Iron Age ‘shrine’ discovered in Yorkshire Wolds

The most intriguing aspect of the shrine was the discovery of the skulls of over 40 cattle which had been placed in groups or pairs

Excavation in the Yorkshire Wolds, sponsored by the Yorkshire Archaeological and Historical Society, has recently unearthed an Iron Age ‘shrine’ or sanctuary.

What makes this remarkable is the discovery of the skulls of cattle together with the antlers and partial skulls of red deer carefully arranged around parts of the ditch surrounding the shrine.

Excavating the cattle skulls within the palisade slot of the Iron Age sanctuary. Photo: Peter Halkon.

Over the previous four years, a team led by both Dr Peter Halkon, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Hull at the time of the dig, and independent researcher James Lyall, director of, have conducted excavations on the site of a ringfort believed to have been established in the Late Bronze Age (c. 1000-800 BC), with continuing use into the Iron Age. Although the site had been known from aerial survey as a cropmark for many years, it was not until a magnetometer survey conducted as part of a student MA project that the true complexity of the archaeology present was revealed. The survey discovered a large central roundhouse measuring 22m in diameter. When the area containing the roundhouse was excavated, it was found that it had been cut by a smaller later round house, presumably of Iron Age date, though this has yet to be confirmed by radiocarbon dating.

The fort, almost 140m across, would have been an impressive structure with both inner and outer concentric banks and ditches, each with timber gateways.

Around 30m to the east, connected to the outer bank of the ringfort by a narrow ditch, possibly a slot for a palisade, the shrine comprised an inner slightly trapezoidal enclosure surrounded by a deep ditch. Near the centre, archaeologists found the remains of a child; however, due to poor skeletal preservation it has not yet been possible to determine age or sex.

The Iron Age sanctuary at the beginning of the excavation. Image: drone photograph by Tony Hunt.  

The most intriguing aspect of the shrine was the discovery of the skulls of over 40 cattle which had been placed in groups or pairs around the inner palisade trench after the palisade had been removed. The forelegs of cattle were also found in the south-eastern corner. According to animal bone specialist Dr Clare Rainsford, the heads had been placed in the ground while still fleshed. In the north-western corner were the antlers and parts of the skulls and jaws of around 9 red deer. The only other antlers were found in the south-eastern corner, also the only place where both types of animal were found together. The organisation of the bones indicates this was a deliberate action, rather than simply food waste disposal. The shrine broadly resembles both in its plan and association with animal bones, Iron Age sanctuaries in northern France, Germany, and Austria, and in Britain at Heathrow and Hayling Island.

It seems that the animals were consumed elsewhere – most likely at the nearby fort where assemblages of butchered cattle, sheep, and pork remains have been found – and then some of the parts which were not eaten were transported to the shrine.

The excavation team have also uncovered evidence of Roman activity indicated by a small number of pottery sherds in an upper fill of the outer ditch of the shrine, suggesting that the site may have retained some significance into the Roman period.

Look out for further in-depth analysis of this remarkable discovery in the next issue of Current Archaeology (CA 381), out November.