North East News

Durham's Earliest Resident Unearthed

Durham University archaeologists have discovered human remains they believe to be Durham’s earliest known resident. A team from the University’s Archaeological Services unearthed the bone fragments while excavating off Claypath, in Durham City, on a site developed and now operated by student accommodation provider Student Castle.

They have dated remains, which they found in a shallow pit, to 90BC-60AD – making the deceased the City’s earliest recorded resident.

Most of the identifiable bone came from the person’s skull, though parts of their radius (forearm) and tibia (shin bone) were also recovered.

From what remained, experts were able to establish that the person was an adult and had been cremated, but could not determine their age or sex.

Natalie Swann, Senior Project Archaeologist at Archaeological Services, Durham University, said: “Although we knew when we discovered the bones that they’d been cremated, we couldn’t be sure they were human until we tested them in the lab.

“When we got the radiocarbon dates back, we were all very surprised to find how early they were.

“This adds to our knowledge of the history of Durham, showing that people were living and dying here long before the well-known medieval occupation of the City.”

The remains are too small and vulnerable to be displayed publicly. However, the discovery is explored, along with other finds from the same excavation, in a new exhibition at the University’s Museum of Archaeology, at Palace Green Library: ‘2000 years of life at 18-29 Claypath’ is open until Monday 1 June.

The archaeological excavation took place in 2016 and 2017, as a condition of the planning permission granted by Durham County Council.

Dr David Mason, Principal Archaeologist at Durham County Council, said: “The earliest discoveries on this site are very significant and add to a growing body of evidence for settlement on the Durham peninsula and surrounding area in the Iron Age and Romano-British periods.”

Claypath was previously one of three main streets leading into Durham’s medieval Market Place, along with Fleshewergate and Silver Street.

Initial research suggested the site had been occupied for 800 years, but the bone fragments showed that people had been living in the area for much longer.

As well as evidence of the Iron Age cremation, archaeologists found items from medieval rubbish pits and 18th Century street-front buildings.

Andrew Maxwell, Director of Operations at Student Castle, said: “We have retained some of the features of the more recent uses of the site, however it is fascinating to know that the history of it stretches back a lot further than anyone first thought. We’re delighted that the development of this area has brought to light a discovery of such historical importance to Durham.”

Gemma Lewis, Curator of the Museum of Archaeology at Durham University, said: “As well as introducing us to Durham’s first resident, the ‘2000 years’ exhibition includes beautiful discoveries including as a Middle Age harness pendant.

“It also reveals some of the history behind the street we see today, such as the Palladium cinema, which showed films from 1929 to 1976. We would invite anyone with an interest in Durham’s history to make a visit.” 

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