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Church's pre-historic past unearthed
By Tony Henderson
Work on a town’s church has revealed that the site may have been used for ritual and worship for thousands of years.
Major refurbishment work on the Grade I-listed St Michael and All Angels church in Houghton-le-Spring, Tyne and Wear, began last month and has involved digging up the floor to install a new heating system.
The church, dating back to Norman times, is the oldest building in the town.
A carved stone above a tiny doorway, featuring a carving of mysterious intertwined animals known as the Houghton Beasts, may be from before the Norman Conquest.
But investigation by archaeologists as the refurbishment has continued has revealed whinstone boulders under the church, which are thought to have been part of an early prehistoric burial cairn or ritual site. A line of similar boulders has been found under the churchyard wall.
Archaeologist Peter Ryder, of Riding Mill in Northumberland, said: “It looks like a prehistoric site. We can’t think of any other reason why these very large boulders should be inside the church.”
Under the central tower of the church, which was restored in about 1350, the work has uncovered huge Roman stones thought to have come from a Roman temple.
“These are massive and spectacular foundations for the tower, using huge stones which must have come from a major Roman building,” said Peter.
A Roman stone coffin lid has been in the churchyard for many years.