General view of Hadrian's Wall

What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the History of Migration in England

These seven objects help to tell the history of migration journeys to England.

By mapping archaeological finds and historical objects, we can track human movement and better identify the international connections that have contributed to our culture today.

Here we look at seven archaeological and historical objects that help to tell the history of migration in England.

1. An axe that travelled far

During the Neolithic period (4000-2200 BC), human settlement in England was changing.

The hunter-gatherer lifestyles of the Mesolithic (10,000-4000 BC) gave way to new forms of settlement, and activities such as farming, transport and migration can be seen in the archaeological record.

Object image: Langdale axe head
Stonehenge Langdale Axe, Wiltshire Museum. © Historic England Archive and Wiltshire Museum.

The most common type of polished stone axe found across Britain is the Langdale Axe. Made from a hard green stone found in Great Langdale, in the Lake District, these axes have been found across England, particularly in the Thames Valley and the East of England. Finds have also been reported from Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

Langdale axes represent 27% of polished stone axes from Britain. The distribution may have been through gift exchange between peers, transport by individuals, or the trading of axes for other items. The internal migration within England in prehistory must have been an important means of making connections and transferring knowledge between people.

2. An inscription on a Roman altar

With the arrival of the Romans during the Claudian Invasion (43 AD), England was brought firmly within a governmental system. It would eventually cover not just the River Tyne but also the rivers Nile, Euphrates, Rhine, and the Danube.

General view of Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland. Section of the wall running east from Housesteads. © Historic England.

Evidence for Britons in the Roman Empire includes an inscription of the ala I Britannica – a cavalry regiment from Britain – stationed in the Roman fort of Intercisa (modern-day Dunaújváros, Hungary).

Conversely, soldiers from other parts of the Roman Empire would also be stationed in Britannia. This includes the African soldiers from modern-day Morocco and Western Algeria stationed at the fort of Aballava (modern Burgh-by-Sands in Cumbria) on Hadrian’s Wall.

3. A tombstone dedication from a Syrian husband

The image of a woman seated, carved into a headstone
The Regina Headstone, Arbeia fort South Shields. Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

More evidence of individuals and families coming to live and settle in Britannia can be seen on a commemorative tombstone in Arbeia Roman fort – modern South Shields, Tyneside.

It is dedicated to a woman named Regina (who is described as being from the British tribe the Catuvellauni) by her husband, Barates. He is identified as coming from Palmyra in modern-day Syria.

4. The personal effects of a medieval monk

The early medieval period was once referred to as the ‘Dark Ages’, but archaeological remains have shown that this was a period of travel, connection and migration across an increasingly connected world.

Medieval chapel and associated building on St Cuthbert's Isle, Holy Island, Northumberlant c Historic England Archive
Medieval chapel and associated building on St Cuthbert’s Isle, Holy Island, Northumberland. © Historic England Archive.

The island monastery of Lindisfarne was initially settled by Irish monks. It was also the home of Northumbria’s native saint, Saint Cuthbert.

After Viking attacks forced the monks to abandon the monastery, Saint Cuthbert’s body was exhumed and carried away from the island for safety. The remains of Saint Cuthbert were eventually laid to rest at Chester-le-Street and later at Durham, where they remain to this day.

When opened several centuries after his death, the tomb contents included: a pectoral cross (which now features on the flag of Durham), silks from Byzantium, a Gospel of John (the oldest book in Western Europe to maintain its original binding), and a comb made from elephant ivory.

5. A German who helped to build Middlesbrough

The Industrial Revolution led to significant social change, inspiring the movement of people from rural areas to new urban centres and migration to England from continental Europe.

Bolckow Vaughan blastfurnacemen pose for a photograph in front of their blast furnace at Middlesbrough. Early 20th Century
Bolckow-Vaughan blast-furnace men pose for a photograph in front of their blast furnace at Middlesbrough. Early 20th Century. Image via Wiki Commons.

Middlesbrough grew from a village of 40 people at the start of the 19th century to a town of almost 50,000 by the beginning of the 20th century.

One of the people acknowledged as an instigator of the growth of Middlesborough is German industrialist Henry Bolckow. In 1864, Bolckow formed a partnership with ironmaster John Vaughan, founding the ironmaking company Bolckow-Vaughan. Bolckow-Vaughan was the world’s biggest pig-iron producer by the early 20th century.

Henry Bolckow became Middlesbrough’s first mayor in 1853 and its first MP in 1867. He paid for the construction of a school and a public park in the town which can still be seen today. The town mirrored other large industrial centres across England. The 1871 census showed that Irish, Scottish, Welsh and overseas workers comprised over 15% of the population.

6. A roll of honour for Yemeni sailors

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Yemeni sailors made up a large, though often forgotten, portion of the British merchant fleet, working mainly in the boiler rooms below decks.

Middle Dock, West Holburn, South Shields, South Tyneside c Historic England AA99_01208
Middle Dock, West Holburn, South Shields, South Tyneside. © Historic England AA99_01208.

During periods of shore leave between jobs, these sailors were required to live in boarding houses at their port of call and were forbidden from renting private accommodation.

In the North-East town of South Shields, many hundreds of these sailors lived temporarily in the town in specially designed boarding houses. They were often run by former Yemeni sailors who married locals and formed the core of a community whose descendants live in the town to this day.

Over 700 Yemeni sailors in South Shields died during the First World War while serving in the merchant navy. Over 170 Yemeni sailors are recorded in South Shields’ Second World War memorial book. These sailors represent a small number of the 30% of non-British merchant navy crew from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

7. A lost town in the North East

You may not know that Birtley in Co. Durham was once the home of almost 6000 Belgian refugees during the First World War.

Two men stand beside multiple rows of stacked shells
This image of the National Projectile Factory’s bond store shows stacks of 8-inch shells. Birtley-Elisabethville, Co Durham 1918. © IWM (Q 27735).

In early 1915 Britain faced an armaments shortage, and many new factories were constructed to meet increased demand. However, a lack of workers was also available as men were called to fight. A solution was to bring injured Belgian soldiers to England to work.

A purpose-built factory in Birtley was explicitly created for soldiers who had been wounded but not fully invalided. Over 3,000 soldiers would work in the factory, making shells throughout the war. As wives and children joined the Belgian men, the camp grew into a town of over 6,000. It was named Elisabethville after Elisabeth, Queen of Belgium.

The camp was quickly depopulated after the conflict, and the refugees returned home. However, some of the original buildings, sections of the camp perimeter and several graves of Belgians in the local cemetery still provide visible evidence of its pas. The main street through the town is still named Elisabeth Avenue.


Written by Don O’Meara, Science Advisor at Historic England in the North East and Hadrian’s Wall.

1 comment on “What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the History of Migration in England

  1. Duncan Wilson

    Fascinating stuff. The reference to Belgian refugees reminds me of the WW1 history of Alexandra Palace and its use first as a refugee camp then an internment camp. There are even fragments of the netting from the “pens” still in the basement, and there’s an extraordinarily vivid archive of watercolours of life in the camp. When we ran an outreach day at AP someone brought out a box of oil portraits of the inmates [painted on old soap box lids and other scrap, painted by a relative, and gave them to AP for our archive. Strange how history turns up these personal connections.

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