Iron Age ‘shrine’ discovered on Yorkshire Wolds

Archaeologists have found an intriguing ancient Iron Age “shrine” in the Yorkshire Wolds, which was marked out by carefully placed animal skulls and bones.

Monday, 20th September 2021, 9:27 am
Dr Peter Halkon, senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Hull, is pictured at the “shrine” site. Photo by Jonathan Gawthorpe
Dr Peter Halkon, senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Hull, is pictured at the “shrine” site. Photo by Jonathan Gawthorpe

It consisted of a ring of very large posts approached by a corridor of large posts.

The shrine is a few hundred yards from a fortified settlement with a substantial circular structure in the centre, which has also been excavated by a team led by Dr Peter Halkon and James Lyall over the past four years.

The later fort would have been an impressive structure with two rings of defences and an entrance way through two gatehouses.

Volunteer Lucy Crosbie cleaning one of the many cow skulls placed round the shrine. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

It is thought to date to the later Bronze Age (1000-800BC). It would have had a massive white chalk bank, probably with a fence on top, and was used Dr Halkon believes as “much for status as defence”.

Up to 40 cow skulls, some arranged in pairs, along with cow bones and deer antlers, were placed around the square enclosure, some time after it was taken down.

Both the shrine and the earlier Bronze Age “ring fort” first showed up as cropmarks on the top of a hill in the Wolds in aerial photographs plotted by Cathy Stoertz over 20 years ago. The shrine consisted of a square enclosure surrounded by a deep ditch, with a central area hidden from view by a palisade.

In the centre were the remains of a child, however the bones are in such poor condition, and have been damaged by ploughing, that it may not be possible to determine its sex. It is not known in what period the child was buried there. But what has excited archaeologists the most are the animal remains which were placed in the earth after the palisade was taken out.

Dr Halkon said the butchered remains of cattle, as well as sheep and pork, were found at the nearby fort which could once have been a home for a powerful man and his extensive family.

He said the bones were too carefully deposited to be “just rubbish disposal”.

He said: “At some point they demolished the monument, pulled out the palisade and reopened the slot where the palisade had been and inserted all the animal bones.

“On the south-west and north-east edges the cow skulls were closely packed together, while elsewhere they just seemed to be put in pairs and separated.

“The forelegs and the heads are bits they didn’t eat. They’d eaten the rest elsewhere – probably in the hill fort.”

He said there are also signs of the Romans being there from small amounts of pottery which was found on the site.

He believes that when the Romans came they would have been aware of a grassy mound and a partially filled-in ditch and would have “recognised it as being ritual of some importance”.

The excavation was sponsored by the Yorkshire Archaeological and Historical Society.