Prehistoric Yorkshire

Prehistoric Yorkshire

About 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, the first humans entered Yorkshire, in the wake of the shrinking ice cap which had previously covered northern England. At that time the appearance of the land differed greatly from that which we see today. There was a land connection with continental Europe, across the area of the southern half of the North Sea, making it possible for groups of Stone-Age hunters to wander from North Germany and Jutland to Eastern England, in search of food and shelter. Their food came from wild animals, birds and fish which they caught and killed; and from wild berries and fruits which they collected. Their shelter was often in caves, such as Victoria Cave above Settle and Kirkdale Cave near Pickering. There is evidence that these caves have revealed the remains of animals which flourished during the last inter-glacial period, when there was a warm, sub-tropical climate. The hyaenas had dragged into their caves the carcases and bones of lions, elephants, rhinoceros and hippo­potami. The so-called ‘Leeds hippopotamus’, found by workmen in a clay pit at Wortley in 1854—and which they took to a local museum curator because they thought they might be too large to be ‘Christians’ bones’—were in fact the remains of three animals. These bones can still be seen in the Leeds City Museum. When the first people came, however, the climate was sub-arctic, and the animals which the Old Stone Age (or Palaeolithic) hunters found were mammoth, woolly rhinoceros and reindeer. One Palaeolithic group settled at Starr Carr, near Scar­borough, living in tents made from animal skins, which were erected on wooden platforms around the edge of the ice-dammed Lake Pickering. Another site occu­pied by these Maglemosian fisherfolk and hunters was Flixton, under the scarp of the Wolds, a few miles west of Filey.

During the 5,000 years following the arrival of these first migrants the climate steadily improved, and a richer natural vegetation began to cover the land. The birch was one of the first species of trees to appear, followed by hazel, pine, elm, oak and alder. There were changes in the relationship between land and sea, as the evidence of old shore lines bears witness. At one time Holderness was covered by sea and a shore line ran along the eastern slopes of the Wolds. By 5,000 B.C. the separation of Britain from mainland Europe had occurred, and later arrivals had to cross the Channel or North Sea in dugout canoes. The remains of ancient forests are sometimes dredged up from the bed of the North Sea.

Several phases of Stone Age culture are presented in Yorkshire, and tools and weapons made of stone, bone, antler—and even of a boar’s tusk—may be seen in museums throughout the country.

Tiny worked flints—known as pygmy flints—can still be found in parts of the Pennines. These were created by people of the Middle Stone (Mesolithic) Age, who are known as Tardenoisians, after a district in Belgium, where archaeologists first identified this culture. Another Mesolithic group, the Azilians, occupied parts of the Craven district in the sixth millennium B.C. Implements from these Mesolithic cultures are to be found in the Pig Yard Museum at Settle and in the museums in Skipton and Grassington. Mesolithic flints have also been found in] Stump Cross Caverns, between Grassington and Pateley Bridge.

Around 3,000 B.C. a revolutionary advance was made in the cultural development of the area, with the arrival from the continent of the first Neolithic] (or New Stone Age) settlers. As the North Sea and the English Channel had by this time assumed approximately their present outlines, these people must have crossed in boats—probably dugout canoes. The so-called ‘Neolithic Revolution’ involved arable farming and the domestication of animals. Neolithic society knew. how to make pottery, weave cloth and make baskets. It was no longer necessary to live a semi-nomadic existence. Permanent settlements were built, like the one at Ulrome, between Hornsea and Bridlington, where a dwelling built on wooden piles on the shore of a shallow lake has been discovered. Under the platform were found the bones of domestic animals—horses, pigs, dogs and sheep—as well as those of wild animals like wolves, boar and beavers. The Neolithic folk buried their dead with some ceremony, in chambered mounds known as barrows. There are examples in Yorkshire of both long and round barrows. In some there are signs that cremation was practised. At Duggleby Howe, near Wharram-le-Street, there is a large round barrow, 20 ft. high—the largest of its kind in Britain—where a mass cremation appears to have taken place. A similar structure is to be found at Willy Howe, 10 miles to the east. Neolithic barrows are found in many places in the Wolds, for example, at Willerby near Filey; and at Hedon House near Burythorpe. The evidence of burial rituals associated with the barrows suggests that the Neolithic peoples had some religious beliefs, and probably believed in life after death.

Some of the most impressive prehistoric monuments are associated with a group of invaders who arrived about 2,000 B.C. They are known as the Megalith builders, from the large standing stones which they erected, presumably for ceremonial purposes, probably connected with some form of religion. The Devil’s Arrows, a group of three pillars of millstone grit, each standing about 20 ft. high and buried to a depth of five feet, stand in a field near Boroughbridge. There were, originally, several other stones in the group. The stone is thought to have been transported from a quarry near Knaresborough, over six miles away. The largest standing stone in Britain—a single pillar of gritstone, 25 ft. 6 ins, high—dominates the churchyard at Rudston, a Wolds village a few miles west of Bridlington. The nearest outcrop of gritstone, similar to the material of the Rudston megalith, occurs at Cayton Bay, about ten miles away. The organisation required to erect monuments of this kind, as well as the Neolithic barrows, suggests that in late Neolithic and early Bronze Age times there was in existence a highly developed society, although we know little of its structure.

The use of bronze was probably introduced into Yorkshire by some new arrivals who entered by way of the Humber estuary, about 1,800 B.C.—the Beaker Folk. They spread across the Wolds and crossed to the Pennines by routes which used the York and Escrick moraines. Their name is derived from the habit of burying beaker-shaped urns with their dead. Beaker Folk penetrated as far west as Maiham Moor, but in the main they appear to have occupied sites on the Wolds, the North York Moors and the eastern slopes of the Pennines. Yorkshire museums contain many examples of ‘beaker ware’ pottery and of stone and bronze ornaments and implements, which these ingenious farmers left behind them. In the excavations of their farms there is evidence that they cultivated wheat. They also engaged in trade, importing flat bronze axes from Ireland; and exporting ornaments made of Whitby jet. They also traded in salt, and may have had sea connections with Scandinavia. Archaeologists are not in agreement as to whether the transition from the late Neolithic to the early Bronze Age came about as a result of invasions, or whether the new technology evolved amongst the resident population, probably stimulate,d by trade and peaceful contacts with other people.

About 3,000 B.C. the Beaker Folk were conquered by Celtic-speaking invaders who had entered Gaul from the Mediterranean, and who settled in Britain, to become the Brigantes (or Ancient Britons) who resisted the Roman invaders in the early years of the Christian era. The Celts knew how to make iron, and they were skilled horsemen. They went into battle mounted on iron wheeled, horse-drawn chariots, and attacked their enemies with iron swords and spears. Their farmsteads were made up of groups of small square or rectangular fields, often enclosed by low walls of gravel or stones. Their huts were made of branches, or wattle, standing on low circular foundations of stone. The roofs were thatch with straw or reeds. The outlines of such Celtic Iron-Age settlements may by see near Grassington and Maiham, but perhaps the most spectacular Iron-Age remains are at Stanwick, north of Richmond.

The Brigantes were not the only Celtic tribe to occupy part of Yorkshire. Holderness and the Wolds area a tribe known as the Parisii, who had come fro Belgium, were there when the first Roman soldiers crossed the Humber. The were only two of the dozen or more Celtic tribes, like the Silures of South Wales and the Iceni of East Anglia, who were conquered by the Romans during the first century A.D.

The Brigantes had a highly organised society, with a hierarchy of miita rulers. The mobility which they acquired by means of their equestrian ski provided the opportunity for their rulers to exercise command over relatively larg areas of northern England. The prevalence of the horse motif on brooches an ornaments of the period suggests that they recognised the importance of the hors( in their society. From Roman writers we know the names of two Brigantiat rulers—Cartimandua and her husband, Venutius, whom she divorced in A.D. 74 Although the Romans conquered the Brigantes and occupied their territory, th Romano-British society which developed under Roman rule involved a mergin of two cultures.

The Brigantes fought hard to defend themselves against the invaders, and there are several impressive fortifications which bear witness to the determined resistance which they organised. Cartimandua may have had a hand in the building of the fortifications on Castle Hill, Almondbury; and on the summit of Ingleborough, Other Brigantian fortifications are to be found at Fort Gregory, in Grass Wood, near Grassington, and at Ta Dyke, above Kettlewell. Their largest fortifie settlement, however, was at Stanwick.

The use of terms such as Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, etc., is of limited validity to modern archaeologists. It should be understood that these terms ar merely guides to the predominant technology which belonged to a particular. culture. There was not usually a clear break with the past when new materials came into use. Often there was a merging of peoples and ways of life. Many sites were shared by two or more cultures. For example, Mesolithic flints and chert tools are found in a Bronze-Age cremation urn in Sheffield, and bronze ornaments in excavations of Celtic Iron-Age sites. In east Yorkshire some Iron-Age sites have been associated in the popular mind with the later Danish invaders—e.g. Danes Graves near Kilham and Danes Dyke at Flamborough—but the Scandinavian connection is probably mistaken.

The last of the prehistoric occupants of Yorkshire before the arrival of the Romans were unable to read or write, but they have left their mark on the place names of Yorkshire. The main rivers of the county carry Celtic names—Aire, Calder, Don, Nidd and Wharfe (but not Swale or Ure). The British kingdom of Elmet, the capital of which was a place named Loidis (the forerunner of the modern city of Leeds), stretched from the foothills of the Pennines to the Humber Fens, covering a large part of the area later known as the West Riding. The place names Barwick-in-Elmet and Sherburn-in-Elmet are reminders of this ancient kingdom.