Holystone : Prehistory
The attractions of the upper reaches of the Coquet valley for early hunter-gatherer populations can be readily appreciated and in an extensively forested landscape would have provided such groups with a convenient route for seasonal migration from the coast to the uplands allowing access to a wide range of resources. Communities in this Mesolithic - Middle Stone Age - period would have been small - essentially extended family groups - and foraged over very extensive areas. Following the introduction of farming c. 4000-3500 BC, more permanent settlement was possible, but evidence for Neolithic - New Stone Age - occupation and dwellings has proved elusive in this part of Northumberland.
The possible persistence of regular seasonal migration, or 'transhumance', but now with domesticated flocks and herds, along the lines practised in the medieval and early modern periods, cannot be excluded. The adoption of agriculture and pastoralism enabled population sizes and densities to increase. Kinship groups probably grew larger as a result, whilst occasional festivals may have prompted wider population gatherings for the purposes of exchanging goods and marriage partners etc., providing a mechanism for the development of wider clan or tribal associations.
A radio-carbon date of c. 3000 BC from a burnt turf horizon sealed beneath one of the ramparts at Harehaugh hillfort hints at some form of activity on defensible hilltop sites in this period. This may be related to the recently discovered long mound adjacent to the hillfort, which may represent a Neolithic long burial mound, or barrow. Such long mounds would have been the focus of communal burial practices centred on worship of the ancestors. It has also been suggested that by placing such a prominent monument to their forefathers in the landscape the early farming groups were also establishing a powerful ancestral claim to this land.
In the late Bronze Age and Iron Age, impressive hillforts were built in this part of Coquetdale, particularly along the south-west side of the valley, representing obvious central places or focal points for entire communities. Notable examples include Campville, just to the west of Holystone itself, plus Harehaugh further south and perhaps Harbottle to the north, where it is suggested that the earthworks bounding the inner ward and the bailey of the castle represent an economical adaption of much earlier hillfort defences (cf. Welfare et al. 1999, 58-9; Welfare 2002, 77).
Recent excavations at Harehaugh have provided a better understanding of these hillforts, revealing the impressive stone-faced defences crowning the rampart and evidence for iron-working in the interior. Nevertheless it is still unclear how these sites were used by the communities which established them. Were they permanent defensible settlements or occasional refuges, places where the community could securely store its grain stocks and other wealth, or ceremonial centres perhaps?