ARCHAEOLOGISTS working at an historic North-East church have discovered evidence that the site may have been used for worship since the Stone Age.
St Michael and All Angels, Church, in Houghton-le-Spring, has been a site of Christian worship for nearly 1,000 years, but a stone circle found on the site suggests that it may have been used by pagans in Neolithic times.
The discovery has helped the Anglican parish church win a coveted Red Rose award from Visit England, due to be awarded next week.
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Parts of the current church, a Grade I-listed building, date back to the 12th Century, but new finds began to emerge during work in 2008 to make the church more accessible, which have since been analysed by experts.
First an Anglo-Saxon doorway and walls were discovered, but then earlier stonework which archaeologists believe suggest the remains of a Roman temple lie beneath the church chancel and also a whinstone boulder circle which suggests the site was used for worship 4,000 years ago.
Further evidence supporting this theory is that Romans tended to build temples on old pagan worship sites. Additionally, the site was originally a mound in the midst of boggy land which would leave it as the only location suitable to build on.
Churchwarden David Turnbull, the official guide of the church said: "Up until the reordering, people believed that the church was 900 years old and that was that. We had no idea what the archaeologists would discover. This is very exciting.
"When I take schoolchildren round the church, I ask them ‘how old is Jesus’ and they say 2,000 years.
"Then I say ‘well worship on this site could have been taking place for 2,000 years before him. The church is special. It has a spiritual feel to it."
The church is being awarded a Red Rose in the Places of Interest Quality Assurance scheme by Visit England for the discovery.
The award recognises the quality of a visitor’s experience at the site based on information on offer, amount of time visitors spend at the site and accessibility to the building.
Reverend Canon Sue Pinnington, Rector of Houghton-Le-Spring said: "The Red Rose is the final piece in the jigsaw because it recognises what an important place the site is for the North-East and the wider area.
"It confirms that people will have a great experience when they come here.
"The discoveries in 2008 were very exciting because they suggested that the site was used for worship as far back as the days of Abraham in the Promised Land.
"They suggest that worship may have gone on on the site for 4,000 years, showing that this is indeed a Holy Place."