30 May 2011
The secrets of a gruesome discovery in the North York Moors National Park will be revealed in the second series of the BBC’s History Cold Case. The story of a number of human skeletons found in the Ryedale Windypits and thought to date from the end of the last century BC through to the early 2nd century AD, is pieced together by a team of forensic anthropologists from the University of Dundee. The programme, the second of four episodes in the new series, is due to air on BBC2 at 9pm on Thursday 30 June.
The Ryedale Windypits are a series of underground geological limestone fissure caves on the southern edge of the North York Moors that emit flurries of air from within. The windypits were created by cambering which occurs when a strong caprock – in this case oolitic limestone – overlying a much weaker geological layer, such as clay, moves or flexes producing deep cracks.
Due to their geological significance, several of the windypits are designated as SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) and they are also nationally important swarming and roosting sites for bats with seven species recorded in the caves including Natterer’s and brown long-eared. A small number near Helmsley contain important archaeological deposits – including human skeletons – which show that the fissures have been used by people from the late Neolithic period (about 4,500 years ago) until the late Romano-British period (4th and 5th centuries AD).
For decades experts had remained baffled by a number of human bones discovered in the Windypits, in particular a tangle of bones, possibly those of a family, found in Slip Gill Windypit. These remains were examined by Professor Sue Black, Dr Xanthe Mallett and Professor Caroline Wilkinson of the History Cold Case team.
The bones had fracture marks that were consistent with suspicious deaths, a trauma in the jaw bone of one of the skulls which could have only been made with a sharp instrument led to the first conclusion that the victims did not die naturally.
Graham Lee, the National Park Authority’s Senior Archaeological Conservation Officer, was interviewed for the programme. He said: “Little is known about the origins of the skeletons found in the windypits and how they came to be there. Trauma to the skeletons would indicate that some of those ‘buried’ in the caves met with violent deaths, but as to who these people were and why they came to such brutal ends we really don’t know. Having the insight and research from the team at History Cold Case will give us a greater understanding of what the windypits were used for by our ancestors.”
In researching the caves and their use during the Iron Age, Dr Mallett discovered that the Windypit caves were spiritually important 2000 years ago, and possibly even thought of as portals to an underworld where ritual sacrifice was common.
Professor Sue Black said: “The Archaeologists tells us that there’s a distinct possibility that there’s a ritualistic element to the way in which these individuals have landed up in these caves.”
To confirm this theory the History Cold Case team looked at bones found in neighbouring pits. Those too showed signs of blunt force trauma, confirming inter-personal violence as well as a shin bone which had markings that were consistent with the removal of flesh from bone. On further examination of one of the skulls from Slip Gill similar markings were discovered, parallel cut marks, leading to the conclusion that at least one of the victims was probably scalped. The cutting marks on the skull are the final piece of evidence that at least one of the Slip Gill skeletons was almost certainly ritually killed.
Professor Sue Black concluded: “We’ve added a dimension to this that we never anticipated we were going to and in fact it’s a first for me. I have never been involved in something with this sort of a ritual. At the end of the day the bones have the evidence and the evidence speaks for itself.”