Deep shadows from the winter sunshine emphasise the contour features on the northern face of Roseberry.
There are three lines of pits. One follows the 200m contour above Cockle Scar, I’ve posted about these before. Their origins remain unclear, from a supposed British settlement by Victorian antiquarians to military, defensive or ritual.
Next up, at around the 240m contour is a line of pits which are in the jet-bearing rocks. These are undoubtedly drifts associated with the extraction of this mineral much valued throughout the millennia in jewellery, although there were some trial drifts into the ironstone stratum, and I recall one resulting from the collapse of an ironstone gallery.
However, the pits I am referring to in this post are those along the 250m contour
They can be seen contouring to the right on the eastern aspect of the hill along a terrace commencing from the end of the dry-stone wall.
On the 1856 O.S. 6″ map, the pitted ground almost completes a circuit of the hill — Odin’s necklace. (See here for the northern half). The necklace is also not complete below the 1912 collapse, however, 60 pits are shown on those early O.S. maps.
Again, the origin of the pits is mysterious and has led to many theories. The 1856 map annotates them as “Remains of Supposed British Settlement”. A settlement that the map has extending to above Hutton Lowcross although the altitude drops and merges with the jet drifts. There is no evidence to support this theory.
Joseph James Burton, an amateur archaeologist and managing director of the Roseberry Ironstone Mine, excavated 20 of the pits in 1913 and concluded that none, with one exception, extended beyond a depth of four feet, well above the ironstone and jet-bearing strata. The exception went to a depth of 8 feet and may suggest a trial mine shaft1“Roseberry Topping”. Great Ayton Community Archaeology Project. Page 124. 2006 ISBN 978-0-9554153-0-2..
I suppose some form of temporary habitation, a camp, shieling, just a simple hollow covered by branches and hides, for watching cattle during summer grazing is feasible but it seems to me to be an exposed location.
Discounting mineral extraction, settlement, and military reasons for the pits there is another theory — a religious one.
It has been suggested that in pre-history, Roseberry was regarded as a sacred hill, the pits could be places where human corpses were left to rot and be picked clean by crows and other scavengers before the bones were given funeral rites2“Roseberry Topping”. Great Ayton Community Archaeology Project. Page 128. 2006 ISBN 978-0-9554153-0-2..
This is not as absurd and grotesque as it sounds. I recall seeing ‘sky burials‘ in Nepal where the practice is regarded as an act of compassion and kindness. The lammergeiers are said to carry the deceased’s soul to heaven who will then be reincarnated.
As Sherlock Holmes said, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.
Whether the pits were shieldings or part of a charnel ground when Scandinavian immigrants first arrived and saw the pits they called them ‘áirigh‘ or ‘erg‘, similar to the hollows left of their own summer camps or cow farms in the land they had left. Aireyholme Farm on the south side of Roseberry is said to derive from this word3“Roseberry Topping”. Great Ayton Community Archaeology Project. Page 128. 2006 ISBN 978-0-9554153-0-2..
- 1“Roseberry Topping”. Great Ayton Community Archaeology Project. Page 124. 2006 ISBN 978-0-9554153-0-2.
- 2“Roseberry Topping”. Great Ayton Community Archaeology Project. Page 128. 2006 ISBN 978-0-9554153-0-2.
- 3“Roseberry Topping”. Great Ayton Community Archaeology Project. Page 128. 2006 ISBN 978-0-9554153-0-2.