ICE AND FIRE | Managing a 420 Kilometre Trench?

ICE AND FIRE is a Heritage Lottery funded community rescue archaeology project on Teesside, North-east England. The project is designed to explore and record prehistoric archaeology at risk in fire-damaged, eroding areas where artefacts have been found on the surface.

The Eston Hills, an outlier of the North York Moors sitting above the urban and industrial sprawl of Teesside, dominate today’s landscape of the Tees estuary and the rugged, beautiful coastline in this part of the country. The community moors, wetlands and woodlands are a fragile wildlife haven that also bear testament to millennia of human activity since the last Ice Age, over 12,000 years ago.

I’m Spencer Carter, @microburin on Twitter, a freelance commercial and community archaeologist with a particular interest in the Mesolithic period from around 9000 BC and the fascinating transition to the first farmers and monument builders of the Neolithic in the decades around 3900-3800 BC in our area. I have been part of the project team in designing the scope and priorities, as well as managing the project’s website and regular news bulletins.  I’m also a prehistoric stone tools specialist – mostly flint here – and I’ll be analysing the exciting finds in the coming few weeks. We also have features!


Yet recent years have seen a rapid increase in vandalism, arson, illegal off-roaders and anti-social activities which are causing irreparable damage to both the natural and archaeological environment of the hills. By example, there have been over 16 devastating fires (and burned out vehicles) in April this year alone – that’s 60% of such events for the entirety of 2016. Moreover, the public’s comfort in exploring the environment – their landscape – is compromised and public safety is most definitely at risk, both in terms of violence, theft and uncontrolled arson. At least one hillwalker was recently trapped in thick smoke between multiple fires started by local youths, despite wide-spread media reporting and public briefings.

With help from the Heritage Lottery Fund North East and Teesside Archaeological Society, the ICE AND FIRE project has been established, with support from multiple organisations, to assess, sample and rescue the archaeology-at-risk, but also to pull together the many stakeholders across the community to focus on sustainable solutions – with political momentum. The project is making excellent progress, with summer fieldwork now underway, on rallying many voices, including the Friends of Eston Hills, around a single ‘landscape’ community cause. The aim is to try and turn around perceptions and behaviour, across generations and backgrounds, to make the destruction by a minority socially unacceptable. From an archaeological perspective this is a unique landscape, and a wetland that holds great potential, dating back at least to the early Mesolithic in the ninth millennium BC. Flint artefacts are being brought to the surface by off-road vehicles, erosion and fires. Indeed, if the wetland proves to date back to the end of the last Ice Age, the potential is both rare and very exciting.

What’s more, Media engagement has helped underpin a recent public meeting hosted by Redcar’s re-elected MP, Anna Turley, who has been horrified by the carnage – and the very real risk to human life. A great turnout, and passionate opinions, were addressed to a panel which included emergency services, council representatives and community organisations, followed by ongoing workgroup meetings hosted by Cleveland Police, to prioritise and execute on get-well plans. Activities have included popular school visits – and creative engagement with the children, guided site visits, and forthcoming involvement in archaeological fieldwork, post-excavation, dissemination and community-relevant story telling as a connection with the past.


With the wonders of the mobile Internet and social media, it is as if the daily progress on site is like being joined to trenches and test pits! I’m based in London and while I’ll be visiting the hills next week, I’ve been monitoring progress, chatting with the archaeologists and volunteers, as if I am just behind the birch trees.

Read more about ICE AND FIRE, with many images, videos, links, free downloads and the very latest news »