History of West Yorkshire - Prehistory


This refers to the period up to the arrival of the Romans, c.71 AD in this area. The appearance of the terrain differed greatly from that which exists today. During the early part of this period there was a land connection between what is now Germany and eastern England, making it possible for groups of hunters to wander into the area. When the first people arrived the climate would have been sub arctic and the animals that the Paleolithic groups found would have been included the mammoth, woolly rhinoceros and reindeer. Though the cliffs at Creswell Crags in neighbouring North East Derbyshire contain several caves that were occupied during the last ice age, between around 43,000 and 10,000 years ago, evidence of human activity in Yorkshire itself is, so far, restricted to that revolving around a hunter gatherer lifestyle dating from around 8000/7000 BC. In Victoria Cave, Settle, late upper palaeolithic projectile points were found that include the bone head of a harpoon which was dated to within 110 years of 8270 BC.

During the 5,000 years following the arrival of the first migrants the climate improved steadily and a richer natural vegetation started to cover the land including birch, hazel, elm, pine and oak trees. By 5000 BC Britain was separated from mainland Europe after rising sea levels had created the southern area of the North Sea. Chapel Cave, near Malham in the northern Pennines, may have been used as a hunting lookout during the Mesolithic period. Trapezoidal microliths used in wooden shafts as arrows were found in the collection of flint when the cave was excavated. Animal bones which were found there included hare, fox, roe deer, badger and a large bird. Fish scales, particularly perch, were also found. Further south, the Marsden area of the Pennines also became a seasonal hunting ground for early humans in the Mesolithic period. There were seasonal hunting encampments on the high ground by 7000 BC. Stone Age tools have been found at Pule Hill, Warcock Hill, Standedge and March Hill.

On the North York Moors relics of this early hunting, gathering and fishing community have been found as a widespread scattering of flint tools and the barbed flint flakes used in arrows and spears. The earliest known evidence of human presence in the area of the Vale of Pickering dates back to the Mesolithic period, around 7000 BC The most important remaining settlement of this period is that at Star Carr near Scarborough, where, due to waterlogged conditions, a considerable quantity of organic remains as well as flint tools, have survived. This is Britain’s best-known Mesolithic site. The site, on the eastern shores of glacial Lake Pickering, was surrounded by birch trees, some of which had been cleared and used to construct a rough platform of branches and brushwood. Lumps of turf and stones had been thrown on top of this construction to make a village site. The site was probably visited from time to time by about four or five families who were engaged in hunting, fishing and gathering wild plants as well as manufacturing tools and weapons and working skins for clothes.

On the southern edge of the Vale of Pickering lies West Heslerton, where recent excavation has revealed continuous habitation since the Late Mesolithic Age, about 5000 BC. This site has revealed a great deal of dwelling and occupation evidence from the Neolithic period to the present day. Around 3000 BC arable farming and the domestication of animals started in the area. Permanent settlements were built by the Neolithic people and their culture involved ceremonial burials of their dead in barrows. The development of farming in the Vale of Pickering during the Neolithic period is evident in the distribution of earth long barrows throughout the area. These early farmers were the first to destroy the forest cover of the North York Moors. Their settlements were concentrated in the fertile parts of the limestone belt and these areas have been continuously farmed ever since. The Neolithic farmers of the moors grew crops, kept animals, made pottery and were highly skilled at making stone implements. They buried their dead in the characteristic long low burial mounds on the moors.

The historic landscape of the Great Wold Valley provides an insight into the activities of prehistoric peoples in the Yorkshire Wolds. The valley was an important place of worship in prehistoric times and it houses a number of important scheduled monuments dating back to Neolithic times. Rudston is the centre of a prehistoric landscape and four Neolithic cursus converge on the village area. Argham Dyke, a prehistoric earthwork dating from the Bronze Age, crosses the area near Rudston. There is also evidence of Iron Age occupation as revealed by aerial photographs showing traces of fields, trackways and farms. The Rudston Monolith at over 25 feet (7.6 metres) is the tallest megalith or Standing stone in the United Kingdom. It is situated in the churchyard in the village of Rudston in the East Riding of Yorkshire and is made from moor grit conglomerate, a material that can be found in the Cleveland Hills inland from Whitby. It dates from the Late Neolithic Period.

The Thornborough Henges is an ancient monument complex that includes three aligned henges that give the site its name. The complex is located near the village of Thornborough, close to the town of Masham in North Yorkshire. The complex includes many large ancient structures including a cursus, henges, burial grounds and settlements. They are thought to have been part of a Neolithic and Bronze Age 'ritual landscape' comparable with Salisbury Plain and date from between 3500 and 2500 BC. This monument complex has been called 'The Stonehenge of the North' and has been described by English Heritage as the most important ancient site between Stonehenge and the Orkney Islands. There is a dearth of evidence of human occupation in the Vale of York until the early Bronze Age around 2300 BC, when the inhabitants of the Yorkshire region began to use implements made of bronze. The metal was refined from ore and hammered or cast to shape.

As the Neolithic period gave way to the Bronze Age in the area, people continued to farm, clear forest and use stone tools. They also continued to hunt in the upland areas as finds of their barbed and tanged flint arrowheads show. Only gradually did metal tools and weapons become adopted. The Bronze Age was a time of major changes in burial rituals. The bodies were buried beneath circular mounds of earth which are called round barrows and they are often accompanied by bronze artefacts. The great majority of known barrows are in prominent upland locations such as the Wolds, Moors and Pennine areas of Yorkshire, but some Bronze Age remains have been found on the fringe of the Vale of Pickering and there are a very few in the Vale of York. During the early Bronze Age, barrow burials were performed on the site of Ferrybridge Henge. The Street House Long Barrow at Loftus on the Cleveland coastline between Saltburn and Staithes was a Bronze Age mound that had been erected on top of a much earlier burial monument dating from the Neolithic period.

The Iron Age started around 700 BC in this area. There was a continuation and development of settlement patterns which originated in the Bronze Age. Heavily defended settlements on coastal and inland promontories were established. In East Yorkshire a new burial rite in which the dead were buried within square ditched barrows, and sometimes accompanied by grave goods including carts or chariots, appears from about 500 BC. This is the Arras culture of the Parisii tribe. Prior to their invasion the Romans identified three different tribes of people living in the Yorkshire area. The area now covered by Yorkshire was mostly the territory of the Brigantes, a Celtic tribe who lived between Tyne and Humber. Another tribe, the Parisii, inhabited what would become the East Riding. The Carvetii occupied an area of what is now called Cumbria, but was at the time of the Domesday Book still part of Yorkshire. Life was centred around agriculture, wheat and barley as the staple foods. The Brigantes lived in small villages, and raised cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and horses.

Fortifications were constructed in Brigantia and notable forts can still be discerned on Ingleborough and at Wincobank, amongst other places. Stanwick seems to have been the tribal capital of the Brigantes up until the Roman conquest.

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