Heslerton Parish Project: Results

20 years of archaeological research in the Vale of Pickering  


Results so far

The duration, scope and long term focus of the Heslerton Parish Project has enabled us to establish a baseline of both data and interpretation that forms the basis of a landscape sequence from the later prehistoric until the post-mediaeval period. Drawing upon all the evidence this sequence is assessed below on a chronological basis, emphasising the transitional phases, when change can be most readily observed in the archaeological record. For the most part the sequence lacks chronological precision; however, this is to some extent offset by realistic impressions of site distribution and density.


The Late Palaeolithic/Early Mesolithic

The spectacular evidence recovered from Star, Seamer and Flixton Carrs (Moore 1950, Clark 1954Schadla-Hall 1987a,1987b ,1988,Mellars 1990) is unparalleled in the project area; the very special conditions that prevailed in Lake Flixton have preserved aspects of an archaeological activity that was certainly more widespread but is unlikely to be identified without very extensive and expensive pursuit of surviving peat fragments in the rest of the Vale of Pickering. The intensity of drainage and agriculture over the last 150 years coupled, no doubt, with peat extraction for fuel in mediaeval and possibly earlier periods, has so radically changed the once wetland landscape of the Vale that it is unlikely that comparable deposits could be isolated except by accidental discovery. The best opportunity to identify potential peat deposits would be through observation following the regular dyke and ditch cleaning undertaken by the local drainage boards, which are currently not covered by PPG16. A campaign of detailed recording and monitoring associated with this regular dyke cleaning would in addition afford an opportunity to determine the degree to which colluvium, rather than simple peat deposits, may conceal other aspects of the prehistoric landscape.

Late Mesolithic

Late Mesolithic activity, associated with a relict stream channel running from an active spring in West Heslerton, identified in excavations at Heslerton Sites 1 and 2, is represented by lithic assemblages. These may indicate that streams emerging from the foot of the Wolds and running out into the Vale may have served a role in hunting regimes or as routes of communication through the landscape. In addition, these streams, of which that examined in Heslerton is but one of many may, have provided an occasional source of flint washed out from the deposits at the foot of the Wolds. Beyond this observation our understanding of broader landscape use in this period is effectively non-existent and objective targeted sampling is unlikely to produce a great return; we will have to continue to rely on chance discovery although we should remain aware that the gravel islands and spurs in the centre of the valley may have produced suitably elevated and protected locations for occupation and that colluvium is likely in some areas to seal deposits that would repay detailed examination.


The Neolithic and Early Bronze Age

The Wolds, the setting for most of the work undertaken by Greenwell, Mortimer and occasional work by other pioneers of British archaeology such as Pitt-Rivers, who worked with Greenwell on the Danes Dyke, remains second only to Wessex in its importance during this period (Greenwell & Rolleston 1877, Mortimer 1905). The upstanding and now frequently severely denuded monuments that were the target of these early pioneers remain a feature of the Wolds landscape, albeit often so reduced as to be invisible to the casual observer. In contrast with the situation in the Vale and the exception of those features identified in some of the dry valleys, most of which relate to later activity, the intensive remote sensing programme has added little to our understanding of the local barrow distribution on the Wold top.   

Excavation and remote sensing have, however, radically changed our view of the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age activity in the Vale of Pickering, from a position argued in 1980 by Pierpoint that there was either little or no potential for Bronze age activity, to today where we can see that the levels of activity in the Vale either match or are greater than that found over much of the Wolds (Pierpoint 1980).

The evidence is still biased in favour of funerary and other monumental activity rather than domestic evidence, a picture that reflects the degree to which we have had to rely on remote sensing as opposed to ground based intervention as the primary survey technique. Domestic association with at least some of these monuments is indicated from the excavations at Heslerton sites 1, 2, 11 and 12, where the full range of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age ceramics anticipated in the North of England have been recovered (Powlesland, Haughton & Hanson 1986, Haughton & Powlesland 1999). Pits containing Grooved Ware, Fengate and Peterborough ceramics, more often than not associated with carbonised hazelnut shells, were discovered in close proximity to the excavated post-circle and hengiform monument, the Grooved Ware material in particular indicating some sort of intensive domestic activity within 50 metres of the monument in an area sealed by up to a metre of combined colluvium and aeolian sands. Only limited sample excavation was possible in this area; however, it confirms the potential for the recovery of well sealed prehistoric land surfaces in an area which would be unlikely to be  responsive to any form of remote sensing.

The traditional view of barrows placed in positions of high visibility on the edge of the Wolds is not supported by digital view-shed or line of sight analysis; the East Heslerton Long Barrow, for instance, has a very limited field of view as do most of the major barrows surviving as partially ploughed out mounds just below the Wold edge (Vatcher F & L de, 1965). On the southern side of the Vale of Pickering a number of barrow cemeteries and hengiform enclosures have been identified both through excavation and air survey; their distribution indicates deliberate siting rather than a random or generalised spread. The excavation of parts of a post-avenue, a post circle, and a hengiform monument later converted to a palisaded enclosure on Heslerton Sites 1 and 2 and the identification through air-photography of a second hengiform enclosure 2km to the east reveals that the Vale of Pickering contains the same type of Late Neolithic monumental architecture traditionally associated with the Wolds. The siting of these two hengiform enclosures and other possible candidates also identified from the air below the foot of the Wolds, on slightly elevated chalk knolls at the northern limit of such chalk outcrops, offers the opportunity for predictive survey of other similar locations. Similarly, the two barrow cemeteries identified through excavation at Heslerton appear to be components in much more extensive linear distributions following the contours and situated within and on the southern edge of the aeolian sand zone. There is clearly considerable potential for the discovery of further similar monuments within this zone where they can rarely be identified either from the air or through geophysical surveying as a consequence of the thick overburden of iron enriched and thus magnetic blown sands. The high levels of structural preservation observed in the barrows excavated on Site 1 provided an insight into barrow development that could not be gained in the ploughed out environment. In one case, Barrow 1L, the mound was completely preserved. The excavation of this monument revealed a sequence indicating that the mound represented a late phase in the development of a monument that had originally comprised a flat cemetery, probably defined by a shallow ditch. The mound represented an effective closure of the cemetery through which a single secondary burial had been cut, two additional burials being inserted in a tertiary position into the filled ditch. Preservation of the mounds of Barrows 1M and 1R was not so good, but it appears that Barrow 1M followed a similar sequence of development. Barrow 1R, of which only part was excavated, showed a much longer history, begun in the Neolithic with the construction some sort of a timber mortuary structure with associated excarnate human bone. This structure stood adjacent to one of the massive post-pits of a timber avenue leading out into the Vale; this pit was ultimately sealed by the barrow mound after a number of inhumations had been inserted in the centre of the monument defined by a shallow ring ditch. This monument was then extended through the construction of a second encircling ditch  and further burials inserted between the inner and outer ditches. A series of C14 dates from the burials in this monument reveal a considerable date range from 4060BP 80 (HAR-6630) from a disturbed and re-interred primary burial to 2980BP 80 (HAR-8414) for one of the secondary/tertiary burials. It is probable that the remainder of this complex monument will be excavated within the next few years giving us the opportunity to gain a much more detailed understanding of the early structural phases.

The southern of the two Barrow cemeteries examined, comprising two complete and two fragmentary monuments, one of which overlay the ditch of the hengiform enclosure, were less well preserved, being situated at the southern limit of the main blown sand deposits. The nature of these monuments which, like those examined to the north, were associated with beaker and food-vessel burials, was quite different. These barrows were small, measuring c.12m in diameter, with slight ring-ditches defining the limits of the monuments. Each contained one or two primary burials in tree-trunk coffins with secondary cremations inserted into the tops of some of the graves.

Fig. 1: Plan of the excavated hengiform enclosure, post-circle and later round barrows which became the focus for the West Heslerton Anglian Cemetery. Scale 1:500


Regardless of the model proposed to explain the distribution of these monuments in the landscape, the potential for the recovery of well preserved deposits within and on the edge of the aeolian sand zone is considerable. It is possible that the distribution of the barrows at least reflect land that, given the very poor soils, has been farmed to a point where it is no longer productive and therefore is dead ground that can be used for the construction of these monuments. Whatever the case, it is clear that there is intensive use of the landscape in this period, particularly in those areas with light, easy to work, but relatively unproductive sandy soils. The loss of peats, drainage and reworking of the landscape and lack of extensive excavation in the middle of the Vale make it difficult to determine the level of activity in the centre of the Vale during this period. The frequent discovery of polished axes during agricultural activity towards the centre of the Vale over the last century indicate that extensive woodland clearance was taking place at this time. A possible hengiform enclosure of much larger dimensions than the 60m diameter examples found on the edge of the aeolian sand zone is indicated in the results of the multi-spectral survey; however further work is required before this tentative identification can be confirmed. That activity was going on to the north of the aeolian sand zone is implied from the post-alignment excavated on Heslerton Site 1, which is clearly running towards the centre of the Vale.

It is becoming quite clear, as elsewhere in Britain, that during the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age major man made structures which combine to form formalised ‘ritual landscape components’ become a feature of the landscape, although we remain far from clear about the relationship between the landscape of the living and that of the dead. We remain unclear as to whether the hengiform enclosures, post-circles and post-avenues should be seen as part of the landscape of the living or that of the dead, represented by the barrow cemeteries; nor do we know whether the barrows mark areas peripheral or central to any particular segment of landscape. With widespread clearance of woodland, which in many cases may be secondary growth following earlier clearances, the landscape is increasingly being opened up and yet substantial settlement sites still remain unidentified. The pits containing Fengate and Peterborough style ceramics associated with carbonised hazelnut shells indicate that hunter-gathering is still an important part of daily life. The long continuity exhibited by some of the monument complexes may indicate that these were maintained and developed by relatively static communities. Where evidence thought to be of a more domestic nature has been identified in Heslerton it is generally sealed by considerable depths of colluvium and aeolian deposits, the deposition of which may owe much to an intensification of land-use in later periods. These deposits do not lend themselves to discovery through remote sensing or small scale evaluation trenches; it is possible that intensive field survey may reveal ploughed out sites from lithic distributions. The relatively high densities of worked flints present in most fields on the margins of the Vale of Pickering would require such a programme to be undertaken on a very large scale accompanied by extensive excavation if we are to get a real insight into the meaning of the flint scatters.


The Middle Bronze to Early Iron Age

During the Middle and Later Bronze Age a range of excavated and remote sensing evidence demonstrates an intensification of activity throughout the research area. For the first time we see major landscape boundaries constructed, although it is quite possible that these may have been present as organic boundaries defined by standing vegetation rather than by physical monuments during the previous period.

The Middle Bronze Age is poorly represented in the ceramic assemblage from Heslerton; two small cremation cemeteries and a group of at least four round houses, indicated by doorway post-holes and difficult to define stake circles demonstrate occupation, even if relatively short lived, on a shallow gravel terrace just below the foot of the Wolds. During the Late Bronze Age and running into the Early Iron Age the first phase of the Wold Entrenchment system was established; pit-alignments comprising many kilometres of large 2m square and 2m deep pits spaced roughly a metre apart were constructed on the Wolds and extended into the Vale of Pickering. It is easy to suggest that these represent estate boundaries related to the contemporary palisaded enclosures of Staple Howe (Scampston Parish) and Devil’s Hill (West Heslerton Parish), identified and excavated in Heslerton by the late Tony Brewster, whose contribution to the archaeology of Eastern Yorkshire has remained grossly undervalued (Brewster 1963.1981). A number of pit-alignments not succeeded by later boundary features are characterised by pairing that indicates that these seem to mark drove-ways which link the upland areas of the Wolds with locations in the bottom of the valley, perhaps indicating the practice of some sort of transhumance agriculture. The sites of Staple Howe and Devil’s Hill, situated on chalk knolls on the scarp slope of the Wolds, represent just two of many such sites; it seems most likely that careful fieldwork supported by ground based geophysics could isolate further examples with a relatively slight investment. The discovery and excavation of a contemporary and open settlement associated both with a major pit-alignment and a trackway running from west to east through Heslerton Site 1, indicates that the palisaded sites played only a partial role in a broader use of the landscape, perhaps as high status sites or as refuges in times of trouble. The very small scale of these palisaded enclosures, both of which incorporated massive four post grain storage buildings, gives weight to the concept that they performed a distinctive role. The discovery of a ‘Halstatt C’ bronze razor at Staple Howe may give support to the view that they represented high status sites; it seems most likely that these sites represent the equivalent of mediaeval manors, centrally located in defended positions within the large-scale landscape enclosures defined by the Wold entrenchments, fragments of which survive as parish boundaries today. The presence at Scarborough of a very much larger but contemporary promontory fort beneath the later castle can be inferred from the recovery of Late Bronze/Early Iron Age material from excavations over the last century (Smith R.A. 1927). If this interpretation is correct it supports the view that the landscape boundaries, trackways, palisaded enclosures and unenclosed domestic sites in the Vale form parts of an extensively developed landscape, a product of a fully developed complex society in which, in contrast to the previous period, evidence of domestic rather than funerary activity dominates the archaeological record.

The distinctive Staple Howe type ceramics with fingertip decoration on the rims and shoulders have been found in all areas examined at Heslerton indicating that landscape utilisation was relatively intensive. It appears that by about 800BC the landscape structure that remains in part reflected in modern parish boundaries has already been established, palisaded enclosures in well defended positions overlook the Vale where open settlements were supported by mixed agriculture utilising both the Wold Top and the Vale. 


The Middle Iron Age and Roman Periods

The air-photographic and multi-spectral research programmes undertaken in Heslerton over the last 20 years have had a radical effect on our understanding of the density and distribution of Middle Iron Age ‘Arras culture’ square barrow cemeteries, evidence which is not paralleled by any detailed evidence of contemporary settlement. The Vale of Pickering is situated towards the northern limits of the distribution of these monuments and, prior to the work discussed here, it was thought that the area was peripheral to the main centres of Arras activity, since the 1970’s the discovery of major cemeteries in Rillington and in Heslerton indicate that the area was more densely occupied in this period than had previously thought (Stead 1979). The areas excavated at West Heslerton, which have given an almost continuous sample across more than 1500 metres of the transect line running from the aeolian sand zone to the foot of the Wolds, have revealed no conclusive evidence of activity in this zone during the period from the Early Iron Age until the Roman period. A huge burial complex on a gravel spur running from west to east towards the centre of the valley includes a few round barrows of probable Bronze Age date, and many hundreds of square ditched barrows and flat graves. This spur, which at the time was probably separated from the dry land to the south by an area of wetland, was originally interpreted as a group of small gravel islands; recent research has demonstrated that the so called islands were in fact linked together by the gravel spur. This area was in turn linked to the dry-land to the south by a series of ditched trackways observed in crop marks and multi-spectral imagery. An undated multi-vallate enclosure identified from the air at one end of the gravel spur may be associated with the Middle to Late Iron Age activity. A second large cemetery of square ditched barrows occupies a position along the base of one of the dry valleys on the Wolds in a position analagous to that at Garton/Wetwang Slack and other sites on the Wolds (Dent 1982). Although square ditched barrows have been identified elsewhere in England and in Scotland, the high density and distribution from the North York Moors to the Humber is unparalleled elsewhere in Britain. The localised distribution and direct parallels with similar sites in northern France serve to demonstrate the links Britain had with the Continent, and in addition may represent the first demonstrable example of large scale state formation, which, much later, is reported in the tribal geography of Britain as identified by Roman authors.

During the later Iron Age settlement becomes clearly focussed upon the area following the edge of the wetland where a linear or ladder settlement was established, defined by a complex of overlapping sub-rectangular enclosures associated with a central trackway. This settlement complex, which belongs to a class of site identified on both the north and south sides of the Vale of Pickering, in the Great Wold Valley and elsewhere in eastern England, is occupied for about a millennium from c.500BC to c.AD500. Linked by ditched droveways to the Wolds to the South and across the valley to the Moors to the North this complex of overlaying  enclosures and trackways, initially identified in fragments recorded from the air, represents the most distinctive feature of the project research area. An increasingly detailed picture of this complex is emerging, enhanced by multi-spectral survey, ground based geophysics and sample excavation, revealing that this feature, which runs for many kilometres, incorporates relatively well preserved and stratified deposits which offer immense potential for the examination of both Late Iron Age and Roman rural settlement and economy. As in other areas of Britain, the excavated and interpreted evidence of Roman Britain is heavily biased towards military, urban and villa sites; we have little understanding of the general rural context. We have little or no understanding of aspects of continuity from the Iron Age to Roman periods and in particular how the emerging urban centres of Roman Britain changed the lives of those inhabiting much of the urban hinterlands. Material wealth or, alternatively, consumerism increased with the availability of factory made ceramics and other traded goods; however, in much of Eastern Yorkshire the settlement geography seems to have remained much as it had in the Iron Age, perhaps reflecting a reliance on pastoralism rather than intensive crop production. An increase in the formation of hill-wash deposits and a possible intensification of aeolian sand movement during this period may reflect an increase in arable farming or at least the opening up of the heavier clay lands at the foot of and on the Wolds. The relatively low density of villas in the region also suggests that agriculture may have remained on a more domestic scale than can be implied elsewhere. The ladder settlement, which shows continuity of settlement throughout the Late Iron Age, Roman and earliest phase of the Anglo-Saxon periods, is a remarkable feature offering immense research potential. During this period the Wold Entrenchments continue to be developed and maintained, banks and ditches having long replaced the pit-alignments of the Late Bronze Age


The Roman to Saxon Transition

The ladder settlement appears to be deserted in the first flourish of Early Anglo-Saxon activity; by this time the ladder settlement in its low lying position seems to have been under continued threat from rising groundwater as a result of climatic deterioration during the late Roman period. It is surprising that the ground conditions, which must have been difficult for as much as a century, had not forced the population to move sooner. A possible explanation for the continued use of the ladder settlement despite the deteriorating conditions may lie in unknown Roman land tenure arrangements: the fact that the settlement was not abandoned until after the Roman period may indicate that much of the potentially good land for settlement was unavailable due to land ownership.

Fig. 2: Digitised plan of a late Roman ‘Shrine?’ excavated to the south of the Anglian Settlement. 1:100


During the excavation of the Early Anglo-Saxon settlement at West Heslerton, thought for the first five years of the excavation to have been a ‘de-novo’ settlement,


Fig 3: West Heslerton: Plan of the excavated Late Roman and Anglian Settlement


a series of Late Roman structures and associated pathways linking a spring to a well-head at the very foot of the Wolds were discovered; these features seem to relate to some sort of rural shrine complex. It is very likely, and indicated by some evidence, that this complex may have been in use considerably earlier. It was not possible within the available resources to complete both the investigation of the Anglo-Saxon deposits and the pre-fourth century deposits in this area. As part of the construction of the final phase of this shrine complex the landscape was heavily remodelled with the creation of large open terraces covered with pebble surfaces. Even more remarkably, this ritual complex, which appears to have been the site for occasional, perhaps seasonal gatherings, appears to have  been in part maintained or at least respected throughout the life of the Anglo-Saxon settlement which was finally deserted, probably in favour of a more defensible site above and around the church in West Heslerton during the ninth century.

We are in a rare and privileged position in Heslerton in that we have seen the most extensive excavation of an early Anglo-Saxon cemetery in the north of England and the total excavation of its associated settlement. The cemetery, which spans the first half of the life of the settlement until the mid-seventh century, is estimated to have contained about 350 burials from c.AD450-c.AD650. The cemetery excavation was important because it produced a wealth of new evidence particularly in the form of mineral preserved organic evidence, the most important of which are the textiles, and the demographic evidence and evidence of physical differences which may help in distinguishing British and Saxon burials. Work in progress in DNA and trace element analysis promises important new evidence regarding demographic and social structure. The excavation of the cemetery also highlighted a new and serious threat to the archaeology of Eastern Yorkshire: treasure hunting. The evidence that makes this site so important is of course exactly the sort of evidence which does not survive on material extracted by metal detectorists; the brooches, weapons and other domestic items recovered from the graves were of relatively limited interest compared to the contextual information gained through careful excavation.

The results of the excavation of the settlement, covering more than 20Ha., are currently undergoing analysis as part of the publication programme. A few preliminary conclusions reveal the degree to which the picture of Early Anglo-Saxon settlement is being radically revised following the excavation. The site is much larger than anticipated; even more remarkably it appears to be paired by a similar and equally large site within 2.5km. Although a pre-Saxon site of an unusual nature seems to lie at its core, an organised or planned large scale settlement was laid out on extensively new ground. Different parts of the site were utilised for different activities; housing, craft/industry and agricultural processing each dominate different zones of the site, with a central core which could readily be interpreted as higher status overlaying the earlier Roman sequence. The site has produced unprecedented levels of information regarding Anglo-Saxon buildings - there are more than 220 on the site- agriculture, economy and spatial variation within the settlement. The huge quantity of animal bone recovered, along with the plant macro-fossil and charcoal evidence, are giving us new insights into animal husbandry, crops, woodland management and land utilisation. It appears that the settlement contracted during its life, and it was finally deserted during the period of the Viking raids; layers of ashy deposits associated with the desertion of the site may relate to deliberate clearance.

Although some parts of the Anglo-Saxon settlement site enjoyed high degrees of preservation on account of the hill-wash from the Wolds, large parts were already plough damaged, and yet there was no evidence from the air or from field-walking of what lay beneath the fields. This highlights an important aspect of the landscape which, despite more than 20 years of intensive research, still contains large and undiscovered archaeological sites, sites which do not lend themselves to pro-forma minimalist sampling exercises, and sites the low visibility of which is in part a function of good preservation. In four out of five trenches dug when searching for the settlement good evidence was found (this was by any estimate lucky); move all the trenches a few metres in any direction and the site would have been missed altogether. A series of sampling simulations applied to the excavated data indicate that random sampling, in particular using two metre sondages, would have had to cover more than 15% of the area before the site could even be identified. Sampling strategies for large areas defined on the desktop can in no way compensate for detailed examination on the ground, particularly when trying to comprehend areas of apparent absence.


The Mediaeval Period

The two settlements of Heslerton Magna (West) and Heslerton Parva (East) emerge during the mediaeval period, although only Heslerton is mentioned in the Domesday Book. There has been little opportunity to investigate the mediaeval landscape. A deserted or crept village is situated to the south of East Heslerton and West Heslerton likewise seems to have moved down hill and out beyond the protective slopes of the dry valley in which the church is situated. The church at Sherburn clearly sits upon an early foundation, and at Yedingham a single wall of the church of the Benedictine nunnery stands as part of ‘The Old Abbey’; despite the fact that this site is scheduled it has recently suffered some damage. Excavation as part of a watching brief ahead of a housing development in West Heslerton revealed parts of 14th century and later domestic structures; only with much more intensive research will we be able to gain a more comprehensive view of the mediaeval settlements. Extensive rig and furrow can be identified in geophysical surveys in the Vale of Pickering; on the Wolds many of the landscape features which were established during the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages continued to dominate the landscape. A cruciform enclosure, adjacent to an unusual round barrow contained in a large circular enclosure on the top of the Wolds, was interpreted by Mortimer as a Moot site or mediaeval meeting place. Elsewhere in the Vale of Pickering little energy has been invested in its mediaeval archaeology, Brewster excavated a mediaeval house in Sherburn and identified further medieval components at Staxton where a major pottery production centre existed in the 13th and 14th centuries but has yet to be identified on the ground, although some evidence was recently recovered in an excavation undertaken ahead of a housing development, (Nicky Pearson Onsite Archaeology pers. com; Brewster 1952, 1957).


Post Mediaeval

Given the wealth of archaeological evidence in the Heslerton research area it would be easy to simply overlook the post-mediaeval period as modern or post-interesting. The landscape we have today is a product of the accumulation of past activity; we need be careful that we do not overlook the more recent past. During the nineteenth century Yedingham possessed a barge dock, adjacent to the old bridge. The old bridge, extensively rebuilt in the 1870’s and demolished for no good reason in 1968, re-used foundations supported by fourteenth century timber piles. A brickworks between Yedingham and West Heslerton produced the bricks which transformed villages like Heslerton where houses constructed from chalk blocks were replaced by houses built of brick. The many estate villages of Eastern Yorkshire document in brick the final days of the feudal system, often rather more benevolent than the term indicates. The estates also preserve records and maps that document changes in the landscape, including long-term agricultural records that may assist us in understanding the effects of differing agricultural regimes on the land on a field by field basis, whilst the church records and tombstones provide a detailed social history of each village and, for many, a tangible link to the past.