Early medieval farmstead at Green Shiel, Holy Island


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:


Ordnance survey map of Early medieval farmstead at Green Shiel, Holy Island
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Northumberland (Unitary Authority)
Holy Island
National Grid Reference:
NU 12189 43634

Reasons for Designation

Farmsteads, normally occupied by only one or two families and comprising small groups of buildings with attached yards, gardens and enclosures, were a characteristic feature of the medieval rural landscape. They occur throughout the country, the intensity of their distribution determined by local topography and the nature of the agricultural system prevalent within the region. In some areas of dispersed settlement they were the predominant settlement form; elsewhere they existed alongside, or were components of, more nucleated settlement patterns. The sites of many farmsteads have been occupied down to the present day but others were abandoned as a result of, for example, declining economic viability, enclosure or emparkment, or epidemics like the Black Death. In the northern border areas, recurring cross-border raids and military activities also disrupted agricultural life and led to abandonments. Farmsteads are a common and long-lived monument type; the archaeological deposits on those which were abandoned are often well-preserved and provide important information on regional and national settlement patterns and farming economies, and on changes in these through time.

The settlement at Green Shiel is a rare example of an early medieval farmstead in Northumberland. There are no other known examples of stone built farmsteads of this period in the region and as such it is of particular importance. The integrity of the site has not been damaged by later occupation and excavation has significantly increased our knowledge and understanding of the site. Whilst archaeological remains within the buildings have been excavated, all the buildings remain intact, as do the surrounding areas and significant archaeological deposits are expected to survive.


This monument includes a farmstead dated to the early medieval period. The stone built foundations of five rectangular buildings have been uncovered by excavation within the dune system on the north coast of Holy Island. The buildings are connected by a number of linking walls, banks radiate from the settlement and a possible boundary bank lies to the north. The remains of ridge and furrow cultivation are visible to the south, however, sand dunes have obscured the relationship between this and the settlement and the field system is therefore not included within the scheduling. The site has recently been the subject of a programme of research and excavation carried out by Leicester University. The site lies close to the north shore of Holy Island. It occupies an area of open, level ground known as the Green Shiel. The site is separated from the coast to the north by a ridge of steep dunes, a further ridge of dunes lies immediately to the south of the site. Two 19th century waggonways traverse the Green Shiel on its eastern and western sides. The site comprises a group of at least five long, rectangular buildings which are aligned either east-west or north-south, thus forming a rough cross shape. All the buildings occupy ridges of slightly raised ground, it is not clear whether these ridges have been deliberately constructed, or whether they are the result of the surrounding land having been eroded away. A pair of buildings, aligned east-west, lie to the east of the north-south axis. Although divided by a massive central wall, the two buildings appear to be of one construction, and are in effect one very large building which has been divided internally. The easternmost of this pair measures 19m by 4.5m internally, the lower courses of its massive drystone walls are up to 1.75m wide and survive up to 1m high. A well constructed doorway, approximately 1m wide, is located at the eastern end of the north wall and a further two doors are located at the west end of the building, in the north and south walls, although it would appear that not all of these were in use at the same time. A stone lined feature, tentatively identified as a drain, was identified by excavation as running in a south westerly direction from the south east corner of the building. Excavation also revealed that the building had paved floors dating to two different periods of occupation. Outside the building, a low and very spread bank of sand and stone, 0.2m high and up to 3m wide, extends from the north east corner of the building, eastwards, for a length of 51m. The westermost of the pair of buildings measures 20m by 5m. It has suffered more severely from stone robbing, with only the southern wall still retaining any facing stones. A well preserved section of paving was found at the eastern end of the building and post holes for roof supports were identified, running centrally down the mid and western sections of the building. Outside the building, a very broad bank up to 5m wide and 21m long extends northwards from the north west corner of the building. Immediately to the west of this pair of buildings, a further two buildings are aligned along the north-south axis of the settlement. The southernmost of these buildings measures 18.5m by 4m internally. The drystone walls are up to 1.2m wide and visible sections stand up to five courses high. There is a doorway in the central section of the east wall and a second entrance in the northern gable end. Drystone partition walls divide the interior of the building into five compartments. Four of these compartments were entered by a corridor which ran along the entire length of the western wall. Attached to the exterior of the building, a bank of dry stone walling, 15m long and up to 1.3m high, runs northwards, linking this building with the second of the buildings on the north-south axis. This second building, 19m long by 4m wide, formed one of a pair of buildings grouped around a stone walled yard which lies immediately to the west of the north-south axis. The yard, measuring c.20m by 20m, is defined on the east side by the northernmost of the north-south aligned buildings. The westernmost building of the group forms the south west corner of the yard and is again a long rectangular building, with a doorway in the north side. Outside the building, a narrow section of walling continues westwards for c.7m, beyond which it has been robbed. This wall may have formed part of another enclosure. The excavators have suggested that the western extent of the site may lie beneath the western waggonway. The northern edge of the settlement may be defined by a stone bank, c.50m long, which runs east-west and is partly obscured by the dunes to the north. A series of small, low ridges to the east of the north-south building alignment may represent further enclosure banks. Artifacts retrieved from the site have contributed to our understanding of its date and function. All the buildings produced well-preserved animal bones, some of the buildings produced articulated cattle skeletons and a large dump of butchered cattle bone was also recovered. The evidence suggests that some of the buildings fulfilled an agricultural purpose, possibly as byres, and that perhaps only two of the buildings examined fulfilled a domestic purpose. This would suggest that the whole complex formed a small farmstead, which coin evidence suggests was in use by the middle of the ninth century, although it is not known how long the site remained in use. Evidence for early medieval activity on the site was first recognised in the 19th century, when coins dating to the ninth century were discovered during the construction of the waggonway. A number of hearths were also discovered in 1937, slightly to the north east of the site, and it is believed that these are associated with the settlement. All previously excavated areas have now been backfilled and attempts are being made to stabilise the site with the establishment of marram grass.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
O'Sullivan, D, Young, R, Lindisfarne, Holy Island, (1995), 77-89
Aitchison, W, 'Proceedings of the Society of the Antiquaries of Newcastle' in , , Vol. 4 ser 8, (1939), 116-18
O'Sullivan, D, Young, R, 'Archaeologia Aeliana' in The Early Medieval Settlement at Green Shiel, Northumberland, , Vol. XIX, (1991), 55-69


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

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