The Territory of Ritual: Cross-Ridge Boundaries and the Prehistoric Landscape of the Cleveland Hills, Northeast England

By Vyner, B. E. | Antiquity, March 1994 | Go to article overview

The Territory of Ritual: Cross-Ridge Boundaries and the Prehistoric Landscape of the Cleveland Hills, Northeast England


Vyner, B. E., Antiquity


On the North Yorkshire Moors, in northeast England, is a series of linear boundaries which are characteristically placed across upland spurs and promontories. Survey and excavation suggest that these boundaries operated in conjunction with natural features to define areas of the prehistoric landscape which may have been concerned with ritual during the final Neolithic and Early Bronze Age.

Introduction

The moorland uplands of northeast Yorkshire and Cleveland have long been known for the variety of prehistoric monuments which survive in earthwork form. Their survival has not always contributed to an understanding of their purpose and nature; the predominant heather tends to mask constructional features, while the numerous excavations of 19th-century antiquaries provide an overwhelming proportion of funerary evidence. An impression of the variety and potential of the upstanding archaeology of the area can be gained from the general surveys of Elgee (1930) and Spratt (1982; 1993), but detail is only available concerning the more obvious and ostensibly well-defined Bronze Age 'burial monuments' (Crawford 1980).

The origins of the historical analysis of the moorland landscape of northeast Yorkshire lie in the work of Young (1817: 656-768); in addition to numerous burial mounds or tumuli, he noted linear earthworks which cut off projecting areas of upland. These were sometimes surmounted by upright stones (Young 1817: 684). The catalogue of linear earthworks on the North Yorkshire Moors has developed to conceal monuments of varying topographic location, construction and likely chronology, distinctions which are further obscured by the co-existence of a diverse range of other monuments. The general Bronze Age date usually assigned to the round barrows, smaller clearance cairns, field boundaries and more substantial linear earthworks may conflate a variety of chronological horizons within and beyond the Bronze Age, since modern excavation evidence is for the most part lacking.

The moors present opportunity and challenge. A considerable range of field monuments survive as there has been only limited arable agriculture over large areas from at least the pre-Roman Iron Age; most importantly, a wide range of palaeoenvironmental data may survive within and beneath the standing monuments. Yet antiquarian activity has biased the archaeological record, and the absence of recognized threats to the moorland archaeology makes for a lack of modern archaeological data. This paper presents conclusions from field survey and limited excavation undertaken for a single monument type. The survey of cross-ridge boundaries has been carried out in the conviction that the examination of individual types of monument across the wider area of the North Yorkshire Moors may provide a key to the functional and chronological interrelationships of the moorland monuments. Consideration of the monuments by type should enable locational and structural characteristics to be recognized, after which the interrelationships between the various monuments may be considered. The full results of the survey of the cross-ridge boundaries are to be published elsewhere, while further survey will consider the small cairns, vestigial field boundaries and other individual monument types.

Topographical background

A detailed account of the topography, natural history and geological background of the North Yorkshire Moors is Spratt (1993), and a general outline is Spratt & Harrison (1989). The Cleveland Hills comprise the northern part of the North Yorkshire Moors, separated from the main part of the moorland uplands by the east-west valley by which the River Esk meets the sea at Whitby. The North Yorkshire Moors are an extensive area of sandstone-based moorland; south of the River Esk the central watershed reaches a height of 427 m OD, but the moorlands of the Cleveland Hills lie between around 200 and 300 m OD. The northern edge of the moors falls gradually to the Cleveland Plain, extending ridges of moorland into pasture areas on the boulder clay fringe, while to the northwest and west a steep scarp falls precipitously to the agricultural soils of the Vale of Mowbray. …

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