There are some places so rich in archaeological remains and so cherished is their history that, in my run of county reviews, I have been nervous to tread there. One such location, Yorkshire, is the focus of this issue and the next – though two columns seem the least possible space needed to do justice to an incredible archaeological story. I will take a chronological approach, featuring all of the historic counties: North Yorkshire, including the Dales and Moors; the East Riding, including the Humber Estuary and Wolds; and South and West Yorkshire.
Before I begin, let me flag some multi-period reviews that you may wish to start with. For example, CA 98 and 226 (October 1985 and January 2009) visited the North York Moors in two very different moods: first, as part of a long-term research project that won the Pitt Rivers Award at the 1984 British Archaeological Awards and, second, following a disastrous series of fires that ravaged 2.5km2 of Fylingdales Moor in 2003. From the uplands to the lowlands, CA 172 (February 2001) explored the Humber wetlands, an area rich in prehistoric archaeology, including the late Iron Age Hasholme Boat (CA 99, February 1986) and the Bronze Age Ferriby Boats (CA 191, April 2004). Finally, the wonderful review of the archaeology of Yorkshire’s woodlands in CA 336 (March 2018) is essential reading.
Star of the Show
The prehistoric star of the show in Yorkshire can only ever be one site: Star Carr, near Scarborough, arguably the most important Mesolithic site currently known in Britain. The site was discovered in the late 1940s and made famous by Grahame Clark’s work and writing, but it was renewed fieldwork by a joint team from the universities of York, Manchester, and Chester in the early 2000s that transformed our understanding. CA’s first report came in issue 248 (November 2010), when the oldest dwelling yet found in Britain (dating to between 9200 and 8500 BC) was identified. Then came the news – long overdue – in CA 264 (March 2012) that the site had been scheduled on the basis of this new evidence; the magazine returned in issue 282 (September 2013) when Chris Catling reviewed the findings of these works in association with the excavators’ new book Star Carr: life in Britain after the Ice Age. The most recent update came in CA 349 (April 2019), when the full publication of the previous decade’s work took place. For those who are interested, these publications are – unusually, and in a welcome change from common academic practice – available in full for free online: see Milner, Conneller, and Taylor (2018) Star Carr at https://doi.org/10.22599/book1 and https://doi.org/10.22599/book2.
The Neolithic North
CA 209 (May 2007) featured an awe-inspiring Neolithic site on the opposite side of the North York Moors at Catterick. There, a team from Durham University revealed (on the site of former RAF Catterick) an oval enclosure of some 2.75ha, comprising more than 2,000 timber posts. This was construction on an epic scale – there were two timber arcs running across the eastern half of the site, which the excavators at first took to be curved ditch circuits. After cleaning and excavation, though, it became clear that each circuit was in fact a series of closely spaced radial slots, 2m long by 1m wide, with each slot housing two post-holes. This discovery led the team to rethink the site, realising that its overall plan was oval, with two palisades, each composed of two circuits of posts. This paired- post arrangement gave two circuits of double palisades with perimeters of approximately 610m and 480m, which enclosed areas of 2.75ha and 1.8ha respectively. When it was completed, the site must have been quite extraordinary, unlike anywhere else in Britain at this time.
Queens of the Iron Age
A fascinating Iron Age site in Yorkshire first featured in CA 119 (March 1990): the oppidum at Stanwick, near Forcett in North Yorkshire, seat of Queen Cartimandua. First excavated by Sir Mortimer Wheeler in 1951-1952, its enormous earthwork fortifications (now under the custodianship of English Heritage and open to the public) sprawl for nearly 3km2. Wheeler recognised it as an Iron Age ‘oppidum’ – the only such example known in northern Britain. He also linked it with the events recorded by Tacitus, when Cartimandua ruled the Brigantes as a friend of the Romans. In the late 1980s, Durham University was back on site, in partnership with the county council and English Heritage, surveying the whole area and undertaking focused excavations at key locations. Twenty years later, CA 273 (December 2012) went back to the wider neighbourhood as part of a survey of Roman military activity and local contact in the north at sites such as Stanwick. This activity came as a result of the discovery in 2003 of a major Roman period site at Faverdale, on the north-west fringe of Darlington. CA 325 (April 2017) was the magazine’s most recent return, marking Colin Haselgrove’s publication of the definitive report Cartimandua’s Capital? The late Iron Age royal site at Stanwick, 1981-2011.
Three Cheers for Chariots
To conclude this first column on Yorkshire’s archaeology, I will end on an Iron Age high with a site that ought to be better known beyond, not just within, the county. To explain, CA 51 (March 1976) first reported on fieldwork at Garton/Wetwang Slack in the Yorkshire Wolds, where a team led by the legendary T C M Brewster discovered a magnificent chariot burial and also two unique ‘ritual’ enclosures, the ditches of which were filled with decapitated chalk figurines. The first Iron Age remains were discovered in the mid-19th century, with more uncovered in the mid-1960s when a quarry was opened here, leading to excavations funded jointly by the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments (the predecessor of English Heritage/Historic England) and the East Riding Archaeological Research Committee.
Due to the richness of the 1960s and ’70s finds, CA made repeated return visits. Issue 93 (August 1984) reported on two more discoveries of chariot burials, and issue 95 (January 1985) on an impressive fourth such find. After an interval of some 15 years, CA 178 (March 2002) was then back on site, when works in advance of a new housing estate revealed a fifth chariot burial on the eastern side of Wetwang village, on the hill above the quarry where the previous finds had been made. As Iron Age expert J D Hill made clear, the fifth burial was different in a number of important respects:
this hill-top position is unusual… the Wetwang 2001 burial is probably also earlier than other similar burials excavated since the 1960s. On current evidence, we are suggesting a 4th or 3rd century BC date… The new burial is that of a woman. This is the second female chariot burial out of a total of seven excavated under modern conditions. [And] should we call these ‘chariot burials’? Ian Stead made a strong case that it was inappropriate to call the vehicles chariots, since the word ‘chariot’ implies a military use, for which, strictly, the burials provide no direct evidence.
Most recently, CA’s Chris Catling reported on the latest thinking from such sites in issue 363 (June 2020), linked to the publication of two new books on the Iron Age society of this period and place. This is an excellent place to survey the Iron Age landscape of Yorkshire, and an excellent place too to conclude the first half of my survey of the county. In the next issue, I return to examine Roman, Viking, and medieval Yorkshire.
Discover old issues
Read a selection of articles discussed by Joe for free online at www.archaeology.co.uk/archive370. They will be available for one month, from 3 December. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI370’.