The Coquetdale Community Archaeology Group was set up in November 2007 in the Northumberland National Park. In 2013 the group carried out its 3rd season of digging at the site of Barrowburn Mill in the Upper Coquet Valley. Although there was documentary evidence, the physical site of the mill had been lost for more than a century. The mill was used for fulling and has been radiocarbon dated to the middle of the 13th century. Coins of that period have also been found on the site.
Uncovering a Medieval Fulling Mill by David Jones of the Coquetdale Community Archaeology Group
In a previous CBA North newsletters we’ve described the work carried out by Coquetdale Community Archaeology on the site of a medieval fulling mill at Barrowburn – on the River Coquet high in the Cheviots. We know from documentary sources that it was built by Cistercian monks from Newminster Abbey, near Morpeth, between 1226AD and 1244AD; in the 2011 and 2012 seasons we uncovered a well-preserved masonry wheel pit, a washing area for cleaning cloth and the probable remains of a sluice system that directed water to a breast-shot wheel.
In 2013, we focused on the bank, looking for remains of the mill building. A large trench revealed walls on both sides of the calculated line of the wheel shaft; although only a few courses remained of each it was clear that they were not of robust construction. Coupled with the fact that they would have had to support a building of about 8 x 6 metres it seems probable that they were actually perimeter walls built to keep stock away from the fulling machinery, which might have been in the open air or inside some small lightweight structure of which no trace remains.
Set back from the current bank, and within the area defined by the two walls, we uncovered a revetment along what was probably an old riverbank. Of a lower quality than the wheel pit, it seems to have been built to support the old bank and protect the working area below.
It’s an important find because its position tells us about the configuration of the fulling machinery. The return on the left of the picture is about 0.6m upstream from the calculated line of the wheel shaft, so the fulling stocks must have been positioned downstream from that shaft. This is how they are sometimes shown in post-medieval pictures of fulling mills, but we know of no illustration of any mill as early as Barrowburn.
Another interesting find was that of a medieval copper alloy key. About 10cm long, it’s in quite good condition with just some slight damage at the end of the hollow shaft. It’s hard to date accurately but probably originates from between 1200AD and 1500AD.
Finally, we identified areas rich in charcoal fragments around the line of the wheel shaft and in the area below the revetment. These are predominantly the remains of young hazel and birch, which implies that they are not the remains of burnt mill machinery. A piece of 5 year old hazel gave a calibrated C14 date of between 1280AD and 1400AD, so it might be the remains of a fire to heat water for the fulling process or the result of burning after the mill was abandoned. We don’t have a date for this abandonment, but the Scottish incursions that started in 1296, coupled with the Great Famine (1315-1317) and the Black Death meant that the 14th century was a challenging time. The mill had certainly gone when the abbey was dissolved in 1538.