Keys to the Past

Local History

Milfield (Northumberland)

Aerial view of cropmarks showing buildings and enclosures at Maelmin, near Milfield. Photo © Tim Gates.
Aerial view of cropmarks showing buildings and enclosures at Maelmin, near Milfield. Photo © Tim Gates.

Milfield lies in north Northumberland on the north-east side of the Milfield Basin. The character of the Milfield Basin is based upon sand, gravel and clay terraces that have often been cut by the meandering Till and Glen rivers. This type of geology lends itself to revealing archaeological sites through cropmarks and, although the parish is small, the archaeology is outstanding with sites ranging from prehistoric henges to an Anglo-Saxon palace. The complex of archaeological sites also stretches into the neighbouring parishes of Ewart and Akeld.

The Milfield Basin is one of the best known prehistoric landscapes in the county, if not the country. Recent fieldwalking of much of the parish has revealed signs of a Mesolithic presence. Chert and flint had been used to make small tools called microliths. The relic of a former lake, known as Lake Ewart, that once filled the Milfield Basin, would have been an attractive environment for Mesolithic people where plants could be gathered and animals hunted. Actual settlement sites used by these groups are unknown, although they may have used tents and bivouacs that have left few, if any, archaeological traces.

Evidence for clearance of vegetation in the Neolithic period comes from a single axe head found near Milfield village. The materials used for this axe and others found in neighbouring parishes show contact with places outside the region. Although Neolithic settlement is known outside the parish, a fragment of Peterborough ware suggests domestic activity somewhere nearby.

A number of ritual prehistoric sites run along the edge of the Milfield Basin and appear linked by a drove road. These include three henges Milfield North Henge, Milfield South Henge and Whitton Hill Henge. The ritual and ceremonial importance of the Milfield area continued in to the Bronze Age with more religious sites on the fringe of the Milfield Basin at Whitton Hill site 1 and Whitton Hill site 2. Archaeologists have excavated at both these sites revealing cemeteries with cremated human remains placed in pots and interred without cists. Pit alignments have also been discovered by aerial photography and excavated and divide the land physically and symbolically.

The settlements in which the people who used these religious sites lived have not been discovered; however, this apparent absence might be artificial and a result of intensive agriculture in the area.

The Iron Age and Roman periods have revealed very little archaeological evidence in Milfield and the only site yet discovered of this date in the parish is unique in Northumberland. In the 19th century a probable souterrain was uncovered at Milfieldhill. Such structures are enigmatic, even in their more common Scottish homeland and unsurprisingly the Milfieldhill example went unrecognised until the later 20th century.

Milfield flourished again in the early medieval period. The royal Anglo-Saxon palace of Maelmin was founded here as a successor to Ad Gefrin, which lay a few kilometres to the south under the shadow of Yeavering Bell. The palace remains are only visible as cropmarks on aerial photographs and the full extent of the Saxon settlement is not known; however, buildings have been found as far east as Kimmerston Road End. Anglo-Saxon people reused earlier ritual sites for their own cemeteries at Milfield South Henge and the henge North-east of Milfield Hill.

Medieval settlements in the Milfield area little known. The earliest historical record of Milfield village is not found until 1541. Traces of medieval ridge and furrow field systems have been recorded recently across the Milfield Basin but few of these earthworks have survived intensive modern farming. Milfield lies in an area of Northumberland known as Glendale where many of the pioneering developments in 18th and 19th century agriculture were devised and implemented.

Reference number:N13767

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Please note that this information has been compiled from a number of different sources. Durham County Council and Northumberland County Council can accept no responsibility for any inaccuracy contained therein. If you wish to use/copy any of the images, please ensure that you read the Copyright information provided.