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Mysterious stone may offer clues about Whitby’s bronze age past

Whitby Abbey StoneThe stone in question Archaeologists from English Heritage have uncovered a mysterious carved stone that may date to the Bronze Age period, which lasted from 2000BC to 700BC, on Whitby Abbey Headland in North Yorkshire.

Whitby Headland is one of the country’s most important historical sites. Little was known about the Anglo Saxon period during which the famous abbey was founded by St Hild in 657AD until archaeologists carried out cliff top excavations in 2001 and 2002. Along with signs of large-scale industrial activity dating to the Anglian period (7th to 9th century AD) these revealed the first ever evidence of an Iron Age domestic dwelling on the site. The Iron Age finds date to the period 500BC to 100AD.

Archaeologists have returned to the Headland this autumn for a six-week dig that aims to shed more light on this Iron Age legacy. However, the carved stone they have discovered could open a window on a much earlier period in Whitby’s past. Measuring 16 inches by 20 inches and displaying linear carved markings, the stone was found in one of four trenches dug just to the east of Whitby Abbey.

Whitby Abbey StoneSarah Jennings, English Heritage Archaeologist and the Project Director It appears to share similarities with Bronze Age carved stones found on the North York Moors that date to between 700BC and 2000BC. Experts are now studying the design to glean more clues about its age and potential significance.

Archaeologist Sarah Jennings, English Heritage’s Project Director for the excavation, said: “It’s potentially a very significant find as we have hardly any material from this period in the Headland’s past. But we need to wait for detailed analysis before we draw firm conclusions. If it is Bronze Age, then it underlines that the headland has a long history of settlement, well before St Hild founded the Abbey in 657AD.”

The purpose of such carvings has long been a source of conjecture, but they may have denoted tribal boundaries or have had a ritual significance. The famous carved stone found on Fylingdales Moor in 2003, which is much more ornate, has been likened to grave passage art found in Ireland.

A defensive Iron Age enclosure complete with a palisade, which would have comprised a wooden fence fronted by a deep ditch designed to repel attackers has also been uncovered during the dig, along with further signs of later industrial actvity during the Anglian period that may date to the foundation of the first Abbey. During the 2002 dig, iron slag and indications of glass and lead-making were found nearby, so the latest discovery points to industrial activity on an even more sizeable scale.

Whitby Abbey StoneJessica Tibber, a member of the team digging at Whitby who found the stone Sarah Jennings added: “Perhaps we also need to start to think of the site as an Anglo-Saxon industrial estate. Very little domestic pottery and few artefacts have been found, which is what we would expect. Iron and glass-making required large fires and sparks would soon have set houses ablaze, so it looks as if they were kept well apart.”

The Headland’s cliff top is eroding every year and much of the area being investigated could disappear within two decades. English Heritage is committed to recovering as much historic information as possible before nature takes its course to ensure clues about the past are not lost for ever. Last year it commissioned a project to identify historic sites vulnerable to coastal erosion along 85 miles of coastline from Whitby to North Lincolnshire. The results will form part of a national Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Survey, which will give a detailed picture of the threat posed by rising sea levels and coastal erosion.

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