Meet the Antiquarians

Antiquarians investigate prehistoric remains near Grassington. (Speight, 1900: 429).

Antiquarians investigate prehistoric remains near Grassington. (Speight, 1900: 429).

One of the first things I did for this project was to look at the earliest records of the archaeology of this area – those of the so-called antiquarians. The field systems around Grassington first hit the radar at the end of the 19th century, when it was a fashionable gentleman’s pastime to dig up local antiquities. Although their expeditions must have seemed ground breaking (ahem) at the time, their habits often prove frustrating to today’s archaeologists as the objects (and it nearly always was tangible objects rather than information) they sought were mostly treated as curios and taken out of context, or even lost, rather than being scientifically excavated and systematically archived according to modern standards.

Early finds from the Grassington Area. (Crowther 1930: xv)

Early finds from the Grassington Area. (Crowther 1930: xv)

In 1893 the Upper Wharfedale Excavation Committee was formed – with the patronage of the Duke of Devonshire, and the involvement of Professor Boyd Dawkins, alongside a number of pillars of local society – and affiliated to the Yorkshire Geological & Polytechnic Society. Although it was short lived (it was disbanded in 1895 when the chairman, E.E. Speight, moved to Oxford), the committee undertook a number of excavations of prehistoric features around Grassington. The Reverend B.J. Harker initially identified “quite a number of Druidical circles, dotted over the hills and pastures, with barrows and British forts…[and]…a supposed Roman camp of vast area” in the Grassington area (Harker 1892: 147) and it was noted that the valley sides between Kettlewell and Kilnsey contained “not a rood of ground without some evidence of ancient occupation” (Speight 1900: 427).

It is striking, though perhaps inevitable, that in most cases only minimal documentation and rudimentary descriptions relating to these studies exist: the success of these excavations was measured by the quantity and novelty value of skeletons and metal finds that the barrows yielded. Known undertakings include the opening of a cairn on Lea Green that contained 7 burials, the discovery of a twisted cord Bronze Age beaker, collection of numerous flint implements and the excavation and interpretation of extensive settlement remains; some of the finds are displayed at Craven Museum.

Curwen's map of Celtic cultivations at Grassington, published in Antiquity 1928.

Curwen’s map of Celtic cultivations at Grassington, published in Antiquity 1928.

Whereas interest in archaeology of the area was undoubtedly spurred on by the growing corpus of prehistoric finds from local caves – including, famously, Dowka Bottom (1863), Victoria (1875) and Elbolton Caves (1888) – it is notable that these individuals turned to the earthwork evidence for settlement for the first time, even if some of their interpretations (involving, for example, ‘Druid’s Circles’) seem somewhat out of date now. Standing in the 21st century, with its lidar data and sub-centimetre GPS measurement, the men in the black and white photographs, with starched collars and stern expressions, seem very distant. But at second glance, the work of some of these individuals is surprisingly recognisable to the modern eye. In the 1920s E. Curwen (an early pioneer of the study of fields) published his survey of field banks at Grassington, which involved careful systematic observation and comparison of features. This provides a landscape-context in which to place smaller-scale investigations and is extremely useful in a project investigating coaxial boundaries.


Crowther, J (1930) Silva Gars (Grass Wood) Grassington: Its history, antiquities, ancient footpaths, wild flowers and wild life, together with a guide to twenty-seven interesting walks in the district with map and illustrations. Grassington: Wadsworth & Co.

Curwen, E (1928) Ancient cultivations at Grassington, Yorkshire. Antiquity 2: 168-172.

Harker, BJ (1892) Discovery of Pre-historic remains at Grassington, in Craven, Yorkshire. The Antiquary. 26: 147-9.

Speight, EE (1895) Upper Wharfedale Exploration Committee. First annual report (1893). Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological and Polytechnic Society 1891-1894 XII: 374-384.

Speight, H (1900) Upper Wharfedale. London, Elliot Stock.

© H. Brown

© H. Brown


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s