Leaving a mark

Graham Lee – Archaeological Officer

‘Rock Art’ in archaeological terms consists of markings made by human beings on exposed stone surfaces. The earliest rock art from around the world has been dated to between 10,000-50,000 years ago, whereas within the North York Moors National Park the rock art appears to belong to the time span between the Late Neolithic and the Early Bronze Age periods, approximately 3,200-1,500 BC. Motifs created by carving were made into the rock surface using a sharp tool with a ‘pecking’ technique and can range in complexity from simple cups and grooves to quite elaborate patterns. The cup marks (sometimes enclosed by an outer groove – then called cup and ring marks, Fig. 1) tend to be shallow, semi-spherical hollows between c.3-12 cms across, with the depth generally proportional to the diameter, depending on the amount of surface erosion that may have occurred.

Cup and ring marks - copyright NYMNPA

Fig. 1 (above): Cup and ring marks on a heavily marked rock on Fylingdales Moor. Two roughly pecked rings can be seen coming together in the centre-right of the image.

The main concentration of prehistoric rock art within the North York Moors National Park lies within Fylingdales Moor which was affected by a wildfire in 2003. Survey after the fire has significantly increased the known resource (as previously recorded by the local rock art experts and enthusiasts) by over 60% – from approximately 120 sites to over 200. Given that the wildfire affected just over half (c.250 out of c.480 hectares) of this surviving area of coastal moorland (north-east of the A171), and that the latter in total only forms a small proportion of the overall Fylingdales moorland block, the full extent of the distribution of carved rocks in the area probably still remains to be discovered. Some of the carvings appear so fresh that it is thought that they are likely to have become completely buried in prehistory, to then be revealed anew by the wildfire. Such a site is probably that represented by a site on Brow Moor (Figs. 2-3), which was discovered under burnt vegetation in October 2003 and provides an example of excellent preservation. The individual peck-marks which form the decorative markings in the stone can still clearly be seen.

Cup and ring marks - copyright NYMNPA

Fig. 2 (above) and Fig. 3 (below): A remarkably ‘fresh’ carving on Brow Moor, as discovered in 2003 and after a few years regenerative growth. Note the level of surviving detail, including the individual peck-marks.

Cup and ring marks - copyright Blaise Vyner

The heat of the wild fire resulted in damage to some of the rocks by causing the surface of the stone to crack and flake away (known as spalling, Fig. 4). In addition to this, the chemistry of the stone may also have been irreversibly altered, affecting the cements that hold the rock particles together. This can influence the subsequent absorption of moisture which, due to freeze/thaw action during winter, can cause further spalling. The loss of covering material, such as the layers of roots and peat which had grown over the rock surfaces, also appears to have left the carved rocks more vulnerable to disturbance and erosion.

Wildfire burn - cup and ring marks - copyright Blaise Vyner

Fig. 4 (above): Spalling damage to a rock on Fylingdales Moor, caused by heat generated from the wildfire. Clearly this can lead to irreversible damage to any surviving rock art.

All the known examples of rock art on Fylingdales Moor appear to be carved into the local middle Jurassic Dogger series sandstone. Many of these rocks are likely to have been exposed to the elements – to weathering and biological attack – for well over 4,000 years. During this period of time it is likely that other wildfire events will have occurred, together with fires set deliberately for land management purposes. The latter will have increased within the last 150-200 years as part of grouse moor heather management  but in recent decades management for wildlife, rather than grouse shooting, has become the priority on this estate. Controlled burning is designed to cause minimal heat and damage, however it may still – depending on the chemistry of the rocks in question, and the nature of the ‘burn’ – cause some negative impacts to the prehistoric carvings.

In order to tackle the potential future loss of detail to these sites, a range of recording techniques and practices have been employed. The Fylingdale Moor sites have all been recorded by local experts and enthusiasts (see Brown and Chappell 2005), but in particular a group of 26 carved rocks were chosen for monitoring in order to provide a baseline record of condition against which to assess erosion and damage in future years. These have all been recorded by stereoscopic photography by Historic England, with a further group of 12 laser scanned at 0.5mm resolution.

Accurate location is also an essential part of site management, due to the difficulties of relocating sites on large areas of open (often rather ‘featureless’) moorland where long heather or other dense vegetation has developed. In the last few decades practical management has tended to become more mechanical with the use of rotating chain flail cutters attached to tractors, both to create fire breaks and to harvest the heather, which is sometimes baled and used e.g. as an environmental filter. It is consequently of particular importance to know the precise location of all the rock art panels to ensure that potential damage does not accidentally occur.

Many of the examples of rock art on Fylingdales Moor are protected as Scheduled Monuments. As part of our work under Monuments for the Future, and previously under the Monument Management Scheme, we send volunteers out to make regular monitoring visits to check on monument condition – however it is not always easy to find the correct rocks! In some areas bracken has been a problem, not only damaging other archaeological features, such as Bronze Age burial mounds, which may be associated with the rock art but obscuring the rocks making them difficult to find and therefore vulnerable to accidental damage. Over the last few years we have worked with Natural England and the managers of Fylingdales Moor to ensure that appropriate bracken control has kept some of these features clear of vegetation.

Further Reading
Brown, P. M. and Chappell, G. 2005 Prehistoric Rock Art in the North York Moors, Tempus, Stroud
Vyner, B. E. 2007a Fylingdales Wildfire and Archaeology, North York Moors National Park.

End of an era

Our Senior Archaeologist is taking phased retirement, so before he goes he has been asked to reflect on his time with the North York Moors National Park.

Graham Lee – Senior Archaeological Conservation Officer

graham-leeHow do I sum up a career lasting over a quarter of a century in a few paragraphs? It is a strange feeling to have 26 years seemingly flash by so fast.

I started work for the North York Moors National Park in April 1990, having previously worked in the archaeology section of North Yorkshire County Council since the summer of 1983. I had decided many years before that I loved the north of England and had no desire to return to my southern ‘roots’.

Graham had decided many years before that he loved the north of England, whatever the weather ... Copyright - NYMNPA.One of my first tasks with the National Park was the completion of a management survey of one of our large estates, encompassing moorland and large blocks of forestry. This quickly whetted my appetite for the excitement of making new archaeological discoveries – often very subtle earthworks, no more than a handful of centimetres in depth or relief – despite an exceptional tradition of previous high quality archaeological fieldwork in the region. Working solo in large blocks of conifers was a good test of dedication – crawling under the branches of dense stands of conifers searching for vague earthworks mapped in the 1890s – and the steadiness of nerve, when yet another wretched pheasant exploded out of the leafy vegetation where I was just about to step! In recent years the delights of discovery have been broadening thanks to new technology and techniques, especially LiDAR which provides an aerial view through tree and ground-cover vegetation of archaeological remains that were previously hidden or obscured.

If you have a passion for the past, the North York Moors have something for pretty much everyone – enigmatic Neolithic rock art; surviving prehistoric pitted boundaries and avenues; upstanding Bronze Age funerary monuments and field systems; Roman encampments; medieval castles and monasteries…

Human industry is also well represented – from the earliest iron industry through the search for alum into the full-blown “iron rush” of the mid 19th century, the exploitation of coal and jet, and the plentiful local rivers managed to provide motive power for a range of watermills. Research and conservation priorities relating to these local industries finally led to our new HLF Landscape Partnership Scheme, This Exploited Land of Iron. Some 15 or so years in gestation, it is very rewarding to see new generations captured by the excitement of the important remains of our 19th century ironstone industry and the associated development of early railways – although the original scheme for a canal link between Whitby and Pickering would have been a sight to behold and a major tourist attraction if it had ever been built.

Into the 20th century, remains survive here from both world wars – in the form of coastal defences, army camps as well as troop training and target practice areas. Finds are still occasionally made of 2nd World War unexploded ordnance in former training areas across the North York Moors, in particular after the wildfire on Fylingdales Moor in 2003 which affected two square kilometres of heather moorland.

Fylingdales Moor after teh wildfire in 2003. Copyright - NYMNPA.

Although an environmental disaster – the severity of the fire in reducing the shallow peat cover to ash, this event was an archaeological revelation. Virtually everywhere you looked, subtle archaeological remains became visible, including the drip gulleys around former prehistoric round houses, low stony prehistoric boundaries and cairns, large numbers of previously unrecorded examples of Neolithic rock art and occasional shallow trenches which resembled grave cuts with a subsiding infill. As numbers of the latter quickly increased their interpretation became clear – slit trenches from 2nd World War troop training. I remember my first visit to the site after the fire when the ground was reddened and blackened, covered in ash and still smouldering; few trees had survived and many had toppled after the peat holding their roots in place had been burnt away. Flashes of colour were very noticeable, such as an adder emerging from its underground refuge having survived the conflagration. A major project ensued, both to protect and restore the moorland habitat and to record and investigate the breath-taking remains of surviving archaeology.

Rosedale Calcining Kilns in a perilous state. Copyright - NYMNPA.There have always been new specialisms to get to grips with. A visit to the Scheduled Rosedale iron calcining kilns with the Park’s Conservation Director at the time revealed that a portion of one of the kilns’ firebrick linings had collapsed the previous winter. This led to a major conservation project to stabilise these huge monuments which ran for three years in the mid 1990s, a forerunner of This Exploited Land which will continue the efforts to conserve these monumental sites 20 years on.

Conservation project to stabalise the Calcining Kilns in the 1990s. Copyright - NYMNPA.

It has been such a pleasure working with like-minded and dedicated professionals, both in my own National Park, but also with colleagues throughout the family of British National Parks, and Historic England and Natural England. We’ve shared experiences and ideas to the betterment of our discipline from research to management, and also shared the excitement of attempting to bring our subject, which we love, to life for anyone who cares to see and to get involved.

Graham at work - examining finds at an archaeological excavation - Coxwold Creative Minds Project, March 2006. Copyright - NYMNPA.

The National Park Authority is currently looking for a new Senior Archaeologist to lead on archaeology in the North York Moors. The closing date for applications is 26 January 2017.

Return to Fylingdales Moor

Alex Cripps – Conservation Graduate Trainee

A week or so ago Kirsty Brown, our Conservation Projects Assistant, and I carried out our second bird survey for the Hawk and Owl Trust, covering a one kilometre square on Fylingdales Moor in the North York Moors. It was a perfect early morning – the sun was shining, the wind was calm and the birds were singing! We recorded all the birds we could see, including those in flights and any we could hear. The most abundant bird we recorded was Meadow pipit, closely followed by Skylark, both are beautiful little birds frequently seen on our moors, with characteristic calls and flight. Both species are in decline nationally.

Linnet, siskin, stonechat and willow warblers were some of the other species we recorded. Six mute swans also flew overhead which is a first for the Fylingdales Moor Bird Survey.

These results combined with the results from our first survey in June have been sent to Dr John Edwards of the Hawk and Owl Trust. Dr Edwards compiles an annual report, looking at the numbers of different bird species present on this Moor as reported by a number of surveyors, and compares the results to previous years. The survey will run again next year which will be the tenth year in a row of the survey – a fantastic achievement. Consistent repeat surveying can build up evidence of trends. This research is used to help manage Fylingdales Moor in the best way for biodiversity to flourish.

During our survey it wasn’t just us and the birds that were out and about – amongst the heather and cotton grass we also encountered a common lizard, tiger beetles, a noctuid moth larvae, many Northern/Oak eggar moth caterpillars and several spiders!

Listening to the tweeting

Alex Cripps – Conservation Graduate Trainee

Up very bright and early a week or so back, the Ecology Team and I carried out our first 2013 bird survey on a one kilometre square on Fylingdales Moor. We recorded all the birds we could see or hear (including curlew, kestrel, linnet, red grouse, skylark, willow warbler, yellowhammer and many meadow pipits), and I will be repeating the survey in the next few weeks to provide a fuller picture of what birds are using the Moor this year.

The results go to Dr John Edwards of the Hawk and Owl Trust who compiles an annual report looking at the numbers of different bird species present on this Moor which the Trust manage on behalf of the owner. This is the 9th year of the survey and it is a valuable piece of research helping to provide information about possible changes in the Fylingdales Moor bird populations. The Trust can use any evidence of detrimental trends to try and adjust their management if that could help.