Don Gorge suggest a number of scattered (relatively prosperous) farmsteads around the gorge with a military presence (perhaps a small fort) in or near Conisbrough, guarding the River Don crossing. The artefacts from the Don Gorge suggest that the area was continually occupied during this period, and at times enjoyed great prosperity, once during the late 100s A.D and again in the mid 200s A.D. At these times the settlements were able to afford and acquire high status Roman pottery and personal items such as jewellery, some of which was imported into the area from considerable distances. It is possible that this was due to the presence of the Roman army in the immediate area and the traders, merchants and craftsmen that would accompany them. Artefacts found between Cadeby Cliffs and Pot Ridings Wood suggests the presence of a farmstead(s) and/or small military outpost, which seem to have been almost continually occupied between 150 - 375 A.D. The discovery of several coin hoards close to these identified settlements is either evidence for religious rituals such as the practice of making offerings to the gods or for periods of insecurity where it was felt necessary to find a safe place to store valuable possessions.
Anglo-Saxon to Viking period
There is very little evidence for Anglo- Saxon culture in the wider Doncaster area until about the 800s A.D, and this is certainly no different for the Don Gorge. All of the artefact evidence from the Don Gorge dates to between 800 and 950 AD, by which time the Doncaster area belonged to the southern most part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. The church of St Peter's in Conisbrough dates to around 750 AD and is a typical example of an early Northumbrian minster. The name Conisbrough comes from the Saxon Coenburgh, which means king's Stronghold, suggesting that the Kings of Northumbria had a fortification in the area, perhaps close to the church or the Norman castle. It certainly seems to have been an important Anglo-Saxon settlement and would have been an important strategic site, guarding a crossing point of the River Don. In 866 a Viking army led by Halfdan Wide-embrace and Ivarr the Boneless marched north from the Thames estuary and captured York, bringing Northumbria & Mercia under Viking rule, creating what is commonly referred to as the Danelaw (an area subject to Danish Law). Place names such as Cadeby and Denaby are of Viking origin (the 'by' element meaning a farmstead in Danish) and are evidence of the transfer of ownership of land to Danish soldiers and families once the area came under Danish rule.
Creswell Craggs Images Copyright 2007 Robert Nicholls, courtesy of Creswell Heritage Trust, all other images copyright 2007 Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery.