Archaeologists Find Mysterious Carved Stone At Whitby Abbey

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 12 October 2007
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  • Archived article
photo of a woman using a brush to wipe away dirt from a carved stone. a ruined abbey can be seen in the distance behind her

An archaeologist with the rare stone at the site at Whitby Abbey. © English Heritage

Experts are studying a carved stone recently uncovered on Whitby Abbey Headland in North Yorkshire to see if it represents the first Bronze Age artefact from the site.

St Hild founded an abbey on Whitby Headland in 657AD, which is now an important historical site. However, little was known about the site in the Anglo Saxon period in which it was founded until archaeologists carried out clifftop excavations in 2001 and 2002.

They found signs of industrial activities like glass and lead-making from the Anglian period (7th-9th century), and the first evidence of an Iron Age domestic dwelling on the site, dating from 500BC-100AD.

An archaeological team returned this autumn for a six-week dig, and found an even more intriguing object – a mysterious stone carved with linear markings. Measuring about 40cm by 50cm, it appears to be of the type of Bronze Age carved stones found on the North York Moors in 2003, dating from 2000BC-700BC.

Shows a photo of a flat stone with a zig-zag pattern carved into it.

The Fylingdales rock, discovered after a fire on the moors in 2003. Courtesy English Heritage

“It’s potentially a very significant find as we have hardly any material from this period in the headland’s past,” said archaeologist Sarah Jennings.

“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 the stones is not known. It has been suggested that they could have denoted tribal boundaries or have a ritual use. A much more ornate stone found at Fylingdales Moor in 2003 has been likened to Irish grave passage art.

The dig also uncovered a defensive Iron Age enclosure and more signs of industrial activity that might date to the foundation of the first abbey.

close up photo of a stone with carvings on it

The stone found at Whitby could date to the Bronze Age - meaning a settlement of the area pre-dates the era of the Abbey. © English Heritage

Perhaps we also need to start to think of the site as an Anglo-Saxon industrial estate,” said Sarah.

“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.”

English Heritage is trying to collect as much information as possible from the site before the clifftop erodes away. Last year it commissioned a project to identify historic sites vulnerable to coastal erosion along 85 miles of coastline from Whitby to North Lincolnshire, to form part of a national picture of the threat posed by rising sea levels and coastal erosion. The Whitby Headland site could disappear within 20 years.

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