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.
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”.