Keys to the Past


Starting with A - 50 Glossary entries found.

In this section of the website you can find out more about specialist and technical terms archaeologists sometimes use. There is also lots more information about famous people and historic events in the north-east.

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W Z 1-9


See monastery.


An abutment is the point where an arch (in a horizontal or vertical direction) or vault meets its solid support. For a bridge or dam this might be on the riverbanks or a pier projecting into the river. The failure of the abutment may mean the collapse of the bridge, (such as at Hexham, see Smeaton, John). There is a Roman example at Chesters Roman bridge, Northumberland, east side of the North Tyne, (a free English Heritage site). The Hexham bridge abutments are of historical importance - being the last bridge that Smeaton designed.
Diagram of bridge. Copyright Peter Ryder 2003.


Period of early prehistoric time based on the finding of specific tool types from 1.4 million to around 100, 000 years ago. Such tools are large pear-shaped handaxes mad of stone, and first identified as on archaeological interest at St. Acheul, (near Amiens), France - though they have been found elsewhere in Europe, Africa and Asia. The period is associated with the remains of Homo erectus.

Act of Suppression

An act of Parliament passed which suppressed the smaller monasteries, convents and friaries that had an annual income of less than £200. It formed part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England by King Henry VIII.

Act of Union

Until 1707AD England and Scotland were separate kingdoms, though since 1603AD ruled by the same monarch. For example King James II ruled England as James II and Scotland as James VII. When this law was passed by both Parliaments the political systems joined - though the Scottish numbers were reduced. In other matters, (religion and legal), Scotland remains separate from England.

Adam, Robert

Adam was an architect and interior designer for wealthy patrons, such as the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland around Alnwick, Northumberland. His style of architecture and decoration are known as the 'Adam style', based on his own travels in Greece and Italy. He worked at Culzean Castle, Scotland, (1777-92) and Syon House, London, (1766-9).


A tunnel designed to extract materials, such as minerals or coal, from underground, or to drain existing mines by sloping slightly upwards from the entrance. Adits are therefore self-draining.

Aerial photograph; Aerial photography

Photographs taken from the air are useful to archaeologists because they show information that cannot be easily seen at ground level. It has been carried out systematically the 1940s in the northeast - though there are earlier examples of note. There are three main types of patterns that aerial photographs can help identify.

These are:
Firstly, low angle sunlight can reveal patterns of earthworks in fields that are highlighted on one side and have a shadow on the other. Photographs taken can show the overall plan and often make much more sense of these features than could be gained on the ground.
Secondly, soil marks in ploughed fields can be the result of disturbed buried remains. Differences in soil colour can be seen from the air. Ploughed out walls of chalk, or heavily mortared, will colour the ground around them white.
Thirdly, buried remains can affect the way plants grow producing cropmarks, especially in particularly dry seasons when parchmarks are produced. These are due to the buried remains stunting or promoting enhanced growth of the crop dependent on the type of remains. These marks are easily seen from the air - but may only last a few days based on the weather patterns. Not all the 'site' may be revealed at once - and the total knowledge of a site might be the comprised of many years flying and photographs.


A Latin name for the built-up foundations of Roman roads. These sometimes survive as long banks of earth. The agger of the Stanegate can be seen near the Haltwhistle Burn fortlet, Northumberland.
Diagram across a typical Roman road.

Agricultural revolution

From the 16th century there were many changes in traditional farming practices in Briain. These changes intensified during the 18th century. This was partly due to the need to provide food for the rapidly increasing population. Food production increased partly because of new farming techniques, such as crop rotation. Woodland was also cleared to create new farmland, and upland areas, previously used for sheep farming began to be used to grow crops. New types of crops were bred, including new fodder crops, such as turnips, which were used to feed animals. These new fodder crops meant that land previously used to graze animals was used to grow food. New ways of improving soil quality were also discovered, such as adding lime to fields, and creating better manure. Many new machines, such as seed drills and threshing machines, were invented to help speed up work and make it more efficient. As well as changes to crops, there were also changes in animal farming, particularly as new breeds were developed and better feeds and fodder crops introduced. The increased efficiency in farming meant that many farmers became very wealthy. They often used their new wealth to build new farm buildings, barns and byres, and model farms are common in the north-east.


An agriculturalist was a man involved in introducing new techniques and developments into farming, during the Agricultural revolution.

Air raid shelter

Air raid shelters were first built during World War I, when the north-east suffered some bombings by Zeppelin. An early shelter still survives at {West Lodge D500} , Coxhoe. However, it was during World War II that the north-east suffered its heaviest bombing. Although most air raid shelters were destroyed after the war, a number still survive. A curious example is the shelter that can still be seen at Biddlestone - it is a medieval tower house, converted into a Roman Catholic chapel, that had its basement converted into a air raid shelter in the 1940s.

Air shaft

Shaft, sometimes capped like a chimney at the ground surface, to allow the circulation of air to the extraction points with in a colliery. This would allow the dispersal of heat, workers to breathe fresh air, remove some dust and disperse dangerous gases, such as firedamp. Old shafts could be retained as airshafts for newer workings.


An aisle is an area running along side a church's nave. It was usually separated from the nave by columns. It may be contemporary with, be an addition to or be an earlier church dwarfed by a large main church building.
Diagram of parish church. Copyright Peter Ryder 2003.


A soft stone that could be carved to make an effigy. It was a major Medieval industry in the Chellastone area, near Derby and Nottingham. Many pieces were exported abroad - both carved, for religious objects (such as a crucifix), and un-carved.

Alexander Davison

See Davison, Alexander.

Alexander Peden

See Peden, Alexander.


A general term for chemical alkaline elements and hydroxide compounds. Such alkali industries area based on Sodium (Na), Potassium (K), Calcium (Ca) and Barium (Ba). These have a variety of uses - but the main industries using Sodium and Potassium were for soaps, bleaches and other detergents used domestically and in the textile industry. Alkali elements and compounds can also be used (in small amounts) to colour Medieval stained glass.

Almshouse; Alms House

A house, which is funded by a benefactor or private charity to provide accommodation to the needy. Prior to the Reformation these could be served by the monastic orders. In the Post-Medieval period they might be provided for by guilds for specific dependents of their less-well off members.


An altar is a small structure at which religious ceremonies are performed. Roman altars were stone with an inscription to a god and some ornamentation. These were often painted. It is believed that small sacrifices or offerings took place on them. Many have been found along Hadrian's Wall in temples connected with forts, whilst a few have been found in remote shrines.
Medieval Christian altars were often in the form of large stone table-like structures. They usually have a small cross in each corner to show that they have been blessed. In churches and chapels they usually stand at the east end of the church, sometimes in a separate area called the chancel.
E.g. Roman altars at Carrawburgh Mithraeum replicas - but in real temple (Northumberland), similarly the Stanhope altar is a replica (County Durham). Others are in various museums. A Medieval example has been re-used as the front to a garderobe chute at the Lord's Mount, Berwick-upon-Tweed, (Northumberland).


Chemicals used to 'fix' coloured dyes from plants and animals to a piece of cloth - so it will not wash out or fade over time. This has been found in large amounts on the North Yorkshire coast in the shale type rocks. There are similar chemical compounds based on the substitution of Potassium (K) by Sodium (Na) and Ammonium (NH4).


A liquid from trees that has been fossilised over time to become hard. It has been used to make small items, such as beads. A major source of amber is the Baltic. It has been used in the region since the Bronze Age - beads from Simonside and Old Bewick, (both Northumberland) - onwards, especially in the Anglo-Saxon period. It was thought to bring good luck.


Amphitheatres were usually oval shaped structures built in the Roman period. The most distinctive features of an amphitheatre are the arena and the surrounding seating banks. The former is a level space excavated below ground level and the latter are embankments built, in part if not wholly, of the earth dug out from the arena area. Roman authors suggest their use for a range of functions, including enactments of reality of fantasy, religious rites, entertainment and the dispensation of justice.


An environment, such as a soil, that has no oxygen. Bacteria require oxygen to live, so the absence of this gas will mean the absence of bacteria. This means the preservation of things that bacteria usually be destroyed will survive.

Anchorage; Anchorite

An anchorage is a small house in which an anchorite (a kind of hermit) lived. These houses would face an altar of a church or chapel through a narrow slit, which would allow the anchorite to observe services, but not be observed. Such houses would also face the outside world and have allowed passage for those seeking guidance. These could be endowed by religious or secular patrons, (compare with hermitage).
e.g. Chester-le-Street and Staindrop, (County Durham) and at St. John's Newcastle (Tyne and Wear), amongst others.

Ancient woodland

When the north-east first emerged from under the ice sheets after the Ice Age much of the land became covered by forest and woodland. This was the so-called ancient forest. However, early farmers began to clear this woodland from as early as 4000BC. By the Roman period most of these old forests had been cleared and little of this remains to be seen today.


In the 5th and 6th centuries AD there was immigration into England from northern Germany and southern Scandinavia. Early Anglo-Saxon historians, such as Bede said that three main tribes arrived, the Jutes from Jutland (who came to Kent and the Isle of Wight), the Saxons from Saxony (who came to southern England), and the Anglians, who came from Angeln in modern Denmark, who came to Eastern and Northern England.


In the 5th and 6th centuries there was a period of immigration into England from Northern Germany and Southern Scandinavia. These new comers became known as Anglo-Saxons - this word is also used to describe the period from 5th century AD to the 1066, when the Normans invaded. However, although the name Anglo-Saxon is used, much of the population of the country probably had their origin in Roman Britain.

Anti-aircraft battery

A battery of guns usually, but could be rockets or missiles, designed to bring down hostile attacking aircraft. Such sites need not have been permanent, but of short duration. The plan of the battery can vary substantially - if a permanent site magazines, accommodation and sighting equipment would be required. Early AA-battery plans were scatter so as to limit damage by bombing, e.g. at Gloucester Lodge, south of Blyth, Northumberland. Later in World War II AA-batteries to counter the threat of semi-guided flying bombs (V1s) were arranged in rows to use accurate gun-laying radar, e.g. at Bridlington, North Yorkshire.


An early archaeologist or historian of the 17th to 19th centuries. These were usually of the gentry or clergy, such as William Greenwell, (Greenwell, William), who often concentrated upon local areas - sometimes within their own country estates and lands. The techniques of their excavations, though now seen as unsophisticated, often digging straight into the centre of a barrow or cairn, slowly evolved into the archaeological techniques employed today. Societies were set up nationally and locally throughout Britain where antiquarians could discuss or publish their ideas - though the term is still used in the titles of some societies, it need nor reflect the present day attitudes.

Antonine Wall

The Antonine Wall was the most northern frontier of Roman Britain, stretching from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde in Scotland. It was 39 miles long, half the length of Hadrian's Wall. Although the Roman army fought in Scotland from as early as the 1st century AD, the frontier was not built until the reign of the Emperor Antoninus Pius (AD 142-55). The Antonine Wall was abandoned after twenty years, when the Roman army withdrew from Scotland in AD 164, pulling the northern frontier back down to Hadrian's Wall. After invasions from the north in AD 197, the emperor Septimius Severus arrived in AD 208 to restore order along the Scottish borders, briefly reoccupying and repairing portions of the Antonine Wall.


A semi-circular rounded end to a chancel or aisle of a church or temple, e.g. at Old Bewick church, Northumberland or Carrawburgh Mithraeum, which may or may not be original.
Diagram of parish church. Copyright Peter Ryder


A channel, cut into the ground or raised in a chute, to carry water (Latin aqua-) from a source, via zigzags and following a slightly sloping downward path (to keep it moving) to a point of dispersal, usually for drinking. The distance of aqueducts may vary substantially. These are common for Roman forts, e.g. Great Chesters, Northumberland and at Bowes, County Durham (which was reused in the Medieval period). Aqueducts need not have been lined with stones or wood.


Growing a crop or crops in agriculture.

Arcade; Arcading

Formerly used for a row of covered arches, but also used for row of shops that might be under the arches. An example of arcading is at the estate village of Belsay, Northumberland.
Diagram of parish church. Copyright Peter Ryder

Archaeological evaluation

An archaeological evaluation is a small-scale project aimed at establishing whether any archaeological remains survive at a particular site. It will usually involve an investigation of previous archaeological work in the area, an exploration of the historic maps and may also include some fieldwork, such as geophysical survey or a small excavation.

Archaeomagnetic dating

A dating technique that is based on the principle that the direction and intensity of the earth's magnetic field vary through time. When clayey sediment containing magnetic particles (such as in the walls and floor of a hearth) is heated to a sufficient temperature, the magnetic particles in the clay assume and retain the direction of the current magnetic field. The archaeomagnetic dating method measures the magnetic field as preserved in fired clay and compares it to a known record of the changes in the magnetic field through time.


Ards were used in prehistory to plough fields. Unlike modern ploughs, which turn over the soil, ards only broke it up. Double ploughing in opposite directions was therefore necessary, and this criss-cross pattern is visible in aerial photographs of Iron Age settlements.


These are the patterns, sometimes seen on aerial photographs, made by an ard.

Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty

An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is an area of land granted a special status by the Countryside Agency because of its landscape and scenic beauty. Not all parts of an AONB are necessarily open to the public. In fact, most are not, as they are privately owned just like anywhere else. Towns and villages are sometimes included, and often small areas which are not at all beautiful get included too.


Piece of jewellery, usually glass or metal, worn about the arm. These were particularly common in the Romano-British period, though some were still utilised in the Anglo-Saxon period.

Art Nouveau

A style of architecture and art popular in the 20th century.

Arts and Crafts Style; Arts and Crafts

The Arts and Crafts style was an artistic movement that developed in the later half of the 19th century. Its followers believed that ideas of good design were linked to (political and social) ideas of a good society. They thought that beautiful objects could not be produced by a mass production, nor would skills be shown in mass produced objects. Mass production was also thought to dehumanise the workers. The forms of Arts and Crafts style were typically rectangular and angular with decorated patterns of Medieval and Islamic origin. The style was led by William Morris (1834-1896AD), and Philip Webb (1831-1915AD) Morris's architect. The church at Roker, Sunderland, Tyne and Wear, has been described as the Arts and Crafts Cathedral.


An assemblage is a word used by archaeologists to describe a group of objects that have been found together. For example, a number of fragments of Roman pottery might be called a pottery assemblage.


An archaeological assessment is part of the planning process. When making a decision about whether to allow a planning application to go ahead, the County Archaeologist may decide to order an assessment to see if there are any archaeological remains in the area. This may be a desk-based assessment, a written report based on pre-existing work, or it may involve new research at the site itself, possibly a small excavation or a geophysical survey.

Augering; Augered

This is a method using either a hand or machine-powered drill to determine the depth and character of underground remains. This might be used to explore the geology of an area or the archaeological remains. Augering is also used to collect samples of early peat to find out about the early environment of an area.

Augustinian priory

A priory of Augustinian canons, such as Hexham Priory, Northumberland.


Augustinians were an order of monks who followed the Rule of Saint Augustine, a code of rules drawn up by Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430AD0. There were two main groups: the Augustinian (Austin) Canons, (sometimes called Canons Regular) - which date from the 11th century, and the Augustinian Hermits or Friars, which were established by Pope Alexander IV in 1256AD. The Augustinians wore a black, short cape and a cowl. They had many monasteries in Britain until the Dissolution of the Monasteries widespread in towns to serve hospitals and minster churches, as well as in remote areas.


A recess, or cupboard, near an altar in which sacred vessels are kept. This may be open to view or lockable.

Austin Friars

See Augustinians.
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W Z 1-9