Moor mounds

Ellie Leary – Monuments for the Future Project Officer

Welcome to the latest instalment of our blog celebrating the archaeology of the North York Moors. As the newest member of the Monuments for the Future Team I should probably take this opportunity to introduce myself as a new Project Officer. I started out in professional archaeology 20 years ago, working in a variety of roles, mostly in the field, although the last few years have been spent providing archaeological advice to local authorities. Previously I mainly knew the North York Moors through holidays, but now I can really immerse myself in this beautiful landscape and its wonderful archaeology.

Since moving here I’ve spent every spare moment pouring over OS Explorer maps of the area and planning trips. If you’ve ever done this you might have seen the words ‘tumulus’, ‘tumuli’ or ‘cairn’ frequently dotted across them. Marked in the spidery Gothic script used to mark archaeological remains, a tumulus or cairn refers to a mound (either of earth or stone respectively). Many of those marked will be Bronze Age burial mounds known as round barrows or round cairns. Another way to spot these archaeological features on your map is by names, such as Cock Howe or Three Howes – Howe is an Old Norse word for a mound or barrow.

Round barrows or cairns typically date to the Bronze Age, with the large majority constructed between 4000 to 3500 years ago (2000 – 1500 BCE). They can vary quite widely in size, and come in a few different types, but the most common type you are likely to encounter will have a mound shaped like an inverted bowl, constructed from earth and/or stone which cover single or multiple burials (inhumations or cremations), with the mound sometimes originally surrounded by a circular ditch.

These evocative monuments would have been clearly visible in their day and are found in prominent positions. Such clearly visible features would have acted as commemorative and territorial landmarks, but also had significant social and cosmological meaning. They may also have been way markers, tracing out ancient routeways.

This visibility also means that these monuments have attracted attention through the following millennia, drawing people to them. We can see this in their re-use, for example the medieval and later cross at Ana Cross on Spaunton Moor below.

Ana Cross on round barrow with erosion repair carried out under Monument Management Scheme. Copyright NYMNPA.

Here antiquarian digging in later centuries has left distinctive indentations on the summit and sides, and then there are the modern walkers cairns. Our modern curiosity frequently results in inadvertent erosion, as numerous feet make their way onto the summit along the same route.

Very occasionally we have the opportunity to look inside a round barrow. Excavations in 2011 through the round barrow within Boltby Scar hillfort showed that the mound had been constructed in several phases, one of which included the ring of stone rubble visible below.

Inside Boltby Scar Hillfort round barrow, 2011. Copyright NYMNPA.

Many barrows are mapped and marked as tumuli on the OS Explorer, but this really only scratches the surface of the actual number found within the North York Moors. Round barrows make up a substantial proportion (the majority in fact) of the Scheduled Monuments in the National Park, with a total of 541 of the area’s monuments including at least one round barrow or round cairn (64%of the total). A further 680 unscheduled barrows are recorded within the North York Moors Historic Environment Record. Some of the unscheduled barrows are visible earthworks, but many are only indicated by very slight rises in the ground or as cropmarks spotted in aerial photographs.

Current issues affecting round barrows and cairns include erosion, bracken or scrub growth and walkers cairns. A previous blog post highlighted the issue of walkers cairns and the work we were doing under the Monument Management Scheme (MMS). Now Monuments for the Future  is continuing this work, as well as helping to preserve some of the more eroded or overgrown barrows, and monitoring their ongoing condition.

Cock Howe round barrow on Bilsdale West Moor with erosion repair carried out under Monument Management Scheme. Copyright NYMNPA.

We will also be carrying out research into the survival of below ground remains of round barrows under arable cultivation. Some barrows may have been under the plough for centuries so there may be very little to see on the surface now, but burials and other features may survive – our challenge is to find out what lies under the plough soil and determine the best techniques to record remains and preserve them for the future.

With so many round barrows and cairns across the North York Moors, you are never too far away from one. Look out for mounds on the horizon as you travel across the moorland, or you might come across one at closer quarters. Try finding some of these:

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