Boltby Scar – Undugs to Dugs

The Iron Age hillfort at Boltby Scar formed the location for our first year field school, after which we were informed we would no longer be undugs and that digging was the best thing you could do with your clothes on! Many of us had never been to an archaeological site before so this was a great opportunity to learn, or be put off for life in some cases. I came to love digging and in turn volunteered for an extra week. Our assignment was to create a poster about the site for which was also my first experience of creating visual reconstructions.

Map showing the location of sites along the edge of the North York Moors, the low ground on the left is the Tees Valley

Map showing the location of sites along the edge of the North York Moors, the low ground on the left is the Tees Valley

Boltby Scar is located on the North York Moors, strategically positioned allowing for good visibility across the Tees Valley. Connectivity between sites can also be seen with several hillforts along what is now know as the Cleaveland Way, This marks a prehistoric route which was distinguished by the Cleave Dyke, a prominent pit alignment dividing the landscape on the high ground. This route runs alongside Bronze Age barrows, with two also located inside the hillfort at Boltby, this implies continuity and the importance of the location. Whether this was due to practical aspects of defense and visibility, or ancestral links and deeper meaning is unclear, I feel the practical aspects would have given these sites and route-way deeper meaning within prehistoric society over time.

Boltby with Roulston Scar in the background, the cleave dyke can also be seen as a boundary and route way marker

Boltby with Roulston Scar in the background, the cleave dyke can also be seen as a boundary and route way marker

The monument at Boltby was mostly leveled by buldozing in 1961 (including one of the barrows), however the site is split in two by a drystone wall and the side nearest the cliff face still has surviving earthworks. Previous to the levelling the site was investigated by G F Willmot in 1938-1939, minimal information was left however gold hair loops were found beneath the rampart and a ring of stones as part of the barrow construction. From 2009 Boltby has been investigated by Dominic Powesland and the Landscape Research Centre. After small scale excavations in 2009, 2011 saw the addition of University of York students for their summer field school, and again in 2012 which was the summer that I experienced Boltby. I will focus on the 2012 excavations however information about previous work can be found on the Landscape Research Centre website

On arriving at Boltby and over the course of the excavations we soon discovered that it seemed to have its own weather system up there! Incredibly windy… however the views were incredible. We were split into groups and assigned to different areas, many of us were tasked with defining and excavating the palisade which was revealed almost in its entirety. The location of Willmot’s trench was not clear from his sketches however its location was determined through aerial photography and in turn re-excavated, the experience of which is described by my fellow Boltby archaeologist Will in his blog post on the experience here . The upstanding barrow was also excavated. On the other side of the wall a trench was placed across the rampart and ditch earthworks in the hope that this would provide more evidence, indeed a lovely piece of pottery was found. Another trench also hoped to find evidence for occupation with the possibly of greater preservation in this area.

Gallery of photographs taken during the excavation with descriptions


I was mainly tasked with cleaning back the large trench to show the palisade, the difference in soil colour can clearly be seen. We then excavated sections of this as its character and preservation changed across the entire trench, this process certainly taught me how to excavate a feature! we had to firstly excavate the darker soil whilst leaving all stones in place, these would have been packing stones to hold wooden posts in place and in some cases post pipes (holes) can clearly be seen. Once these were successfully recorded we then removed these stones, the aim was to retrieve dating evidence and although none was found it is believed that the palisade predates the rampart and was present when the latter was built as the ditch and rampart follow its trajectory. The construction of the defences can be seen below, i talked to archaeologists on site and consulted previous work to determine dimensions. This shows the time and energy put into creating them. The ditch would have been dug by hand and used to construct the rampart with turf underneath and rubble on top.

Image showing how the hillfort defences would have been constructed

Image showing how the hillfort defences would have been constructed

Excavations across the wall revealed the impressive piece of Iron Age pottery in the image gallery, the hope was also that the trenches would reveal occupation evidence. Although more evidence was found including pottery and flint the small assemblage does not immediately suggest occupation, this could be due to the nature of the acidic soil. However, more evidence would be expected which implies alternative functions for the hillfort including as a ‘stop off’ on the way to Roulston Scarr in the back ground. Alternatively the defences could be indicative of protection of livestock or the display of power or prominance along distinctive route of the cleave dyke.

Excavations in the barrow revealed the stone ring that Willmot discovered. Also a burial was discovered in the centre, however it was very badly preserved and only suggested as being a wooden coffin due to the nature and colour of the deposits. The barrow also produced an impressive section showing its construction phasing, this had already been discovered and is described in the 2011 interim report which can be accessed from the Landscape Reseach Centre website. The stone ring constituted phase 1 of this construction.

Some of us loved the experience so much that we decided to return! the site archaeologists had been very welcoming and taught us a great deal, the opportunity to work with them further was something we couldn’t pass by. On returning I made it over the wall! although only briefly, I contributed to cleaning the upstanding rampart and ditch trench further. Myself and a few others then returned to the barrow where a section of the stone ring had been uncovered. It was discovered that this was the location of another of Willmot’s trenches, as can be seen in the image with Dominic pointing out the difference in soil. So we were tasked with removing the backfill until we reached the bottom, only the bottom was below the stone ring….. it would appear Willmot removed and replaced them, cheeky! an unusually shaped stone was found on the very last day (this always happens, many more questions raised on the last day of digging), it is unclear if this was carved and placed in the ring (ritual?) or alternatively Willmot placed this stone in order to return in the future… as may have been the case with the gold hair loops and the exact location of that trench being unclear.

Our experience came to an end, i had come to love field archaeology and the mysteries it either solved or in turn raised. Boltby had been a fantastic experience learning from the professionals, making friends and being enthusiastic really does pay off. However, the experience did not end as in groups we were tasked with creating boards about the site, ours was titled ‘Boltby, the Bigger Picture’ discussing its relationship with other sites in the area. On site one day i recall a certain student (Will) enthusiastically came over and disturbed me whilst i was lovingly excavating my palisade with the comment ‘i have had a brilliant idea! how do you feel about doing a painting?’ i hadn’t previously thought my artistic would come in handy, how wrong i was! and so i created all of the paintings above plus the main image below showing the Iron Age hillfort at Boltby in use. We won first prize in the competition and i received great comments about my paintings, and so this has no become my area of ‘expertise’ and the subject of my dissertation (further posts to follow)

Boltby Iron Age Hillfort Reconstruction

Boltby Iron Age Hillfort Reconstruction

All images created by myself, now property of Dominic Powesland.


Boltby Scar interim report 2011 (Powlesland, D)

Excavation blog

Landscape Research Centre website


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