Standing up for standing stones

Nick Mason – Archaeology Officer

In the last couple of Monuments for the Future inspired blogs, we’ve looked at the hillforts and barrows of the North York Moors. This time we’ll ponder another monument type which often springs to mind when we think of prehistoric archaeology visible in the landscape today: standing stones.

The North York Moors has an abundance of stones set upright in the ground for various reasons. Not all of these stones are prehistoric: indeed the Historic Environment Record records 161 individual stones across the park recorded as ‘standing stones’, of which 129 are of likely prehistoric origin. But there are a further 1459 monuments recorded as ‘boundary stones’ with a medieval or later explanation. The distinction between standing stone and boundary stone is not always completely clear, as we shall see below, but these figures do mean that erected stones of one sort or another account for approximately 8.5% of all recorded monuments in the North York Moors. Let’s not even think about the number of historic gateposts out there…

People started to erect standing stones across the country in the late Neolithic period (2500-3000 BC), and carried on doing so up to the end of the Bronze Age around 700 BC. Like much of prehistoric archaeology, it can be very hard to know what was going on and to impose definitions on these big lumps of rock. Sometimes multiple stones are used in conjunction to create circles (often referred to as henges) or other shapes, or long rows stretching hundreds of metres, and then others stand alone. But why were people doing this?

It’s a long running joke in archaeology that if we don’t understand the function of a feature then it must be part of a long forgotten ritual, but for many surviving prehistoric features it seems that that is the most likely explanation. Some stones are associated with other features, such as a large slab next to a bridleway over Danby Rigg which forms part of a cairn under which Victorian archaeologists found deposited urns. Others accompany barrows, pits or stone-lined chambers. The common theme so far is death and burial: were people using standing stones to mark the spots belonging to the dead? were they a commemoration, in the same way we use gravestones and memorials today? or perhaps the stone warned others not to get too close…

Danby Rigg standing stone and ring cairn. Copyright NYMNPA.

Whilst many stones may have been raised to honour the dead or perform ritual practices around, others may have had a more mundane but useful purpose. If you’ve been out and about on the moors you’ll know how disorientating they can be, especially in bad weather. The last thing you want to do is get lost and stumble into someone’s barrow, and so we think some stones might have been erected as way markers, as a familiar point in the landscape to meet at or to help get you home.

Over time, some stones gathered cup and ring marks, and people buried items around them. These stones might be crossing the gap between the sacred and the profane, a physical object people can relate to, but which represents far more than the sum of its parts.

I mentioned at the start that there is not a clear distinction between some standing stones and modern boundaries. Some continue to have a function today, having been re-used by people looking to make their mark. A great example is the Cammon Stone, which stands on the parish boundary between Bransdale and Farndale West. This was initially erected on the watershed by prehistoric inhabitants of the area, perhaps marking a territorial boundary or route. At some point in the post-medieval period letters were carved into it, proclaiming the land ownership to anyone who came past. Then in the 19th century someone wrote ‘Hallelujah’ on it, followed by the Ordnance Survey who inscribed a survey benchmark into the base! So over the years the Cammon Stone has served as a boundary symbol for different cultures, in multiple religious functions, and as part of the very modern practice of mapping.

Cammon Stone with inscriptions. Copyright NYMNPA.

 

Cammon Stone with further inscriptions. Copyright NYMNPA.Another stone which might represent different sacred uses is Low Cross, just north of Appleton-le-Moors. This curious piece of limestone, with a hole cut right through it, started life as a large prehistoric stone, but was transformed into a wayside cross by some enterprising mediaeval person. It probably served a very similar function in this role, reminding people of their religion and marking out a safe route. Since then it has fallen apart, a plaque seems to have come and gone, and it’s thought the hole might have been used to pay tolls, but it remains in place today as a lasting reminder of the people who once lived there. A 3D model of Low Cross today can be seen here – Low Cross standing stone by Nick Mason Archaeology on Sketchfab

All of this is why standing stones are so exciting to archaeologists – they stand in place today as physical emblems of the prehistoric, when so little else of those people remains. That’s why any examples which are in good condition are likely to be protected as Scheduled Monuments. All of those mentioned in the text here are Scheduled, and as solid as they may seem, sometimes they need some work to look after them. Unstable ground, visitor numbers, even cattle can cause a stone to become threatened. Work was recently carried out to reinstate one of the Newgate Foot stones which had fallen over. This project restored the collection of stones (which might be a small henge monument) closer to what they originally looked like. This is a more complex operation than it sounds, as the ground had to be carefully prepared and excavated to ensure that deposits which might give us valuable dating evidence were not being disturbed.

A similar operation was carried out on Wade’s Stone near Lythe, a monument with giant-related folklore ascribed to it.

If you’d like to see some archaeology and take in a breath of fresh air there are many popular walks around the North York Moors which pass close to prehistoric monuments as they run along the higher ground. As ever, you can always find out more about the fascinating past of the North York Moors using our interactive Historic Environment Record map, so why not find your closest monument and pay a visit. The Monuments for the Future project is always on the look-out for monuments at risk, so don’t hesitate to get in touch if you think a standing stone needs some attention. You can always volunteer with the National Park if you’d like to help with conserving our monuments.

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:

Sworn defenders of the Historic Environment

Nick Mason – Archaeology Officer

You might have seem our recent post on the beginning of our new Monuments for the Future project, caring for the Scheduled Monuments in the North York Moors. Over the nine previous years of the Historic England funded Monument Management Scheme we were able to reduce the ‘At  Risk’ status of 212 of our monuments. We are wanting to build on that success and move forward with Monuments for the Future which is being supported by another generous grant from Historic England.

Since July this year we’ve already had a fantastic response from our dedicated Historic Environment volunteers. With volunteers and staff working together, we’re confident that over the next few years we can monitor and maintain the 842 Scheduled Monuments that we have within our boundary, and continue to reduce their ‘At Risk’ statuses, or else remove them from the Heritage at Risk Register altogether.

From coastal industrial sites threatened by erosion and climate change, to grand prehistoric earthworks under attack by flora and fauna, there is a huge range of archaeology at risk. Our scheduled sites represent almost the whole of the human story in Britain, and the list is ever growing with a possible monastic grange site currently being considered for designation. We’re working to protect our historic assets and to tell everyone we can about our wonderful heritage.

Lilla Cross. Copyright NYMNPA.

Over the coming months, we’ll be posting themed blogs focusing on the types of monuments found in the North York Moors, the reasons they are considered nationally important, and why some are currently in trouble.

This month we thought we should start by introducing some of the National Park Authority’s Historic Environment staff and get them to explain themselves in their own words.

Mags Waughman, Head of Historic Environment
After nearly twelve years working for the Authority, first as Archaeological Conservation Officer and later as the Monument Management Scheme Officer, I was very pleased to become Head of Historic Environment at the beginning of the summer. This is an exciting time for the National Park’s Historic Environment work – with new funding to support our work with Scheduled Monuments, new archaeological staff and a new Building Conservation team we are in a very good position to develop our work and look for new directions and projects.

Emma and Jo focus on Monuments for the Future and Nick and I will be working with them on the project, as well as looking after the Park’s undesignated heritage. Suzanne Lilley works with Maria as a second Building Conservation Officer and one day a week they are joined by Clair Shields who has worked in the Building Conservation team for a number of years. Part of my role is to liaise with Maria, Suzanne and Clair to make sure the whole historic environment is cared for equally. I also liaise with the Land of Iron team where Maria has a second role as Cultural Heritage Officer, assisted by Kim Devereux-West. Behind the scenes, one day each week the team still has the benefit of the many years of experience of Graham Lee, a previous Senior Archaeological Conservation Officer. I’m really looking forward to working with the new teams, seeing our plans take shape and watching the different projects make new discoveries or have a positive effect on our fantastic cultural heritage.

Emma Trevarthen, Monuments for the Future Project Officer
I’m an archaeologist with a background in aerial survey and Historic Environment Record (HER) management. My role with the National Park is to look at the threats and vulnerabilities of some of the Scheduled Monuments which have been on the Heritage at Risk Register for some time, and to try to find ways to improve their condition and sustain those improvements in the long term. I’ve already had a really good, positive response from landowners and I look forward to seeing more monuments in the North York Moors removed from the ‘At Risk’ Register over the next three years.

Jo Collins, Monuments for the Future Volunteers and Community Officer
My role is Volunteers and Community Officer for Monuments for the Future. I coordinate a group of volunteers who survey the condition of Scheduled Monuments, monitor walkers’ cairns on Scheduled Monuments and carry out practical conservation tasks. In the near future I’ll also be focussing on helping community groups to care for their local heritage. I’m looking forward to seeing the difference volunteers and community groups can make as Monuments for the Future progresses.

Maria-Elena Calderon, Building Conservation and Land of Iron Cultural Heritage Officer
I have worked in in archaeology for almost ten years, specifically in Built Heritage since 2013 when I was awarded a training bursary by the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists hosted by ASWYAS in Leeds. My work has taken me as far afield as Qatar but the majority has been spent in the UK from Orkney to Pontypridd and Cambridge. I have worked for the National Park for nearly two years and I relish the opportunity it provides me to help protect, improve and impart knowledge of the historic environment to residents, tourists and fellow National Park staff. I work as a Building Conservation Officer which involves assessing Listed Building and Conservation Area consent applications. I am fairly new to this role but I enjoy it immensely and receive great support from my fellow officers. We work with homeowners, planners and developers to insure that any development is conducted in a manner that is sympathetic to the heritage assets. As an Authority we also offer grants for the above where the development will result in an enhancement which our team administers. In addition to that we regularly offer advice in regard to traditional buildings either subject to planning proposals or other project based work within the National Park. We also work with volunteers undertaking surveys of listed building as part of the nationwide ‘Buildings at Risk’ scheme.

Nick Mason, Archaeology Officer
I’ve only been with the National Park now for 3 months, but what a time it’s been so far. I have been lucky enough to be an archaeologist all my professional life, but having responsibility for the sheer breadth of archaeology in one place is a new, and very exciting, experience. My role as archaeology officer means that I am interested in protecting all the heritage assets of the North York Moors, including unscheduled archaeology, ancient plough marks, and even possible structures marked on old OS maps. Sometimes development means that these must be affected, and we find ways to mitigate the effect, learning as much as we can as we go. Scheduled Monuments often represent a massive potential for undiscovered archaeology, and their setting in the landscape, the possible finds within, and the stories they can tell mean it’s worth doing all we can to look after them for the future.

Historic Environment Team Nov 2018. Copyright NYMNPA.

If you’d like to be out and about more in the North York Moors and might be interested in volunteering opportunities at the same time, we’d love to hear from you. There are a range of tasks which need doing, from carrying out surveys and reporting on monuments to clearing patches of damaging bracken on wild moorlands.

Similarly, if you think you know of some material heritage currently under threat please don’t hesitate to get in touch, so we can see what can be done.

Keeping hold of history

Jo Collins – Volunteer and Communities Officer

If you are standing anywhere in the North York Moors National Park you will never be more than 1 mile from a known archaeological site.
Help care for this heritage.

We are very excited that we’ve been successful in securing a grant of more than £170,000 to support a new project – Monuments for the Future.  This will help secure the future of historic monuments in the North York Moors and increase public understanding of their significance.

The funds have been awarded by Historic England, who supported the National Park’s previous Monument Management Scheme from 2009 to 2018.

There are tens of thousands of monuments and other archaeological sites in the National Park. Currently 842 of these have been ‘scheduled’, this means they are nationally important and protected in law*.

History and its monuments are embedded in the landscape of the North York Moors.

Young Ralph Cross. Copyright Simon Hirst, NYMNPA.

Young Ralph Cross still stands upright by the road on Rosedale Head. The horizon is spotted with funerary round barrows (marked as tumuli or tumulus on maps), and crossed with ancient dykes thought to mark the boundaries of territories. Look closely and evidence of the lives of our hunter gatherer ancestors can be seen on rocks decorated with ‘cup and ring’ marks. Occasionally flint tools or arrowheads are still found on the moors (recorded as a ‘findspot’ on the HER map**). And of course there are the more recent remnants of history – castles, abbeys, trods, iron works . . . far too many types to mention but all worthy of our care and attention.

Key to the new Monuments for the Future project is providing training and support for an increased numbers of volunteers. We want to encourage and build a sense of ownership for the monuments amongst local communities; engaging people, young and old, with the heritage they have on their doorstep.

So we are looking for people to join our volunteer survey team to look after our Scheduled Monuments. Volunteers working in pairs or individually, with the kind permission of landowners, will visit archaeological monuments to check on their condition. Problems are commonly caused by bracken or erosion and the volunteer surveys are vital to identify issues in order to target practical management which can help sustain the monuments.

To get the most from this voluntary role you’ll need an enthusiasm for archaeology/history, a reasonable level of fitness, and an ability to read a map or else an ability to team up with someone who can. Some sites are easy enough to find but some can be more difficult, volunteers can choose the level of challenge! Training days are planned for August and September this year. Please do get in touch if you are interested in being a volunteer or you just want to find out more – we would love to hear from you.

* The National Heritage List for England (NHLE) is the only official, up to date, register of all nationally protected historic buildings and sites in England – listed buildings, scheduled monuments, protected wrecks, registered parks and gardens, and battlefields.

** This is a map of the North York Moors Historic Environment Record. It’s a handy way to check out our claim that ‘If you are standing anywhere in the North York Moors National Park you will never be more than 1 mile from an archaeological site’. Please let me know if you can catch me out!