31 days of History: York before York

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March 13th, 2012
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How do we think about York before York? About history before history? Before the founding of Eboracum in AD 71 by the Romans, does it even make sense to talk about York?

Well, maybe not – but does that mean that the uncountable numbers of people who lived in the area deserve no voice? Can understanding the ground on which York is constructed help us understand the city today?

I’m an archaeologist who studies prehistory: looks at flints and maps and databases and samples. One tool is often ignored (or invisible) in all this work: imagination. By exercising mine to unpack York’s prehistory I hope you will feel empowered to use yours.

When the last last Ice Age peaked around 20,000 years ago, ice sheets and glaciers covered most of northern Britain. The scraping movement of these enormous ice masses leaves behind a large ridge of rocks and soil (a moraine) that is crucial to York’s position in the landscape.

Around 12,000 years ago the climate had warmed and the glaciers had gone. The moraine now provided high, dry ground above the marshy flood plains of the rivers. For the subsequent 400 generations this point in the landscape – the intersection between protected ground and river access would channel their journeys, perception and settlements. Next time you stand on the top of the hill at Acomb or Heslington, imagine the vast forests that would have felt as familiar to ancient peoples as the city streets do to us.

Our knowledge of these ancient periods – Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, bronze age, iron age – in York itself is patchy. The dense occupation of the city masks the ephemeral remains of people who lived in far smaller numbers than even the Romans.

The scattered finds – including flints from Hungate or Holgate, burials from Heslington - make little sense without evidence from the wider landscape or further afield. Further dangers await those attempting to envisage the lives of ancient peoples: many ideas we might have about prehistory are based on modern assumptions. To counteract these ideas archaeologists look to other cultures across the world.

By using a whole mass of these ideas I have attempted to imagine a few moments in the prehistory of York. The prehistory of a crossing place. These stories are not true. They are constructed from facts, but not in the same way as the other stories in 31 days of York history. They exist to be questioned and will hopefully start you off on your own journey investigating thousands of years of human lives that came before York was York.

Autumn, around 6500 BC

The leaves on the birches were yellowing and the days were appreciably shorter now. Many of the berry bushes had already over-ripened and were pecked clean by birds. The hunters, breath misting the air, crept along the trail. They moved swiftly, long practice ensuring that their feet made no sound. They spread themselves across the slope above the river-bend, the wind at their backs. The deer continued to drink. Each selected an arrow, tipped with a small triangle of razor-sharp flint, each flighted with a personal choice of feathers. Exchanging glances, they nocked an arrow to their bowstrings, drew breath, held it, and aimed….

High summer, around 3200 BC

Mum sat back from the quernstone. She had been grinding flour on the saddle-shaped stone for most of the morning now. She stood, stretching her aching ankles and looking to the horizon. Instinctively, one hand went to the pouch on her belt – feeling the ankle bone of her father through the soft lambskin. The cacophony of the sheep in their wattle pens swelled as one of the girls selected one of last years lambs for the midsummer feast. Having separated it from the flock, she gripped its flanks between her knees and, in a swift movement, pulled the flint knife across its throat.

Spring, around 1400 BC

Two fires burned that night. One for pot one for metal. The flames must be carefully managed for the transformation to work. For the soft clay to become hard pots and for the far more subtle mutation – dull rocks into shining bronze. The smith was attentive, eyes bright in his soot-blackened face, alert to every change in colour and movement of the flames. In the other pit, the pots sang, whistled and popped as they changed. The heat was more intense than inside the houses, and the smoke billowed across the stars.

Winter, AD 40

The river, after days of winter storms, was in full torrent. The ferryman, scratched his chin as he contemplated the coins in his hand, then the river, then the coins again. The shapes were unfamiliar, but the gold was unmistakable. The young man stood tall: Too proud to explain again, in his strange tongue, why he must cross the river. He adjusted his fine woollen cloak and spat resting his hand on the pommel of his sword. On the far side, the smoke rose from a circle of huts initially as clouds through the chimneyless tops and then was whipped southwards by the fierce wind. The ferryman, face inscrutable, turned toward the river and whistled for his dog.

These four stories are set in what archaeologists call the Mesolithic, Neolithic, bronze age and iron age. I hope they help set you on your own journey toward understanding prehistory in York and beyond.

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