Ferrybridge Henge: The Ritual Landscape. Archaeological investigations at the site of the Holmfield Interchange of the A1 Motorway, edited by I Roberts
Apart from the eternal debate over what to do with Stonehenge, prehistoric monuments rarely hit the national news. But with reports on the planning application for further quarrying around Thornborough, the Yorkshire henges have recently come to public attention. What the Thornborough discussion has also brought to light is that we actually know rather little about many aspects of these monuments, including their date, the type of events taking place within the henges, the nature of contemporary activity around them, and the way they influenced the later development of the landscape. It is timely, therefore, to have this report on excavations over a 20 ha site (7 ha of which were fully excavated) south and west of the henge at Ferrybridge, which is some 70 km south of Thornborough. Ferrybridge henge is the southernmost member of the Yorkshire group, lying on the river Aire by the western edge of the Vale of York. The work, which took place in 2001-2, does not answer all the above questions but it did reveal an important array of smaller monuments within 500 m of the henge (described below), surrounded and overlain by a substantial landscape of Iron Age and Romano-British field systems. The detailed and well-produced volume (the colour plans are especially good) serves as a clear statement of the significance of henge monuments and their environs, and can usefully be read alongside the recent report on the likely henge at Catterick (Moloney et al. 2003). However, despite the title it is less strong on interpretation of the ‘ritual landscape’.
While the environs of the Thornborough henges have been impacted by quarrying, the Ferrybridge henge is literally cut off from its landscape by a series of roads and a power station. The difference is that Ferrybridge does not survive as a substantial earthwork, having been discovered from aerial photographs in the 1960s. And just as in the landscape, the henge is also something of an ‘absent presence’ in this volume: rather than kicking off the report, the small-scale excavation of the henge itself in 1991 is relegated to an appendix. Nevertheless, some interesting points emerge: the henge has two phases of bank construction reflecting the successive derivation of material from the inner and outer ditches. Roman and medieval finds from the ditch fills show the history of the monument’s destruction through cultivation while a deliberately broken Iron Age metal scabbard from the primary fill provides a rare juxtaposition of earlier and later prehistoric ritual practice. On the basis of radiocarbon dates obtained from the bank the authors suggest construction of the henge was episodic through the 3rd millennium BC. However, the dates are on charcoal that could perhaps be residual: the latest of the three at least confirms that the henge did not reach its final form before the 26th century BC. All of this is important and should really be up front, even if it was not part of the 2001-2 work.
With the trenches focussed on the bank and ditches, we still know little about the interior of the henge; it is a shame that geophysics was not undertaken across the whole of the monument, but since the results of the work that was done are not referred to in detail it appears they were largely negative.
The most significant find is probably the scabbard from the inner henge ditch, which provides a direct connection between the henge and the later landscape. The major boundaries of the field system, which generally do not seem to predate the 1st century AD, define four plots of land or ‘agricultural units’ within which are six enclosures (A-F), not all contemporary. The fields are laid out from a sinuous pit alignment which respects the location of the henge (on which the field systems do not encroach) and may therefore have demarcated ‘a ritual zone around the monument’. The pits and boundary ditches also seem to respect an earlier barrow. An interesting feature of the pits is their longevity: deposits including human burials span over 1000 years from the later Iron Age to the medieval period. The date range for the earliest inhumation overlaps with the 3rd century BC date for the scabbard.
Another point in favour of the enduring influence of the henge on the landscape is the north-east/south-west orientation of a number of roundhouses (1st-2nd centuries AD) from Enclosures A and C, and the presence of two opposed entrances in several cases - rather unusual for the period but mirroring the layout and orientation of the henge. Enclosure C is interpreted as a possible Iron Age/Romano-British shrine or ritual enclosure, perhaps not a coincidence.
In the final discussion, however, the main author (Ian Roberts) rather hedges his bets on the nature of the relationship of all this to the henge, suggesting, for instance, that the ‘exclusion zone’ around the henge could simply reflect the fact that ‘the earthworks of the henge ... made it a less attractive prospect for turning over to cultivation’. What is clear, nevertheless, is ‘the longevity of [the monuments’] influence on the later development and subdivision of the landscape’, an important conclusion that should be noted by those considering the future of the Thornborough landscape.
As well as the henge itself, the 22 ‘known potential ritual monuments’ at Ferrybridge include numerous variations on the circular form typical of the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. The thirteen investigated during this project comprise ‘five hengiform or similar monuments, two timber circles and four round barrows’, as well as ‘two possible long barrows’. Collectively they seem to provide an ideal opportunity to reflect on how well (or not) our monument typologies capture the variability and inter-relationships of these features on the ground; the challenge is not, however, fully taken up.
In the discussion Roberts notes some of the problems with monument classification, including over-simplification in order to equate sites to established types and a failure to acknowledge changing form and function over time. However, the opportunity to try a different approach is ducked: the data are too limited to propose new classifications, he argues, therefore we have to reference them in established terms. The problem, of course, is that such referencing can obscure more than it enlightens. The ‘two possible long barrows’ actually comprise an elongated shallow pit (feature 163) and a pair of linear gullies (188). Neither is dated or contains human remains; it is true that both recall mortuary structures elsewhere to some degree, but to call them ‘long barrows’ (even with the inverted commas) seems to be stretching a point, and rather provides an excuse to avoid interpreting them on their own terms.
Likewise, the usefulness of the distinction between timber circles, hengiforms and round barrows is not really addressed (‘hengiform’ has always seemed a particularly problematic category, basically a group of monuments defined as being not quite like something else). Here the hengiforms all have a ditch with at least one entrance while the circles are unditched and the barrows have a central burial, an unbroken ring-ditch or both - but there are also overlaps. For instance, hengiform 155 comprises a segmented ring-ditch around a post-circle and 162 in its initial phase was no more than an irregularly spaced arrangement of pits. Similarly, the two timber circles (140, 165) excavated during the project each had a central burial like the round barrows (two circles investigated in 1989 had central post-holes but these did not contain graves); circle 140 also contained a small ring-ditch, interpreted as a barrow, centred on one of its post-holes and enclosing two cremations and a pit. Round barrow 154, meanwhile, has a penannular ring-ditch like the larger hengiforms, while barrows 113 and 114 lacked burials, and although they produced circumstantial evidence for mounds it seems ‘the ditches would not have produced sufficient material to produce a comprehensive mound’.
Roberts’ discussion acknowledges the slippages between categories but sheds no real light on their significance and ultimately becomes bogged down in statements like: ‘Of the smaller segmented henges [sic] at Ferrybridge only 162 has any evidence of primary burials associated with it, although it has to be said that, apart from 155 (which is a rather different monument altogether), there is insufficient investigation of the others upon which to draw meaningful conclusions.’ Better perhaps not to prejudge the issue of classification but to take the monuments at Ferrybridge as a group and discuss their formal and temporal variability in terms of e.g. varying combinations of basic material components (pits, posts, burials, ditches, banks/mounds). They collectively show the range of possibilities within the basic concept of a circular enclosure; differences in layout may be less significant than the scale of the enterprise, as the distinction between massive henge and slight hengiform demonstrates so clearly.
To be fair to the authors, interpretation of these features is complicated by the available dates. In two cases (timber circle 165 and hengiform 162) there are two cremations within the same monument with dates at least a millennium apart (spanning the entire 3rd millennium BC). In another (hengiform 155) a cremation just outside the entrance is dated to the early 1st millennium BC. Either these indicate an extremely long currency for what appear to be rather ephemeral monuments (and more could be made of this in the discussion) or there is a problem with some of the dates on cremated bone. The four Beaker inhumations from barrow 154, on the other hand, produced a far more consistent set of dates. Although the authors propose an earlier Neolithic phase, it might be suspected that the henge itself dates to the mid-3rd millennium and all the other monuments to the succeeding six or seven centuries; a few older dates on charcoal could perhaps represent a preceding clearance phase. Certainly there is little other evidence of earlier activity: a single, residual sherd of Peterborough ware and a flint assemblage including little that need pre-date the Early Bronze Age.
One problem with characterising activity at Ferrybridge generally is the relative lack of artefacts, both from excavation and fieldwalking. Blaise Vyner’s pottery report notes the difference from sites just a few kilometres away. Was there an ‘exclusion zone’ for occupation/deposition around the henges, as suggested for Thornborough? Establishing that, as Roberts notes, would require some investigation at a greater distance from the henge, but the pattern is suggestive.
Another key theme is the spatial relationships of the small monuments to one another, the henge and the wider landscape (or the heavens). The issue is discussed, but almost as an afterthought, nor does the discussion extend to the role of the river in the landscape (though its possible significance as a trans-Pennine route was noted early on). Roberts contrasts the fact that entrances to several monuments are aligned on a specific point within the henge, while the sites themselves have a north-south arrangement ‘that has little to do with the henge’ (though in fact it seems to frame the south-western entrance, perhaps establishing inner and outer zones around the henge; ‘monument 164’, an arc of ditch roughly concentric with the henge may also be significant here, but is not mentioned). This axis and the later pit alignment seem to be related to the local topography too, though that is not mapped in any detail. There is, however, intermittent (and inconclusive) discussion of an odd ‘cutting’ in the limestone ridge that is suggested as a possible ‘ceremonial gateway’ or ‘megalithic portal’.
This review has picked up just a couple of themes from the descriptions and discussions in the volume. Others – the significance of the pit alignment, the evidence for ‘Romanisation’ – seem to be of equal interest. One problem with making sense of the data, despite the clear presentation, is that without a narrative structure to the report (and there is not even a summary at the outset) the reader has to tack back and forth between various descriptive chapters and the discussion in order to construct the story. That is not a criticism of this particular book so much as an acknowledgement that the traditional site report structure, separating narrative and interpretation from the descriptive sections, struggles to do justice to the extremely interesting nature of the archaeology here. Individual components are well described but the story of the landscape and the ways it was inhabited does not come through clearly. This may in part be an issue with how much time (and money) is available for ‘academic’ research in a typical developer-funded project. However, there also remains a problem in interpreting ritual within an essentially descriptive and typological paradigm. We are told early on that ‘ritual played an integral part in everyday secular life’ in prehistory, yet the secular/sacred divide reappears in discussion of whether Enclosure C, the possible Iron Age shrine, is actually ‘nothing more than a typical northern Iron Age settlement enclosure’ (could it not be both?). Most tellingly, the title of the volume calls this a ‘ritual landscape’ so some discussion of the concept is expected, yet 200 pages later the report concludes with the word “ritual” placed in inverted commas – an ‘overriding and inescapable factor’ in the development of the Ferrybridge landscape it may be, but not one that has become a great deal clearer at the end.
Review Submitted: June 2006
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