The Wheatcroft Barrow
In 1910, the extension to the cricket pitch in the grounds of Scarborough College led to the removal of the last fragments of an ancient Bronze Age burial mound known as the Wheatcroft Barrow. Previous explorations revealed three cist or stone chests that held food vessels containing human remains, a stone battle-axe or hammer and a flint knife. The chests were unusually ornamented with cup and ring carvings. The whereabouts of the carved stone lids is unknown.
A drawing of the barrow was made prior to its opening in 1835 by a lithographer and Society of Antiquaries engraver. James Basire was from a family of engravers whose father, of the same name, apprenticed the young William Blake. The lithograph and the items found within the barrow are displayed in the Rotunda Museum.
The barrow, as Basire’s lithograph illustrates, must have been a prominent feature on the skyline. The man-made structure, on the slopes of Oliver’s Mount, was well over 3,000 years old. There is a good chance that it was unrecognised for what it was. Unlike other large barrows in the area, such as Willy Howe and Duggleby Howe, there is no folklore or indeed any records mentioning the barrow outside academic circles. Not even Hinderwell mentions it - and he really liked that kind of thing.
The 1930s archaeologist and curator Frank Elgee described the barrow and its contents: “These objects were either the treasured weapons or insignia of chiefs, which accounts for their rarity and shows that the larger barrows must be regarded as burial places of chiefs and their families”.
Barrow, tumulus and howe are the names we have for ancient burial mounds. Their permanence and longevity are testimony to the expertise with which they were built. Barrows were common in the Bronze Age. However, earlier and later cultures, such as the Romans, Picts, Anglo Saxons and Vikings, used the same practice.
Scarborough’s southern landscape is fascinating. There are a further three burial mounds just over the brow of Oliver’s Mount and there were three more in the grounds of Scarborough College. Wheatcroft was clearly an area that meant a great deal to our ancestors.
The barrows at Wheatcroft appear to be intentionally located by the stream that rises at a spring on the side of Oliver’s Mount that ran along Deepdale Avenue. The stream became known as Holbeck, Old Norse for deep hollow with beck. Many of the other barrows I mention are also located near becks.
The antiquarian and former marine surveyor to the East India Company Robert Knox made a record of his observations of this area in his 1821 map with the lengthy title: ‘A map of the county round Scarborough, in the North & East Ridings of Yorkshire, from a trigonometrical survey with topographical geological and antiquarian descriptions’. He documented many mounds which he felt were of interest to antiquarians. Many urban tumuli no longer appear on maps and have left no trace on the landscape. Indeed, in the vicinity of Wheatcroft, the site of the tumulus that once stood near the bridleway from Deepdale to Eastfield Farm, is the only one near Wheatcroft scheduled for protection as a site of historic interest, though it has long been ploughed flat.
Knox illustrates four tumuli in the Wheatcroft area. He also illustrates two of the three High Peasholm tumuli located either side of Peasholm glen on the north side of Scarborough. Curiously, he links both groups with a tumulus on Valley Road, close to Mill Beck, and another on Burniston Road near the bridge over Scalby Mills beck of which there are no records. These mounds trace a line bisecting the castle headland and suggest a clear line of sight from Wheatcroft in the south to the High Peasholm tumuli in the north across the undeveloped town. Ancient monuments arranged in a straight line is a phenomenon defined as a ley by antiquarian Alfred Watkins in 1920. In the 1960s they were known as ley lines, old straight tracks set up by ancient Britons.
There are no written records and we have no clear idea about the belief system of Bronze Age Britons. Lord Abercrombie, the archaeologist who introduced the term ‘Beaker’ (folk) to describe a Bronze Age culture, held the opinion that the culture that buried their dead in the vessels like the one at Wheatcroft probably spoke Gaelic. Elgee said this native Gaelic culture had close trade links to Ireland and thus shared the same place names and flare for decorative pattern.
South of Wheatcroft is Knox Hill, based on cnoc, the Gaelic for hill. It leads to a bridleway that leads across the carrs via Cayton and Folkton to Spella Howe, aka ‘Speech Mound’. Once another impressive tumulus, is on what was once known as Knock Hill and the meeting place of the Torbar Hundred, a local land division mentioned in the Domesday Book. North at High Peasholm is where the crown steward and bailiff of Northstead can “take the Chiltern hundreds”, referring to the legal fiction used to resign from the House of Commons. Cala incidentally is Gaelic for harbour. Could Cala have been the town’s name in the Bronze Age? With evidence of settlements in this area since before the Bronze Age, the town must have been called something before it was called Scarborough?
“Amidst such a storm of theories, the risk of shipwreck is very great to anyone who attempts to steer a straight course” - Frank Elgee.
It is remarkable how you can draw a straight line across Scarborough and uncover so much.