Iron Age (c. 300 BC)

The Ferry Fryston Chariot

Ferry Fryston Chariot exhibit, Pontefract Museum, July 2006

The remains of the 2000 year old Iron Age chariot uncovered near Ferrybridge, West Yorkshire, in late 2003 were on show to the public for the first time at an exhibition arranged by Wakefield Metropolitan District Council at Pontefract Museum that ran from 26th May to 22nd July 2006. The Ferry Fryston chariot was discovered during construction work on the Highway Agency’s £245 million project to upgrade the A1 to motorway standard between Darrington in West Yorkshire and Dishforth in North Yorkshire and excavated by a team from Oxford Archaeology led by Angela Boyle. Conservation was carried out by Sonia O’Connor and her colleagues at Bradford University. Pontefract Museum was deliberately chosen as it is the nearest museum to the burial site. The road upgrade is now complete and opened to traffic for the first time in the summer of 2006.

The ‘Wheels of Time’ exhibition included a display of all the surviving sections of the chariot, plus the skeleton of its occupant and artefacts found buried on the site, as well as a complete half-scale replica of the chariot. The display was accompanied by a series of illustrated information panels and a video that together described the story of the chariot’s discovery, excavation and conservation.

Ferry Fryston chariot
(half-scale replica)
Pontefract Museum, July 2006

skeleton and artefacts exhibit
(laid out exactly as found during excavation)
Pontefract Museum, July 2006

Unusually for Yorkshire, the chariot was found complete with its wheels upright in the ground – only the second such burial found in Britain. This has given archaeologists a rate insight into Iron Age chariot construction, which helped considerably in the building of the replica. Even though the wooden and leather parts of the chariot had all rotted way, archaeologists were still able to identify the position, size and location of wooden components such as the chariot pole by filling the voids left behind with plaster or by recording the darker stains left in the soil of the excavation from wood tannins, e.g. by the spokes of the wheels. So far the Ferry Fryston chariot is the westernmost example of a type better known from the Arras Culture of the Yorkshire Wolds much further east, although the site does lie on the fringe of the Magnesian Limestone. Forensic analysis has established that the skeleton is that of a man aged 30-40, about 1.7m (5ft 9in) in height in apparently good health and with an excellent set of teeth for the time – suggesting he enjoyed a more refined diet than most of his Iron Age contemporaries. Analysis of the radio-strontium from his tooth enamel indicates that his origins were not Yorkshire, but that he probably came from much further north, possibly either Scotland or even Scandinavia. The remains of what appeared to have been a brooch for fastening a cloak were found close to the man’s left shoulder. Radiocarbon assay has given dates for the burial that all lie within the 4th century BC.

The exhibition also included some of the 12,000-plus bone fragments from over 180 cattle discovered in burial pits around the chariot. At first, these were thought to be the remains of a large sacrificial feast indicating the high status of the man buried with the chariot. Subsequent tests have since shown that the bones date from the time of the initial Iron Age burial through to the 2nd century AD indicating repeated visits to the site over a period of up to five hundred years. Furthermore, they were from young beasts mostly 2-3 years old brought from different herds and outlying areas especially to the burial site. Analysis of the finds from the excavation by archaeologists from Bradford University continues.

It is hoped the artefacts will eventually find a permanent home in a new museum planned as part of the £11 million ‘Castleford Forum’ development, where they will be displayed under special temperature and humidity conditions. Wakefield Council is working with the Castleford Heritage Trust and the Friends of Castleford Library to create the Castleford Forum – a purpose-built complex that will provide state-of-the-art library facilities, a museum telling the story of Castleford and include items of major historical significance (such as the Ferry Fryston chariot), a local studies resource area, exhibition space, a café and shop and a flagship ‘Contact Wakefield’ information point.