The Tailed Cairn of Great Ayton

By Mike Haigh

A curious archaeological group stands half-hidden in the bracken on the edge of Great Ayton Moor in Cleveland. Unfortunately, it has been extensively damaged over the millennia, but enough has survived to allow a reasonable interpretation of the complex.

At its centre is a robbed circular chambered cairn. A megalithic chamber can be discerned, blocked by a large slab at its east end. Extending for almost 100 metres across the moor from its SW side is a linear ‘tail’ of stone, directed at a low circular mound [1], which is a terminal point of the alignment formed by the site. On the same axis, to the NE, is another feature, a sub-rectangular enclosure abutting the cairn. Although the three major elements appear to have been constructed at slightly different times, the monument has been interpreted as a single unit. Pollen analysis indicates that the cairn was built in mixed woodland, but that the process of forest clearance was underway.

The site was excavated in the late 1950s [2] and dated to the Neolithic (Stone Age) period. It was later suggested that the feature was used as an integrated mortuary complex, where the bodies were firstly carried up the linear ceremonial approach before being allowed to decay and excarnate in the northern enclosure. The final stage was deposition of the bones in the chamber of the cairn [3].

Today the remains of the cairn are the most prominent feature of the site. It was constructed from a large number of boulders, some of which appear to have been burnt. The excavators discovered a chamber in the SW quadrant of the cairn, about three metres south of the centre. No post-holes, pottery or cremated bones [4] were found, but again there was evidence of extensive burning. A single pit was located, containing burnt sand, stones and a few pieces of Scots Pine charcoal; three cremation burials from the Middle Bronze Age in the SE quadrant; and a narrow passage which extended for about a metre from the NW end of the chamber, and was completely filled in with large round boulders. It seems that the cairn was originally enclosed by a kerb of upright stones.

The sub-rectangular enclosure measures about 50 m. from NE to SE and about 33 m. in width, and consists of a low bank 50-70 cm. high which incorporated three small cairns. The enclosed centre contained two pits, one containing charcoal and burnt sand and the other a filling of sandstone boulders. Other finds include several unworked flints, a pottery fragment and a few quartz pebbles.

The most remarkable feature of the site is the linear bank or ‘tail’. For most of its length it maintains a fairly uniform width of 7.5 – 9 m., but narrows in the last 10 m. to 3-4m. across. The height is also fairly constant at about 70 cm., but tapering towards the far end. Its construction is of large boulders compacted together, with some upright stones at the edges to form a crude kerb; construction standards declined towards the far end of the tail, which at one point crossed an area of burnt stones and charcoal. Finds were mostly pottery fragments and flint chippings.

Although the site is dated to the Neolithic, it appears to have retained an aura of sanctity into the Bronze Age. As well as the Middle Bronze Age burials inserted into the main cairn, already mentioned, there were a few later features abutting the monument. To the E of the central cairn are two ring cairns which appear to have had a ritual function and are associated with urned and unurned cremations dated to the early Bronze Age. The southernmost ring yielded two cremation pits, a stone ball and an abraded quartz pebble, while the northern ring held three cremation pits, two stone balls [5] and an object that might have been part of a loom-weight.

There is another feature, too, which is later than the main complex. This is a round barrow built against the eastern side of the stone tail. Material from the stone alignment was taken for re-use in this mound. It has been excavated, but no record was kept; however, features of this kind are usually ascribed to the Bronze Age. Another similar barrow exists to the W of the complex.

The most obvious characteristic of this feature is its linearity. The low mound, linear platform (ceremonial pathway?), chambered cairn and sub-rectangular enclosure all fall into an alignment [6]. It can therefore be added to the growing list of prehistoric linear features such as cursuses, stone rows and Dartmoor reaves [7], albeit on a smaller scale. The site, though unusual, is not unique; the chambered cairn of Bryn yr Hen Bobl on Anglesey contains a small rectangular chamber of about the same size as that at Great Ayton Moor, and extending S from it is an elongated platform roughly as long as the Yorkshire one but higher and wider. At Wetton, in Staffordshire, is a monument known as Long Low, which consisted of a large cairn over a megalithic chamber containing the remains of thirteen people; a stone bank nearly 200 m. long extends SW from the cairn until it incorporates another, smaller, cairn.

 

References

1.It is not clear if this mound is natural or artificial. I suspect that it is natural.
2.Hayes, R.H. ‘The Chambered Cairn and Adjacent Monuments on Great Ayton Moor, N.E. Yorkshire’, Scarborough & District Archaeological Society Research Report 7, 1967.
3.Prehistory Research Section Bulletin 31, 1994 (Yorkshire Archaeological Society)
4.Any bones would probably have been dissolved by the acid soils in the area.
5.These were plain stone balls and nothing like the intricately carved balls found in Scotland.
6.The alignment points to a nearby flat ridge with no obvious markers on it.
7.Pennick, Nigel, & Devereux, Paul. Lines on the Landscape, 1989.

Published in NE64 (Winter 1995), pp.16-17