9 Prehistoric sites you can day trip from York

The county of North Yorkshire has some pretty fantastic prehistoric sites. The City of York itself doesn’t really have anything but within an hour’s drive, there’s lots to see. If you want to visit Neolithic monoliths, Iron Age ceremonial mounds, Bronze age stone circles or prehistoric art in the form of cup and ring marks, you’ve found the right article.

I haven’t included most of these in my big list of 54 day trips from York, because I know a lot of people aren’t that interested in prehistory (I don’t understand them at all). The best part is, all of these are free, all you need is petrol money and lunch. If you’re not sure when each time period was, or its key features, you will find info below under the heading, “some dates”.

Because this is a travel article, I haven’t included some key North Yorkshire sites which archaeologists find important, such as Star Carr. This is because what makes these sites important is beneath the ground, while they’re being dug for the 4-12 weeks of digging season once a year. The rest of the time, you can’t see anything except the soil of the farmer’s fields covering them up. They are usually on private land, too. All of this makes it not practical or worthwhile to visit them in a day trip.

Places to see prehistoric stuff

I’ve included the nearest town so you can get an idea for where they are, because isn’t it really annoying when people just rattle off the names of prehistoric sites in the middle of nowhere and one could be in Cornwall while another is in Aberdeen.

Thornborough henge, nr. Ripon: A triple henge of three stone circles close to one another, along with a huge mile-long cursus (two ditches side by side creating a sort of pathway). At one point, it was apparently used for jousting and was known locally as “The Charging Ground.” The site is Neolithic, from at least 4,000BCE. Findable on Google Maps, but be aware extensive quarrying has taken place in the environs and the landscape beyond the stones therefore isn’t safe to free-explore.

Rudston Megalith, nr. Bridlington: I’ve talked about this one in my other article on day trips from York, because if you’re heading out toward Flamborough Head or Bempton, this is well worth a shufty. It’s an 8m tall megalith single-standing stone which is in a churchyard in the village of Rudston. If you’re into megaliths, you might want to make a day of it. Findable on Google Maps.

The Devils Arrows, nr. Boroughbridge: This is a small circle of three tall megalith standing stones. Dating to the late Neolithic, it is thought there were four or five stones originally. The tallest of the three is 7m high, and a Victorian excavation discovered it was buried a further 1.8m below the ground. According to local folklore, these are three actual giant arrows thrown by Old Nick himself in a spectacularly poor attempt at destroying the village of Aldborough. Founded in Roman times, Aldborough didn’t exist until thousands of years after the stones were put here. More likely, the legend sprung up around the superstitious time of the witch hunts and stuck. You can find it on Google maps.

Harwood Dale, nr. Ravenscar/Scarborough, North Yorkshire: Probably the nicest stone circle to photograph on this list, at 14m around you can fit a nice amount of stones into one shot. Bronze Age Harwood Dale is locally known as the Druid’s Circle. It is not, however, a typical circle. It is a Bronze Age burial cist, a stone-built box shape where human remains would have been buried. There are three upright stones in the centre. Two more cup-and-ring marked stones from the vicinity were taken to Scarborough Museum in Victorian times and the rest of the site was seemingly forgotten. More details and a map reference here.

Ramsdale Stone Circle, nr. Robin Hood’s Bay, North Yorkshire: Only three stones make up this tiny stone circle, which makes it fascinating and easy to look at in its entirety (unlike gigantic circles such as Long Meg and Her Daughters, in Cumbria, or Avebury, in Avebury). It has been suggested that the three stones once formed part of a burial cairn, or that they were originally a larger stone circle, but the truth is that no one knows. More info and map reference here (not marked on Google maps).

Simon Howe, nr. Goathland, N. Yorks: This visually intriguing stone circle has a more recent addition, in the form of a modern cairn like the ones you see at the top of many mountains frequented by ramblers. It’s due south of Goathland (where you can also find the Mallyan Spout waterfall). I have attempted to add it to Google Maps so hopefully it will be more findable for other people. If not, get the map reference and inspiring photos here.

High Bridestones, nr. Goathland, N. Yorks: While you’re here, the road above Goathland also has two more Bronze Age sites. High Bridestones is four standing stones and they are thought to be what is left of two circles that have been joined together. North of it sits Low Bridestones. Get the deets here.

Brow Moor Carved Stones, nr. Ravenscar, N. Yorks: The rock art at Brow Moor is incredible. These stones were carved in the Bronze age and they are highly striking, speckled with lots of small dots (cups) and some bigger circles (rings) and even concentric circles known as double rings. If you’re into prehistoric rock art, this is a worthwhile day out. Photos and map reference here.

Blakey Topping, nr. Scarborough, N. Yorks: This intriguing and mysterious site has been suggested to be a sacred hill. From the top, you can see another potential sacred hill to the southeast (Howden Hill). A sacred hill is a relatively new class of ancient monument, and there’s no consensus yet on whether they exist or not. Blakey Topping has four standing stones at the top.

Legend has it that Blakey Topping was created by Wade the Giant, who was angry at his wife Bell and scooped up soil from the Hole of Horcum to throw at her. Blakey Topping was created where the soil landed, along with some other local hills. Looking at the shape of the hill and how it fits into the landscape, it is clearly a man-made hill, with a very uniform shape and a flat top typical of Iron Age earthworks, although it could be older. Well worth a look and there are loads of walking guides if you DuckDuckGo Blakey Topping hill. Photos and map reference here.

Some dates:

Neolithic: 4000-2500BCE Britain transitioned from a marine-based diet to livestock farming. Inland settlements became more permanent as the same land could feed people year-round with domesticated cattle. Stone tools still the norm.

Bronze Age: 2500-800BCE Metallurgy was invented and bronze could be forged into shapes to take the place of stone tools. Archaeologists have found many ceremonial burials from this period.

Iron Age: 800BCE to 43AD Iron smelting replaced bronze, allowing metal production to be faster and the tools to be better as iron is harder than bronze. Iron age forts abound in the English landscape but for most of them, all that remains is a big hill with no trace of what it looked like, because stone wasn’t used widely for building until the Romans arrived.

The Romans arrived 43AD, bringing an end to the stone monuments and circle building traditions of the past and eventually blanketing England in Christianity. Also started writing stuff down and calling it “history”.

Mysteries and Histories of Newgrange, Ireland

I slept like a log last night.  Do logs actually sleep?  How do logs sleep?  Like me?

This is Newgrange, a Neolithic site in Ireland that was on my 30 list, which I visited in June when I went to Dublin to see The Who (I recently re-read that article and I’m glad I waited to write this one because I wasn’t making a lot of sense back then).

All the photos from Newgrange came out very, very brightly, because the light was doing something strange here.
All the photos from Newgrange came out very, very brightly, because the light was doing something strange here.

Archaeology:

Newgrange was constructed around 3,200BCE (it’s 5,000 years old; BCE means ‘before common era’).  It’s a chambered passage tomb in Neath, Ireland, about 40 minutes drive up the road from Dublin Airport.  It is ringed by kerbstones, most of which are carved.  The site was previously filled to the top with soil and remains (I have no idea what they were remains of), but in an act of Archaeological Stupidity, it was cleared out in the Victorian era (Ireland did also call the time period this because they were under British occupation at the time) so we don’t have as much evidence as we would like, so archaeologists can’t really say what was going on except that it was a chambered passage tomb.  Which I said already.

It’s mostly risen to significance in the last hundred years because of an interesting phenomenon:  For a couple of days before and after the winter solstice (December 21, midwinter), every year, when the sun rises, it shines in through a hole above the doorway and shines on the floor of the tomb, making it a clever way to mark the passage of time because it marks an annual event.  You can get entered into the lottery that they draw to get a ticket to see it in December but you’d have to make your own way there and you’d have to go alone because the lottery is per ticket.  I went alone but I’m not sure I felt like repeating the trip in the middle of winter and I have to wonder how many people win a ticket then don’t show up for whatever reason, causing other people (who would have turned up) to miss out.

Why does it only do it on Solstice?  Because the Earth is tilted, and it’s orbit around the sun is slightly elliptical, so the sun appears to move position in the sky to different heights (in its second dimension, it rises and sets on one plane and lifts and falls on another; see the diagram below) at different times of year.  In Ireland, in winter, it’s at its lowest during the winter solstice, so the rest of the year, it’s too high in the sky to shine through the hole above the entrance to Newgrange.  In summer, it’s got further to travel than in winter, so the days are longer (actually, we’re the ones travelling, but it’s easier to think of it this way if you’re stuck).

I just drew this to show how the sun appears to move across the sky at different heights at different times of year.
I just drew this to show how the sun appears to move across the sky at different heights at different times of year.

Why go to all the trouble to build something so big just to mark the passage of time?  Well there’s a few reasons (if we’re assuming this was its only purpose which is doubtful due to the human remains that have been found inside), but it’s mostly to do with the fact that during the Neolithic (when Newgrange was built) most of the world had transitioned to agriculture – in fact, these days, we define “Neolithic” as happening at different times around the world depending on when the onset of agriculture was, nothing at all to do with stone tools or fire or whatever.  The Neolithic fits into our current “age system” for prehistory (was the “three age system,” but sort of expanded now) like so:

Palaeolithic – Was “Upper Stone Age” (really long time ago, all of human prehistory until 10,000 years ago)
Mesolithic – Wasn’t a thing, now defined as between 10,000 years ago and the onset of agriculture.  The time of the “hunter-gatherers”
Neolithic – Onset of agriculture.
Iron Age – Discovery of and use of iron.
Bronze Age – Discovery of and use of bronze (an alloyed metal)
Historical – documentary evidence of events in the past.

These “ages” are debatable and the time we reached them differs around the world and particularly how they are defined differs around the world as different cultures view different events as being pivotal moments in their past development.  It is fairly likely that Newgrange, then, was built without the use of iron and was built by people who were living in an agri-culture.  Because this is really all we know about them, it has been put forward and agreed upon by many archaeologists that Newgrange’s function as a big calendar probably has something to do with needing to keep track of the time of year for purposes such as planting crops.  This, of course, would depend on what sort of agriculture was taking place because there is always a bit of an assumption that agriculture has always looked the same since it was first brought to the West, but we don’t actually know that to be true (and are gaining evidence that this is not the case – a topic for further discussion at some point perhaps).  Evidence for agricultural practices has pre-historically been difficult to find although advances in bioarchaeology might move us forward with this if people start seeing farmed land as legitimate archaeological sites instead of just looking for settlements.  Anyway…

I’m not using “absolute” words because you can’t point to anything in the past and say it’s a fact or an absolute truth, because it’s all down to whether we’ve made the correct interpretations of the evidence or not, and while scientific methods can reduce the margin of error, they can never fully eliminate it so most of the time we can’t construct those elaborate “histories” or narratives of the past that people like to hear with any great amount of accuracy.  Which sort of defeats the original point of archaeology if we’re to believe it was ever really about finding narratives of the people from the past in the first place (which I don’t believe, I believe that came later).

Enough Archaeology!  Show Me The Photos:

On the approach. The darker stones to the left are original, the whitest ones are part of a reconstruction.
On the approach. The darker stones to the left are original, the whitest ones are part of a reconstruction.

The entrance to the actual tomb, from almost straight-on (at a slight angle so you can see some contrast in the pic because the sun shines directly on it).
The entrance to the actual tomb, from almost straight-on (at a slight angle so you can see some contrast in the pic because the sun shines directly on it).

The opening through which the sun shines around the December solstice.
The opening through which the sun shines around the December solstice.

The corridor leading to the chamber in the heart of the tomb (photography not allowed inside).
The corridor leading to the chamber in the heart of the tomb (photography not allowed inside).

Another interesting structure nearby.
Another interesting structure nearby.

The site is still disappearing into the landscape and becoming one with its environment, making it hard to get a good picture from a distance.
The site is still disappearing into the landscape and becoming one with its environment, making it hard to get a good picture from a distance.

Many of the rocks were carved in the Neolithic, into intricate patterns that many call "Celtic."
Many of the big rocks (kerbstones) were carved in the Neolithic, into intricate patterns that many call “Celtic.”  These carvings would probably have been done with flint (a type of stone) tools because there were no iron tools yet.

Rock art in one of the rocks forming the outer back wall.
Rock art in one of the rocks forming the outer back wall.

A side view of Newgrange.
A side view of Newgrange.

A tumbledown farmhouse near the site. I thought it was particularly beautiful.
A tumbledown farmhouse near the site. I thought it was particularly beautiful.

A closer picture of the old and reconstructed stones.
A closer picture of the old and reconstructed stones.

A shot of Newgrange taken from the Visitor centre.
A shot of Newgrange taken from the Visitor centre.

The Tour:

It was remarkably short but still enjoyable.  For the fact I’d waited so long in line and on the bus and for the tour to start, I thought there could have been a lot more made of the age, construction, and archaeological finds (by contrast, the tour at Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh is fantastic, if you want an out of the way and mysterious site to visit with a damn good tour, go there).  Most of the information I gave you in “archaeology” was stuff I had researched as part of my archaeology final year dissertation (and never used, because I decided to stick with British Neolithic sites).  There were also too many people visiting for the size inside the tomb, and the guide told the taller people to get to the back (which is fair on the shorter people, and usually I’m all for this, but when the taller people are then unable to see much, it’s just a bit unfair).  It was stunning inside, but there was no photography.  More annoying still, there were no photos of the inside of the tomb available to buy in the gift shop, all the pictures focussed on the light on the floor or this one specific rock with carvings in it.  For you, dear readers, I did sketch while I was in there.  Forgive my crude drawings; I got a D in GCSE Art and when I did my degree, I only did archaeological drawing for 2 days then I dropped it because it was the stupidest course I ever went on, and everything we learned there had no real use in a situation like this (y’know, an actual archaeological site).

This was done inside the main chamber. The roof (bottom right) was from standing in the middle of the central atrium (see pencil arrow) and looking straight upwards.
This was done inside the main chamber. The roof (bottom right) was from standing in the middle of the central atrium (see pencil arrow) and looking straight upwards.  The zigzags and swirls were copied from some of the stones in the three chambers.

Given the way that the sun was behaving, and the fact that I went two days after the Summer Solstice (midsummer’s day) I would like to put forward, based on the evidence of my own eyes, an additional theory about Newgrange:  That it wasn’t originally just a winter calendar, but also a summer one – there’s a straight up and down arrangement of rocks (see my drawing) with a capstone which may not have been original, through which, I’m fairly sure the sun could have shone in from above if the capstone hadn’t been in the way.  So perhaps, since it was full of soil and overgrown when people found it back in the Victorian days, the whole thing was repurposed and filled in at a later date (when the capstone went on)?  I don’t have any hard evidence of this, just my drawings, but it seems entirely possible to me.

A major redeeming feature of the tour was that the guide was open in admitting  that we don’t really know much about Newgrange – there are all sorts of theories and ideas bouncing around in the academic and “fringe” circles, but at the end of the day what they’re all lacking is any kind of evidence.  Some people (not archaeologists, I hope,) make it their life’s work to concoct plausible stories for big sites, using the least amount of evidence (a grain of truth to support their lies, if you will), and the most amount of drama, fantasy and “inference” (in quotation marks because it’s not so much inference as ‘making it up to get on the History Channel’), and sadly these versions of things run around the world before we can research, get evidence, assess context and investigator biases, consider reductionism, and all the other things that need to be done to support an idea about the past.  I’ve been to a few “historical sites” and found the guides to be reiterating as “facts” some complete gobbledegook that has no basis in evidence at all.  I found it very refreshing that what little the guide did tell us was all clearly stated as interpretation and she did tell us what those interpretations were based on (and why we don’t know more) and I think there’s a middle ground between “we just don’t know” and “a wizard did it.”

Accessibility:

There is no disabled access to the actual Neolithic tomb of Newgrange itself.  This picture is taken at the entrance, this is as far as you can get if you’re not pedwardly mobile:

There is no disabled access to the tomb of Newgrange.
There is no disabled access to the tomb of Newgrange.

Tickets must be bought at the Visitor Centre not at the site, and there is a walk and a bus ride between the Visitor Centre and the site.

Newgrange 3

You must get there early.  I got there before 9:00am and went on the first  tour of the day, and this was the queue already for tickets when I arrived:

This was before 9:00am and there was about 30 people inside the building who I had to wait behind before I got to the ticket desk.
This was before 9:00am and there was about 30 people inside the building who I had to wait behind before I got to the ticket desk.

Buying tickets:

When I visited, the combined ticket was the same price as the separate tickets for Newgrange and Knowth, so you may as well go to Newgrange first (because that sells out) then decide whether that’s enough chambered passage tombs for you or not (I decided it was enough for me but then I’d been up for 2 days and that always kills my attention span).  Ticket for Newgrange cost 6 Euros.  Check opening times and do some Googling before you go so you don’t miss out on the significance of this site.