My time on the Boltby Scar excavations 2012
Last year I was fortunate enough to be involved with an excavation of the site Boltby Scar, situated upon the North Yorkshire Moors. It is one of numerous Iron Age hillforts in the location, such as, Roulston Scar (discovered in 2001), Live Moor and Eston Nab. It’s located along a route described as a “prehistoric motorway” named the Cleveland way. This route covers the high ground of the area of the moors allowing people in the past great visibility of the landscape and importantly of the surrounding areas below. The track-way through the Moors is also found to have earlier Bronze Age and Neolithic monuments positioned along the route. Some of these burials are within the later hillforts. Boltby, like others has a barrow burial mound within it, showing how the location displays continuity through time as a position of influence and advantage because of its visibility and commanding position within the landscape. The importance of this landscape and it’s hillforts is shown in how surrounding areas such as the Tees-Valley and it’s hinterland has no defensive positions, possibly because the land doesn’t offer any positions that can be defended or viewed as tactical, only at Castle Steads, Dalton, on the eastern edge of the Pennines is there a defended earthwork that can be described as a hillfort by position and nature emphasising the importance of this landscape.
The location of the Hillfort on the North Yorkshire moors has raised many questions for archaeologists. One main dispute is arguments surrounding the function. On investigation of the site, many have looked at aspects of domestic use. Views in support of domestic use would become stronger if postholes of structures such as round houses were found within the hillfort, but because of bulldozing and levelling work on the site in the 1960s (Agricultural improvement?), post holes may have become truncated and lost under the weight and volumes of earth movements as well as the heavy impact of this rather baffling decision to be taken on what is a scheduled monument. This moving of earthworks also moved much of the ramparts and in some areas had removed them. Domestic and longer term use of the site may also be argued by many to produce more in terms of pottery and finds of a domestic nature, especially refuse. Within the hillfort all we had was 3000 years in flint, but then only a small amount of pottery and features such as the palisade, ramparts of a later date. It must also be considered that the acidic ground could have deprived us of some material, but yet more pottery should still present if the site was used for domestic purposes. Comparisons could be drawn on the other neighbouring hillfort such as Eston Nab where post holes interpreted as a round house were found.
The function of these hillforts is still unsure; some may have been inhabited, others may have been a protected retreat for people and livestock in times of danger or they could have been symbols of power or control over a prehistoric route. The theme of power and control may be tied in with the idea of these positioned as part of a frontier. Firstly the locations may be positioned between Late Iron Age tribes the Brigantes and the Parisi, especially with the locations strongly suggestive that the construction of these monuments is as symbols of power in their own right, commanding the landscape.
The defensive features of the hillfort are sufficient for a population to take refuge with their stock in times of hostility. As stated earlier no post holes of domestic pits were present at Boltby. If the hillfort was to be occupied at any length of time one would expect to find domestic refuse, despite organic material becoming lost to aggressive soils, however hillforts such as Eston nab and Boltby have offered very little in terms of pottery and domestic features. There is however a reasonably large flat area within the upstanding monument nearer the cliff at Boltby which would be better protected from the weather than the areas so far examined, which could have served as a setting for a small number of roundhouses or perhaps for the sort of large timber granaries identified at Staple Howe and Devils Hill.
Seasonal use of the site, may be taken into consideration, firstly (As we learned very quickly working there) the hostile weather, wind, rain and hail (sometimes all at once) quickly makes you think living in Boltby would become a bit tiresome, water sources are also down in the valleys. However in the context of the time where currency and wealth was represented by livestock and resources one would want to protect these. This could be overnight or whilst walking them to market, could this “fortification” be to protect this wealth.
Meeting places is another possibility, with the location of Boltby and the other hillforts positioned closely to the Cleveland way which could have been used as a regional meeting or trading centre located on the western edge of the Moors. This is highlighted by the access offered to the Vale of York in the south and the Vale of Mowbray to the north.
When looking at the term hillfort it’s important to take into consideration that many of the people labelling these sites as such, were often ex-military men, retiring from the army and dabbling in some Archaeology (treasure hunting with great intentions), therefore a ditch, bank and enclosure upon a hill overlooking the Vale of York would be quickly interpreted from a military perspective as a fortification. But despite this caution with the term, the function can be correctly termed a hillfort, as multi-phase defences are presented with a very strong entrance, particularly in the hillfort phase of the development, which made this site an imposing and well-defended monument.
In this picture the Palisade enclosure has been exposed and is clearly visible. This picture was taken before further excavation of the palisade sections were taken out. The palisade was excavated in the hope of finding dating evidence to establish the chronology of the site and understand the relationship between the palisades construction and the construction of the ditch and rampart. A palisade enclosure is also present at Eston Nab hillfort and represents the first extended later prehistoric activity at the Nab.
Similarly the defences at Live Moor extend approximately 100meters across a promontory extending from a moorland scarp, although the site is not strictly in a scarp position like at Boltby and Eston. Advantage is taken of natural features such as a hallow across the promontory, and the defences have been placed across its southern edge.
This trench became pretty much my second home over the course of the excavations. G F Willmot had become a name that every student on the site was a lot more familiar with, if they weren’t already. He previously excavated the site in 1938/39 and it was a half-hearted effort to say the least. A cowboy archaeologist is an accurate term for this, but also shows a clear picture of the discipline and its priorities at that time. Very little is known about his excavations and it had become established that there was a good chance Willmot was probably on site for a very little amount of time, leaving his men to do it for him (“call me if there’s something shiny”). We were told this is shown in the fact that he never acknowledged the first phase stone ring of the barrow in his excavations and importantly never recorded it properly. It has become more and more clear as the excavations have developed this season that his plans show a good chance he was attempting to twist the truth about some parts of the excavation. This could only be seen as an attempt to gather grave goods for himself at a later date (then WWII kicked off, and he never got a chance to return – Just a theory, but likely).
Some of the team (I and 2 others) spent a few days digging out and sectioning one of his former trenches from the excavations in 1938 and 1939. In this trench a feature described as a hearth was thought to be present. The hearth, if identified correctly by Willmot would provide potential radio-carbon dating evidence, so many a day of mattocking, shovelling and trowelling was upon us. The location of Willmots trench was only established through aerial photography by Dominic Powlesland (yes, no record was taken by Willmot) so a lot of time was spent mattocking back our trench to the edge of Willmots. This tedious as it may sound, did however give us a great opportunity to further understand the different soils, colours and textures between features such as the backfill, ditch and naturals whilst trowelling back the trench walls and of course these techniques are key to any archaeological excavation. Once cleaned and looking pretty, we were quickly told Willmots trench floor was actually around another half a meter down (We faked a smile and cracked on).
Once at the bottom of the Willmot backfill context, a lot of charcoal was scattered throughout. Samples were taken, however to describe it as a hearth at this time would be inaccurate. A range of possibilities and risks from dating this charcoal were to be taken into consideration. Firstly crop burning around the time of Wilmotts excavations may have resulted in carbon becoming mixed into the backfill and deposited back into the backfill. A second possibility is that the hearth was excavated and mixed into the backfill or that residents at the hillfort were burning vegetation along the ditch bank. Lastly a post involved in the construction of the ramparts may have been burnt and become deposited along the ditch as well as spread by Wilmotts workforce. Many other possibilities can also be thought up but a sample was taken and possibly could be of use, how reliable it would be is debatable.
This Iron Age potsherd was found under a section of the rampart. We could see from the carbon that it was fired upside down and preservation has allowed us to see seeds indented as markings around the pot. This was great potential for dating evidence of the rampart and can also contribute in conjunction with other evidence to establish a possible function of the site, seasonal, domestic, temporary, fortification, protection of livestock etc but the date is most important in establishing a chronology for occupation up on the site of Boltby.
Here is a picture of some of the great deal of flints that have been found on the site. Some of which were found in the backfill of Wilmotts trenches. There could be a couple of reasons, for the flint in his backfill. Firstly it shows he wasn’t interested in what the flint could tell us (“Call me if it’s shiny”), showing he was purely interested in grave goods buried in the Barrows therefore chucked the flints, or he was that intent on getting the trenches emptied and down to the grave goods he never even noticed them. Flints have come in a range of forms, arrows, points, scrapers, and blades among many others and also a lot of debitage has been found as a result of the knapping process. The flint has been shown to have travelled to the site from the Yorkshire Wolds roughly 8miles away. In the other direction it has come from a considerable distance away at Flambrough. Perhaps the arrow was found where it was, because someone had a bad shot.
The time we spent at Boltby was a fantastic experience with a brilliant enthusiastic team, as a student opportunities to learn from people with such experience are priceless. The range of skills we learnt and were able to put into practise are crucial for our development as students. In the process of learning and progressing as archaeologists we were also playing a small but important role in expanding the understanding of the Yorkshire Moors through time.
Sources / References
Boltby Scar interim report 2011: (Powlesland, D) http://www.landscaperesearchcentre.org/Boltby_Scar_2011_Interim.pdf
Excavation blog: http://boltbyscar.wordpress.com
Oswald, A. Pearson, T. (2001). An Iron Age promontary fort at Roulston Scar, North Yorkshire. English Heritage
Vyner, B. E. (1988). Eston Nab interim report
Hunter, J. and Ralston, I. (2009). The Archaeology of Britain. 2nd edn. London: Routledge
Renfrew, C. (1975). British prehistory: a new outline. 2nd edn. Duckworth
Smith, W. (2012-today) My own muddy field notebook…1st edition…
All reconstructive artwork was done by the talented Kerrie Hoffman ( https://www.facebook.com/artist.kerrie.hoffman?ref=ts&fref=ts ) for Dominic Powlesland.