Tumulus: OS Grid Reference – NZ 599 103
Archaeology & History
The Nanny Howe burial mound was one of a group of at least three tumuli that could be found on what is now the wooded hilltop of Coate Moor, a mile east of Great Ayton. Large and conspicuous in previous centuries, the site was described briefly in Elgee’s (1933) archaeological survey as being in association with a prehistoric settlement, which itself appears to have long since succumbed to forestation. An essay on the state of this apparent Bronze Age burial mound was written by Mr Hayes (1966), who told us:
“The kerb of the barrow was exposed and noticed by J.N Grayson whilst excavations were in progress on Great Ayton Moor. S.V. Morris, A.N. Pacitto and the writer examined the site. It was a cairn of about 30ft diameter and 3ft high in the centre, with a strong kerb of stones set on edge of 25ft diameter. Its construction, of massive stones was similar to the chambered cairn on Great Ayton Moor, one mile to the north, and very like the food vessel-urn tumulus on Danby Rigg which also had a kerb of the same diameter…
“When the heather and turf were removed on the south-east side of Nanny Howe, a mass of cremated bones with part of the rim and side of a typical Iron Age ‘B’ jar were found only 6-9in under the turf. This was clearly a secondary burial long after the cairn was built. The sherd may have been a token offering, but more probably the remainder of the pot so near the surface of the mound had been eroded. No other secondary burial was found, although almost all the cairn was removed.
“Under large boulders in the central area was a shallow pit or depression… Only minute specks of charcoal and some small burnt stones distinguished its filling from natural sand. It was about 3ft in diameter and not more than 9in deep… In it were the broken sherds, more than 80 in number, of a beaker… There were no signs of bones or cremation, although presumably a contracted skeleton had accompanied the beaker. In the acid sand all bones would perish quickly… No other relics were found in the cairn.”
To which Mr Hayes and his team concluded the Nanny Howe tomb was an example of a typical “beaker burial” as they used to like calling them, set within a ring of stones over which the cairn was piled; and long after this, seemingly the Iron Age, a secondary cremation was inserted.
Folklore ascribed the entire settlement here to have heathen origins, with Nanny Howe also standing out with folklore of its own. As Mr & Mrs Elgee (1933) wrote:
“Half a mile east of Captain Cook’s monument…on Easby Moor is the Devil’s Court, where, according to tradition, witches congregated under the presidency of their lord and master. We therefore examined the Court and found what we expected, a typical moorland Bronze Age settlement site, with stone-walled enclosures, shallow pits, flint implements and many barrows, one of which is named Nanny Howe, after a famous witch, it is said, who also frequented Nanny Nook, a right-angled bend in a stone wall near Wayworth Farm, Commondale, marking another settlement site.”
Another tale of this legendary witch was narrated by folklorist and historian Richard Blakeborough in one of his many tomes, where he told:
“Again, old people of Great Ayton still aver that on a certain night a once noted witch, Nanny Howe, may be seen riding astride on a broomstick over Howe Wood just at midnight. This witch, so mounted, is said once to have chased the devil for miles — on this occasion the two must have fallen out ; perhaps at that time honest folk got their due. Howe Wood is near Kildale.”
Whatever the source of such stories, the respective archaeologists of Elgee and Hayes wondered if they derived from some pre-christian rites and events. Hayes asked:
“Was the person interred in Nanny Howe a famous witch? Or were the witch and the devil legends connected with the site faint echoes of ceremonials and rites held here?”
It would seem likely that the local peasant communities hereby were, thankfully, not inflicted with the empty spirituality of the christian cult when it tried taming the souls of the villagers living in and around here. The folklore would seem to reflect simple peasant gatherings and celebrations, frowned upon by those weird clergy-folk, no doubt striving to get the local children into their more demonic pastimes…
- Blakeborough, Richard, Wit, Character, Folklore and Customs of the North Riding of Yorkshire, W. Rapp: Saltburn 1911.
- Elgee, Frank & Harriet, The Archaeology of Yorkshire, 1933.
- Gutch, Mrs E., Examples of Printed Folklore Concerning the North Riding of Yorkshire, David Nutt: London 1899.
- Hayes, R.H., “Nanny Howe, Coate Moor, Cleveland,” in Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, part 164, 1966.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian