Archaeologists have found evidence for the ceremonial burial of the dead from as far back as the early Palaeolithic period in Britain. In the Yorkshire Dales, the ravages of glaciation have removed all trace of such sites if they ever existed. Our earliest burial dates to the Neolithic and is the much-mutilated chambered cairn called Giant’s Graves. The circular earth and stone burial mound originally housed several stone lined cists (small rectangular or square chambers or ‘boxes’) that would have contained inhumations (whole bodies) or cremations. The teeth of at least three individuals were found when the cairn was investigated in the 1930s.
Late on in the Neolithic or early in the Bronze Age, several large stone burial cairns were constructed in the Dales. Apron Full of Stones, in Kingsdale and Stoney Raise above Wensleydale have both been heavily robbed by later wall builders, but are still substantial monuments. The stone used to build them must have been collected over a wide area around each monument, perhaps as land was being cleared for agricultural use.
During the rest of the early Bronze Age, large numbers of smaller burial cairns and earthen barrows were built to house the dead. The cairn set among prehistoric fields on High Close, Grassington, contained an All Over Corded Beaker, characteristic of a style of pottery that swept over the whole of Europe at the very start of the Bronze Age. Archaeologists have speculated that it was the contents of these beakers that ensured their popularity, possibly a sort of fermented honey drink or beer, laced with cannabis. Their burial with the dead may be evidence that they formed part of a new religious ‘package’ replacing earlier forms of spiritual belief.
Many Bronze Age barrows were reused by their communities as the years passed. The barrow excavated on Lea Green in 1893 had a central crouched inhumation and several later ones around it.
The contents of many of these prehistoric burial sites do not often survive. The thin, acidic soils and attentions of 19th century treasure hunters have resulted in the loss of a lot of material. Occasionally a record was made when a barrow was opened, such as that excavated at Rylstone by Canon Greenwell. He carefully described the extraordinary oak tree trunk coffin found along with the scraps of a woollen shroud or cloak.
In the second half of the Bronze Age in Britain, cairns and barrows were replaced by cremation cemeteries. One possible example from the Dales is located on Haw Bank in Wensleydale.
Very few Iron Age period burials are known anywhere in Britain and archaeologists believe that many bodies may have been disposed of in rivers and lakes instead of in the ground. In the Dales, one or two cairns and barrows have been given Iron Age dates. Sometimes this may have been due to an earlier barrow being reused, such as on Seaty Hill, near Malham Tarn where a secondary Iron Age burial was found along with a unique bone flute.
The arrival of the Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Scandinavians brought new burial ceremonies to the Yorkshire Dales. At least one, possibly two Anglo-Saxon graves were disturbed in 1884 at Fleets Farm in Wensleydale. The grave goods found along with at least one adult skeleton included an iron shield boss, iron knife, a strap end, annular brooches and paired glass beads. By the time that the Anglo-Scandinavians arrived in the Dales, the Anglo-Saxons had converted to Christianity and were no longer burying their dead with jewellery and weaponry for the afterlife. The first Anglo-Scandinavians were not immediately converted however. At Wensley an Anglo-Scandinavian farmer was found buried in an Anglo-Saxon Christian graveyard accompanied by his sword as if on his way to pagan Valhalla.
In the 10th century, the Anglo-Scandinavian estate owner at Burnsall was commissioning stone carvers to make hogback tombstones to mark the graves of the dead in his estate churchyard. Christianity had become the religion of both the people and their rulers and the arrival of the Normans and the building of stone churches on their estates only served to underline this.
The majority of the population would have expected to be buried in the consecrated ground of their new parish church. In the Dales this was often easier said than done with parish churches being few and far between in the more remote areas. Tradition has it that in Swaledale, a Corpse Way was established along which the dead were carried in wicker coffins on their way to burial in Grinton churchyard. Beside Ivelet Bridge, a large flat stone is said to be where the coffin bearers rested their heavy loads. The journey could be hazardous and there are stories of both corpse and pall bearers being swept away in floods. Eventually, in 1580, a graveyard was consecrated at Muker and the relatives of the dead at the top of the dale no longer had to brave the Corpse Way.
Most of the medieval population of the Dales would have been buried unmarked or with perishable wooden grave markers. Only the burials of the wealthy have survived from this period, for example the late 13th or early 14th century stone effigies of knights now in a garden in Coverham. This tradition seems to continue until well into the 18th century when stone grave markers belonging to more ordinary people begin to appear.
The various independent chapels and meeting houses that were built in the 18th and 19th centuries often had their own graveyards as well. The Quaker Meeting House at Bainbridge has a fine collection of gravestones as does the graveyard attached to the now defunct Sandemanian Chapel in Gayle. Some, such as the Quaker graveyard in Hawes, have been preserved as simple green spaces.
Graveyards attached to parish churches tend to have grander and more varied grave memorials. At St Mary the Virgin’s Church in Arkengarthdale, an unusual 19th century cast iron monument to Thomas Barningham has been recently conserved . Thomas came from a family of iron founders, hence the unusual material. In Grinton churchyard, an elaborate late 18th century memorial commemorates a local gentleman named Richard Clarkson. Made from pink sandstone, it sports winged putti (cherubs) and cross bones.
Elsewhere, the lives of working people are commemorated in moving detail. St Leonard’s Chapel in Chapel-le-Dale is the last resting place of many of the men and their families who died building the Settle-Carlisle Railway line in the 19th century, while at St Michael and All Angels Church in Linton, 18th century lead miners are buried.
Those whose families left the Dales in search of a better life now often return to search out their ancestors in the church and chapel graveyards of the area. The dead continue to be buried in some and these peaceful places are a living link to our past.
Skyrakes ring cairn and tumulus
South Nab ring cairn
The Devil’s Apronful cairn
Pikedaw Hill cairn
Sheriff Hill cairn
Great Close Hill cairn
Conistone Old Pasture cairn
Collingwood, W G (1914) ‘Anglian and Anglo-Danish Sculpture in Yorkshire’ Yorkshire Archaeological Journal Vol 23 pp146-152
Feather, S W & Manby, T G (1970) ‘Prehistoric Chambered Tombs of the Pennines’ Yorkshire Archaeological Journal Vol 42 pp396-7
Greenwell, W (1877) British Barrows Oxford: Clarendon Press
Hall, R & Hartley E (1976) The Viking Kingdom Of York (exhibition catalogue) York: Yorkshire Museums [Wensley Anglo-Scandinavian burial]
Hartley, M & Ingilby, J (1988) Swaledale Otley: Smith Settle [Corpse Way]
Mitchell, W R (1988) Shanty Life on the Settle-Carlisle Railway Settle: Castleberg
Wright, Geoffrey N (1985) Roads and Trackways of the Yorkshire Dales Ashbourne: Moorland Publishing [‘Corpse Roads’ pp53-57]