By Stephen Harrison, BA, MPil Phd, Consultant Archaeologist
Bronze Age
Iron Age
Early Modern

Main Index

BRONZE AGE (c.2,000 800 BC)

Archaeological evidence suggests that towards the end of the Neolithic, new groups of people came from Europe to settle in Britain. These people are usually associated with a characteristic beaker~shaped pot found in many graves of the late Neolithic and Bronze Age. They also seem to have brought with them the ability to manufacture implements from copper and the continental connections established at this time may have been the source for the later introduction of bronze working. Bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, forms harder cutting edges and is easier to cast than copper. It is a suitable material for a wide variety of tools and weapons, which, in the earlier Bronze Age, were used, side-by-side, with objects manufactured from flint or stone.

In the earlier part of the Bronze Age, methods of bronze working were relatively unsophisticated and only a limited range of tools was manufactured - mainly axes, awls and knives. Later, as technology improved, a wide range of implements was made, including a variety of axe called a palstave, and the earliest types of swords. Such items are frequently found in hoards, groups of bronze implements buried, apparently, as scrap for future use by metalworkers of the time.

The Bronze Age also saw the development of new forms of pottery, including the "food vessel" which is particularly associated with the earlier Bronze Age in East Yorkshire On the Yorkshire Wolds, evidence for the Bronze Age is dominated by the burial record. Round barrows - burial mounds'- are the commonest and most easily recognisable prehistoric monuments to be found in today's countryside. Although round barrows made their first appearance in the Neolithic, it was not until the second millennium BC that they became the dominant funerary monument, representing a tradition of individual, as opposed to collective, burial.

Upwards of 1,400 Bronze Age round barrows, covering one or more burials (each accompanied by items of grave goods), are known to exist on the Yorkshire Wolds, occurring either in isolation or, more commonly, grouped together to form cemeteries. Many of these sites, although reduced in size by repeated ploughings, still form upstanding and, in some cases, prominent features in the present-day landscape.

From about 1,400 BC, burial practices changed: barrow construction was abandoned and replaced either by flat cemeteries (ie graves without an enveloping mound) containing cremation, as opposed to inhumation, burials, or by the insertion of cremation deposits, as secondary burials, into existing mounds. The custom of placing objects in the grave was also abandoned. Far fewer of these later Bronze Age burial sites have been recognised in East Yorkshire, although examples include a cremation cemetery excavated at Catfoss, near Hornsea, in 1965.

In contrast to the burial record, little is known about unenclosed Bronze Age domestic settlement, such as individual houses or loose groups of dwellings, in East Yorkshire. The number and distribution of earlier Bronze Age barrows suggest that a corresponding quantity of occupation sites must have existed. Comparatively few settlements belonging to this period have been located on the Wolds to date, although the focus of early archaeological efforts on barrow excavation may account in part for the bias in the recorded evidence. Early excavators occasionally recognised occupation debris during barrow digging, and the construction of roads and railways revealed some further evidence.

Erosion caused by ploughing has also brought artefacts to the surface which may be indicative of settlement, but such random finds cannot provide conclusive evidence of population density or of settlement distribution and type. Undoubtedly, much evidence has been lost due to the severe soil erosion experienced by the Wolds over the last 4,000 years. Rather more, however, is known about the enclosed, or defended, sites of this period. Sites enclosed by bank-and-ditch ramparts or narrow palisade trenches can be recognised with a greater degree of confidence than traces of unenclosed settlements of the period. Over the last forty years, four later Bronze Age defended enclosures have been excavated in the region: Devil's Hill, Heslerton, Grimthorpe, Padock Hill, Thwing and Staple Howe.

Defended settlements: together with an increase in the number of weapons recovered as a result of excavations or chance finds, point to the existence of stress and conflict within, and between, local communities during the later Bronze Age.

One of the most notable features of the archaeology of the Yorkshire Wolds is the elaborate and extensive system of linear earthworks, known locally as "dykes" or "entrenchments", which appear either as upstanding earthworks (eg Huggate Dykes) or, more commonly, as cropmarks or soil stains on aerial photographs Unlike the burial mounds, few of the dykes have been excavated and fewer still have provided conclusive dating evidence. They are believed to be the culmination of several phases of development, which originated in the later Bronze Age and was then extended and adapted in the Iron Age and Romano-British periods. They represent land divisions, dividing the Wolds into discrete blocks of territory, possibly associated with pastoral agriculture. Related to these was a network of trackways, which provided communication within and between the areas enclosed by the dykes, often extending for long distances across the region, and they are often associated with other archaeological features aligned upon them, such as enclosures and burials.

By the later Bronze Age, an open, cleared, landscape is thought to have predominated on the Wolds, used for grazing and, less certainly, for arable cultivation. This can be interpreted as evidence for expanding population levels, which also resulted in an increasing emphasis on conflict and warlike activities.

Pathaeolithic c.250,000 - 8,300 BC
Mesolithic c.8,300 - 4,000 BC
Neolithic c.4,000 - 2,000 BC
Bronze Agec.2,000 - 800 BC
Iron Agec.800 BC - AD 71
Romano-British c.AD 71 - 410
Anglo-Saxon and Vikingc.AD 410 - 1066
Medieval c.AD 1066 - 1540
Early Modernc.1600 -1800
Modern c.1800 to the present day

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