Student digs: Remains of Durham’s ‘earliest known resident’ dating back 2,100 years are unearthed underneath university halls

  • Bone fragments under student digs are of the city’s earliest recorded resident
  • Student Castle Durham on Claypath in the city centre is the site of the findings  
  • Archaeologists have been unable to determine the age or sex of the human adult

Archaeologists have discovered human bones they believe to be Durham’s earliest known resident – beneath student halls.

A Durham University team unearthed the Iron Age bone fragments in a shallow pit located beneath present-day student digs.

The ancient resident had been cremated leaving remains of their skull, forearm and shin which date from 90 BC to AD 60.

The finding makes the deceased the city’s earliest recorded resident.

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Durham University archaeologists have discovered human remains they believe to be Durham’s earliest known resident 

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

‘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,’ said Natalie Swann, a senior project archaeologist at Durham University. 

‘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.’

Pictured is Tintore 2 (Irish Cremated Bone) from the outer, or distal, end of the hand belonging to the city’s oldest resident

Archaeologists moved into Claypath in Durham city centre, to perform excavation work in 2016

The site was developed and is now operated by student accommodation provider Student Castle

From the small fragments, experts were able to establish that the person was an adult, but could not determine their age or sex.

The hands-on historians made the find while excavating off Claypath, in Durham City, on a site which has since been developed into Student Castle Durham. 

Claypath was previously one of three main streets leading into Durham’s medieval market place. 

A team from the University’s Archaeological Services unearthed the bone fragments while excavating off Claypath, in Durham City, on the site

Initial research had suggested the site had been occupied for 800 years, before the recent revelation puts that figure back to at least 1,960 ago. 

‘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,’ said Dr David Mason, Principal Archaeologist at Durham County Council. 

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

Durham Castle and Cathedral on their rock above the city, and Framwellgate Bridge. Nearby Claypath was one of three main streets leading into Durham’s medieval market place

The historians said the remains are too ‘small and vulnerable’ to be displayed publicly, but their discovery is explored, along with the other finds, in a new exhibition at the university’s Museum of Archaeology.

‘As well as introducing us to Durham’s first resident, the “2000 years” exhibition includes beautiful discoveries including as a Middle Age harness pendant,’ said Gemma Lewis, the museum’s curator. 

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


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