Ryedale’s Windy Pits

Review of Richard Myerscough’s Lecture  2nd March 2015

Prior Judy Wilson welcomed members and introduced Richard Myerscough, whose talk was about the geology and archaeology of Ryedale’s Windy Pits.

Richard explained that the first recorded exploration of these geological features was by Rev. William Buckland in the early 1800’s. He had wanted to prove that the great biblical flood was responsible for all geology we see today.

Today we know that windy pits are not formed by the action of running water. When escarpments of sandstone and limestone such as those found in the valleys of the North Yorkshire Moors slip, they form deep narrow fractures which are then sealed by further falls of rocks and soil.

The fractures may be 20 metres deep and spread along the escarpment for some distance but are typically not much more than a metre wide. Richard described how a partial roof collapse often leads to a dangerous hole. When the wind gusts there is a change in air pressure and at times these holes will appear to exhale, hence the term “windy pits”.

In Winter the air from the cave will have been warmed and snow around the hole will melt. The caves are often homes to bats which flock out at dusk in search of food. The speaker asked us to imagine how the people of prehistory would regard these pits. They would be seen as unnatural and the gateways to the underworld. It is not surprising then that some of the pits contain human and animal bones and artefacts which appear to have been sacrificial offerings.

They date from the late Neolithic about 4,000 years ago to Roman times, say about 1,800 years ago. Some of the animal bones may be from creatures falling in to the pits; but goat, horse, and pig bones would be from offerings. Some of the human bones suggest de-fleshing took place before the bones were deposited, a common funereal practice in ancient times. Others, however, with severe skull injuries suggest that human ritual killing took place. Among the artefacts found were bronze age beakers, worked bone, and jewellery.

Ashberry Windy Pit, which is near a Roman temple, has the largest collection of such artefacts. Richard showed photographs of some of the caves and finds. The vote of thanks was given by Sarah Hutchinson. She thanked the speaker for a fabulous evening on a riveting subject.