Exploring the Yorkshire Wolds Part 1. – Prehistoric Monuments.

A guide to prehistoric monuments you can see in the Yorkshire Wolds

In Great Britain we are spoilt to death when it comes to Heritage, we have Castles, Roman Villas, old industrial buildings and prehistoric monuments aplenty, though a lot of it has been buried by foul development of the modern world. There are however certain “magical” parts of the country which are seemingly not ruined by development. These places are blessed with winding country roads, unique historic churches and obscure monuments. One such area is the Yorkshire Wolds in East Yorkshire.

Wharram Percy, one of England’s most archaeologically explored Deserted Medieval Village.

Many historical tourists to Yorkshire miss out on the quaint Yorkshire Wolds, often they are drawn into the glamour of the City of York with its viking Centre, impressive medieval walls and minster, but drive out of the City to the East and over the Howardian Hills you will arrive into the agricultural rolling Yorkshire wolds…. ahhhh. Away from the hustle, and rat race you are now sliding towards the German ocean through winding roads and fields.

You will find when you are exploring the Wolds that it is authentically agricultural, not as many chocolate box villages but practical farming Communities, the Wolds is a topsy turvy farming landscape as it is in a bowl so agriculture is more suitable on the uplands whilst animals are put to pasture in the lowlands.

Prehistoric Wolds in a nutshell

The East Riding of Yorkshire has an abundance of archaeology dating to the Paleolithic when no doubt Early man fished the rivers using antler spear tips. Not quite in the Wolds but in the Vale of Pickering was found the hyena cave, a prehistoric cave filled with hyena, rhinocerous and elk skeletons which gives a snapshot of what early Yorkshire was like 121,000 years ago. In the Mesolithic (10,000 years ago) peoples would have migrated following herds of red deer, or tracking seal colonies stopping off at Seasonal hunting sites. As hundreds of years passed they began to settle in the fertile plains of the wolds to begin early agriculture. In the Neolithic (roughly 3500 BC) and settlement was more common many cursuses have been identified including the Rudston, Beacon, Breeze, Glebe Farm and Argham causeways which are believed to be Neolithic ritual causeways connecting religious pilgrimage routes as well as building some of early long barrows, Fordon and Kilham long barrows date to 3700 BC. In the bronze age older monuments were seemingly still honoured and hundreds of bronze age barrows were built to accommodate the dead.

The Wolds Valley is dominated by the “Gypsey Race” a Winterbourne stream, meaning a stream that only flows during times of rainfall. This strange appearance of the stream at certain times of year must have been important to prehistoric farming communities as it is along its banks that you find the best monuments that prehistory can offer.

The Yorkshire Wolds has some of the best Iron Age Archaeology in the country with hundreds of box, bowl and round barrows. It was here that the Arras Culture thrived, a people who took pride in militaristic burial practices in chariots, the most famous is the Wetwang burial and the Queens Burial which can be seen in the British museum, others can be seen in the Yorkshire museum. The Ferriby Boats were also found in East Yorkshire, possibly the oldest log boats in the country which are thought to have aided Baltic trade in the Humber estuary transporting jet, amber and pottery into the mainland.

Map showing Prehistoric Barrows in East Yorksire, Hull and East Riding Museum.

What to see.

It is thought that the Wolds has over 1400 Bronze age – Iron Age burial mounds and some of the finest follow the Gypsey Race which must have been of great Spiritual importance, these monuments can however be quite hard to find, many of them are on Private land so require viewing from a distance if you can’t find permission. So here’s the list of some of best prehistoric monuments of the Yorkshire Wolds!

  1. Duggleby Howe

On private land, can be seen from the road.

Duggleby Howe

Duggleby Howe is the largest burial mound to be found in the Yorkshire Wolds and also revealed the most stunning finds. It was excavated in the 19th Century by an early archaeologist by the name of J.R.Mortimer. They discovered that the mound had been used for burials for centuries with evidence of an original bronze age inhumation (non-cremated burial) of a high status individual, in the Iron Age over 30 cremations were inserted into the mound and it is believed that Anglo-Saxon settlers used the site based off some Early medieval finds on the site. The evidence points to a monument which has had special significance to a succession of settlers throughout the centuries as a place of burial and even been appropriated by other cultures after the original meaning was lost. The exacavated treasures can be found in the Hull and East Riding museum.

2. Willy Howe

On private land can be seen up a track from the road.

Willies Howe is a prehistoric Round Barrow which can be found on private land at a model aircraft flying range near Wold Newton. Willies Howe was excavated a number of times by antiquarians but only a shallow burial was found and sadly the excavation was not recorded very well. There was evidence of a ramp and some historians have wondered whether it was used as a “Thing” (an early medieval meeting place) in the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Scandinavian periods. It is one of the few prehistoric monuments mentioned in a medieval Chronicle with an attached legend. The Chronicler William of Newburgh, writing in the Priory of Newburgh near Bridlington wrote in the 12th Century:

There is a village…near which those famous waters, commonly called Gipse, spring from the ground… A certain rustic belonging to the village, going to see his friend, who resided in the neighboring hamlet, was returning, a little intoxicated, late at night; when, behold, he heard…the voice of singing and revelling on an adjacent hillock, which I have often seen, and which is distance from the village only a few furlongs. Wondering who could be thus disturbing the silence of midnight with noisy mirth, he was anxious to investigate the matter more closely; and perceiving in the side of the hill an open door, he approached, and, looking in, he beheld a house, spacious and lighted up, filled with men and women, who were seated, as it were, at a solemn banquet. One of the attendants, perceiving him standing at the door, offered him a cup: accepting it, he wisely forebore to drink; but, pouring out the contents, and retaining the vessel, he quickly departed. A tumult arose among the company, on account of the stolen cup, and the guests pursued him; but he escaped by the fleetness of his steed, and reached the village with his extraordinary prize.” – William De Newburgh, “Historia Regum Anglicarum” (1196-98)

The legend must be of great antiquity, and given that William wrote that he heard the tale in his childhood adds to how old the legend must be.

3. Wold Newton Barrow

Apologies that I have no photo of this one, though I do have some limited video footage!

Nearby following the stream to the village of Wold Newton you can also see Wold Newton Barrow, but again this is on private land however you can just about quite see it from the fence. This is in fact a bowl barrow, it was excavated by J.R. Mortimer who wrote that the original inhumations were buried on a wooden platform, he suggests that the bodies were possibly left to decompose like a sky burial. Fanciful as this is, its an attractive idea and its a shame modern archaeologists couldn’t have got to it first. Interestingly the barrow had a more unusual usage in later periods, it lies next to lane called “Butt lane” this is because in the Middle Ages the barrow was used as an archery butt for those practicing with longbows on Sundays in the 14th-15th Centuries (as we all know Henry V and Henry VIII made proclamations that archery should be practiced weekly).

Apparently in Wold Newton the Gypsey Race doesn’t flow regularly and only appears every several years, when I visited it was in full spate which meant the fields around the barrow were waterlogged and flooded, the author of stone circles.org writes that they believed there was a trench around the barrow which may have been intended to flood in prehistoric times, if this were the case, perhaps I witnessed such an event.

4. Rudston Monolith

Accessible in All Saints Church, graveyard.

Rudston has one of the richest for archaeology in the country, with evidence of Iron Age Round houses, a Roman Villa, a beautiful Norman church and the jewel in the crown – the Rudston Monolith. The Monolith at 7.6 metres high is the tallest Lower Neolithic standing stone in the country rising just above the gable of All Saints Church. To raise such a monument in the Neolithic would have been such a feat. Some believe that the monolith was once part of a larger stone circle similar to Avebury and the archaeological study of the landscape has revealed the possible curcuses (ceremonial ritual causeways) that it was part of. William Stukeley the Tudor antiquarian excavated the monument and stated he found hundreds of skulls and believed the monument to be a place of druidic sacrifice. (Though as the stone stands in a graveyard that has been used since Anglo-Saxon times its not surprising!) A very similar monument is “The Devils Arrows” near Boroughbridge.

5. Garrowby Bowl Barrows

On private land, can be seen from the road.

The Yorkshire Wolds has various Bronze Age Cemeteries including the Painsthorpe barrows. The Garrowby Bowl burials are a collection of 18 burial mounds which were built along an ancient trackway linking the Derwent Valley with the Wolds, this would have led travellers through this very ceremonial landscape celebrating the ancestors. Many have been destroyed by agriculture and most are on private land.Three can be seen on private land, the easiest to see is in the grounds of South Wold Farm and others in fields alongside the A166. It seems that the barrows have not be excavated.

6. Danes Dyke

Accessible from Danes Dyke Nature Reserve Carpark.

Right on the East Coast below Bridlington is the famous Danes Dyke a monumental earthwork system constructed in the Bronze age. The ditches may have been defensive and worked much like an early hillfort enclosing an area of 5 miles possibly protecting a significant settlement, there is however not yet evidence of occupation but I’m sure archaeologists will eventually find something. You can walk along the dyke from the RSPB Nature reserve at Bempton Cliffs or the Danes Dyke Nature Reserve near Flamborough.

7. Hull and East Riding Museum

The Museum in Hull is well worth a visit if you’re really into your prehistoric archaeology. It has an amazing array of artefacts collected by the antiquarian J.R. Mortimer you can see strange votive figurines on a boat dating to the Iron Age, chalk deities possibly associated with the Iron Age Parisi tribe and Chariot burials of the Arras Culture, iron age burials which have been “ritually killed” after death with spears and the Ferriby Boats. The museum also has an amazing iron age experience walk-through with round houses and wax models of tartan clothed iron age peoples on chariots, smelting on bloomer furnaces and hanging head trophies on their round houses, its a bit dated but awesome!

I hope you enjoyed this little guide and its given you a few tips of places to discover when lockdown is over. If you liked this page please give it a *like* and if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to email or leave a comment. All the best – Martin. 13/04/2020 AD

2 Replies to “Exploring the Yorkshire Wolds Part 1. – Prehistoric Monuments.”

  1. A fine first entry, Martin. Yorkshire seems to have an historic site around every bend of the road. It’s sad to think that sites could be lost to estate and industrial development, so it’s fortunate that so much of it has been preserved and that many artifacts have found their way into museums. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As a stone circle and prehistoric monuments enthusiast myself, i found this to be a fascinating read and very well-researched. Once I have explored all the many stone circles there is to explore in Cumbria, I will be sure to visit the Yorkshire Wolds again having only seen Duggbleby Howe mound!

    Liked by 1 person

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