Romano-British (2nd century AD)

Life and Death in the Ryedale Windypits Near Helmsley, North Yorkshire

Stephany Leach, University of Winchester, Archaeology Department, Medecroft, Sparkford Road, Winchester SO22 4NR. 01962 827155

The Ryedale Windypits are a series of fissures in the Hambleton Hills, near Helmsley, located on the Western slope above the river Rye, map. refs. SE 576836, 582829, and 588828. Their name is a local one, derived from their tendency to emit gusts of air and steam from their narrow entrances. Although there are many Windypits in this region, only four of the explored fissures have produced evidence of past human activity: Ashberry, Antofts, Slip Gill and Bucklands.

Following the first recorded exploration of a Windypit by Rev. Buckland in 1832, these caves were explored and partially excavated during the mid 20th century. The human remains from the four Windypits were thought to be Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age burials due to assumed association with the Beaker pottery and flint tools found in the chambers of these fissures. This research was therefore focused on the question: why cave burial? Why were these people excluded from the prehistoric burial monuments or barrows? Who were they and why were they placed in these seemingly liminal locations? Folklore narratives, historical accounts and ethnographic studies highlight the importance and diversity of use of these subterranean realms. They are fascinating features in the landscape. Today they capture our attention and imagination: in the past they were considered to be threshold locations, gateways to other worlds.

Using advances in both anthropological and taphonomic research the human skeletal collections from these four caves were reanalysed. Site visits were made to gain an understanding of the subterranean domain, aiding interpretation of the skeletal death assemblages (Fig 1). The caves are located within the North York Moors National Park and funding was provided by the Park Authority to carry out radiocarbon dating of key specimens. The results of this research have radically revised ideas not only relating to the type of activities occurring at these sites, but also to the chronology of this human behaviour.

Ashberry Windypit is the most northerly of the group, set slightly apart from the others. The archaeological assemblage excavated from the chambers within this fissure differs from the other three, Beaker pottery and flint tools were recovered, but Romano-British artefacts were also excavated from an upper chamber. These mainly date to the second century AD and it is considered that this Windypit was used as a natural shrine for votive offerings. In a deeper chamber, the remains of two adults, a man and a woman, were discovered close to the remains of a large dog or wolf, fragments of Beaker pottery and a marine shell. The radiocarbon dates generated for these individuals suggest that they were in fact Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age burials, as previous interpretations of this material have suggested.

Most of the human skeletal remains recovered from Antofts Windypit were found in or near to a specific area of the Windypit designated chamber 3. The skull of an elderly woman was discovered near the entrance to this chamber and exhibited evidence of a fatal wound. A long sharp metal weapon had inflicted a penetrating injury, slicing through the left side of her face. Modern studies of interpersonal violence suggest that when the face becomes the target of such aggression, the motive is usually very personal rather than a random assault on an unknown individual. The radiocarbon date suggests that her death occurred during the Middle rather than Earlier Bronze Age. Within chamber 3 many disarticulated human bone fragments were recovered. A damaged human tibia (lower leg bone), previously mistaken for an animal bone, was recovered in close proximity to a prehistoric hearth. This bone exhibited evidence of defleshing (a cluster of cut marks on the back of this bone would suggest that the calf muscles were removed) and generated an Early Iron Age radiocarbon date. During this period in southern England, evidence for the deposition of bodies or body parts at the base of deep storage pits in hillforts has been linked with fertility rites. Are we looking at evidence for similar activities in the deep Ryedale fissures?

The human remains from Slip Gill Windypit were found at the base of a deep pitch or sheer drop below a small, sloping entrance chamber. While on a site visit it was noted that the atmosphere, even with modern caving equipment to light our descent, was unnerving and sinister. Looking out over the edge of this upper ledge it was not possible to see the floor below, only a pitch-dark abyss. This Windypit was only partially excavated, but the remains of four people were recovered. These comprise of two adults, a man and a woman, and two younger individuals, one possibly male, both dying during their late teens or early twenties. The mandible (lower jaw) of the younger male exhibited evidence of a cut from a wide sharp blade, most likely from an axe (Fig 1).

Slip Gill mandible

: S. Leach
Fig 1: Slip Gill mandible exhibiting impact site of bladed weapon and radiating fracture

The angle of the wound suggests that it was probably caused when a blade passed through the young man’s neck during the act of decapitation. In such cases, the lower border of the mandible is often damaged, particularly if the head is held down and slightly to one side.

Two radiocarbon dates generated from the bones of these people suggest that they lived during the very late Iron Age or the beginning of the Romano-British period, during the transition to Roman rule in this area. This was a turbulent time in British prehistory and there are several examples of people meeting violent deaths and their bodies placed in natural, liminal locations, for example Lindow Man. It has been suggested that these deaths relate to the encroaching presence of the Roman military, representing sacrifices to the gods in an appeal for aid. Did the Ryedale Windypits form another arena for such ritual activity?

Bucklands Windypit is the most southerly of this group and although it consists of quite an extensive series of fissures and chambers, archaeological material was only recovered from fissure S, a U-shaped fissure with two small adjoining chambers. Prehistoric Beaker pottery sherds, evidence of hearths, a flint tool and animal bones including auroch were recovered from the base of fissure S. The presence of this material leads to the belief that the human remains discovered in this fissure were ‘Beaker burials’. Several human skulls together with bones from other parts of the body were excavated from the base of a steep muddy slope. These skulls were interesting for two reasons, firstly they exhibited evidence of blunt force injury, some with multiple injuries (Figs 2a and 2b) and secondly, the radiocarbon dates show these individuals were deposited in this cave during the 2nd Century AD.

bucklands skull

bucklands skull

: S. Leach
Figs 2a, 2b: Skull from Bucklands exhibiting evidence of two blunt force injuries with radiating fractures

Evidence of an attack with a blunt weapon is quite rare in the skeletal record during the Romano-British period; trauma from bladed weapons is far more common. The attack on these people from Bucklands was brutal, lethal and contained a definite element of overkill. Who were they and why were they treated so violently? The skeletal report compiled in the 1950s stated that no trauma was present in the bones excavated from Bucklands, Slip Gill and Antofts. However, advances in forensic science have proved invaluable for the interpretation of fractures and cuts present on human remains from archaeological contexts.

The noted elevated prevalence of trauma in material from cave sites may suggest that their use was associated with times of social upheaval, a link between people being placed in caves and ruptures in the fabric of society. Did they consider the caves and fissures as special places, part of the sacred natural landscape, a place perhaps to commune with ‘otherworldly’ beings? Alternatively, they may have been seen as dark, dangerous but perhaps convenient locations for what might be considered deviant burials. There must have been some degree of difficulty involved in transporting a corpse into the lower chambers of these fissures, unless the bodies were simply tossed over the edge, as would appear likely in the case of Slip Gill Windypit. These fissures were not simply the easiest option for mortuary disposal; furthermore the entrances to the Windypits are not obvious or prominent features in the landscape.

The Ryedale Windypits were not simply repositories for Beaker burials. It would appear that certain caves were repeatedly used during a considerable period of time, approximately 2000 years, while other fissures were ignored. We can also see evidence for a continuation of prehistoric mortuary activities at these sites well into the Romano-British period, the archaeological evidence indicating differential yet contemporary use of the subterranean realms during the 2nd Century AD. In conclusion, by liberating the skeletal evidence from our preconceptions and allowing the bones to tell their own story, we have gained unique insight into the life and ultimate demise of the people of the Ryedale Windypits.