Iron Age shrine unearthed in the Yorkshire Wolds

Current Archaeology reveals exciting new details of this remarkable discovery...

Excavations on a hill in the Yorkshire Wolds have uncovered the remains of a 24m2 Iron Age shrine packed with cow skulls, deer antler, and other animal bones. The site appeared as crop marks in aerial photographs taken over 20 years ago, but its full complexity is only just being revealed thanks to recent investigations led by Dr Peter Halkon, senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Hull, and James Lyall, an independent researcher and director of

Photo: Tony Hunt.

Their project – which has been running for the past four years and which was sponsored by Yorkshire Archaeological and Historical Society and supported by volunteers – began 30m west of the shrine with a magnetometer survey of a 140m-wide bivallate ringfort that would once have dominated the surrounding landscape. ‘Both ringfort entrances were elaborate and almost certainly had timber gatehouses of some kind,’ Peter told CA. During the 2019 season, the investigators excavated the centre of the fortified enclosure and found the post-holes of a circular structure with a ‘porch’, which was ‘surrounded by the foundation slot of a timber roundhouse, 22m in diameter, with an inner concentric ring of posts,’ Peter said. The central building, which closely resembles a later Bronze Age example from Paddock Hill, Thwing, was superseded by a smaller, possibly Iron Age, roundhouse, which intersected the larger structure. The ‘porch’ of the inner timber structure and the two roundhouse doorways all faced east, and were aligned with the inner and outer ringfort entrances.

Evidence of Iron Age activity at the site is important, Peter said, because it implies that the ringfort continued to be occupied into the middle Iron Age. ‘It has been suggested recently that these large hillforts in East Yorkshire were out of use by the time the people of the Arras culture were riding about in chariots [see CA 363], but it does appear that this site continued,’ he explained. The investigators are awaiting radiocarbon dates to confirm the chronology of the site, but it is clear from the archaeology that the Iron Age shrine unearthed this past August was at some stage connected to the ringfort’s outer ramparts by a fence or palisade.

The shrine itself is surrounded by a 2m-wide ditch, but the most unusual finds were discovered within ‘a narrower internal, almost trapezoidal concentric slot’, which would once have housed the structure’s main fence or palisade. ‘At some stage, the palisade was demolished’, after which ‘the heads of around 40 cattle were carefully placed in the palisade slot,’ said Peter. ‘Cattle were very important within the society at the time, and this represents an enormous sacrifice,’ he added.

Peter emphasised that the archaeologists have recovered the remains of both hunted and farmed animals. ‘At the south-east corner, the forelegs of cattle overlay three skulls, which in turn overlay a red deer antler. During the 2020 excavations, cow heads were found along the south-western side and the antlers and parts of the skulls and jaws of red deer had been carefully placed in the north-western edge of the palisade trench,’ he said. Peter suggested that the animals may have been consumed at the fort before their heads and uneaten limbs were placed deliberately within the attached shrine.

The shrine resembles Caesar’s Camp near Heathrow in its layout, as well as other sanctuary sites containing animal bones at Roseldorf in Austria and in Picardy, France. It was not only animals whose remains had been buried at the site, however: at its centre, the team discovered the partial skeleton of a human child, the age and sex of which could not be established due to plough damage.