The Papers of William Charles Copperthwaite of Malton – Part 2

By Gail Falkingham, Record Assistant

Part 1 of this blog contained an overview of the Copperthwaite papers, which includes material compiled by Captain Copperthwaite and others. In this second blog, I will focus on the archaeological information relating to Prehistoric finds within the collection, selecting examples from the contents of the notebook and plans.

The Illustrated Notebook and Plans

One of the notebooks contains a number of sketches of artefacts, mainly Roman in date, but also some prehistoric and some medieval, from Malton, Norton and surrounding areas [ZUN 2]. These illustrations include pottery, items of jewellery, inscriptions and there are descriptions of over 200 coins. There are also two plans, which show the earthworks visible in Orchard Field and identify the findspots of particular artefacts and burials, as well as the sites of former buildings and walls.

This archive material is a rare and significant archaeological record. It is particularly special because of the handwritten notes describing the provenance of the finds, as well as the sketches and drawings. These often include the date and location, and sometimes the circumstances of the discovery of the objects.

Before being deposited with the Record Office in 1978, the Copperthwaite material was available to earlier researchers such as Kitson Clark and Hudleston, therefore many of the finds have been referenced and included in earlier publications. However, as mentioned in Part 1 of this blog, the whereabouts of this material was unknown to many during the last 40 years. It has not, therefore, been the subject of modern study, and thus there is potential for further research which may shed light on the archaeology of Malton and surrounding area in a number of ways.

Prehistoric finds

ZUN 2  Pages from the Copperthwaite notebook illustrating “Pottery from the British barrow at Birdsall, 1845”, part of a bronze sword blade, iron spearhead and Roman fibulae (brooches)

Some of the earliest material illustrated in the notebook is a group of finds of pottery from a barrow (also known as a tumulus or burial mound) at Birdsall. The parish of Birdsall on the Yorkshire Wolds is a renowned area of prehistoric activity, with surviving earthwork remains of linear dyke systems (banks and ditches), which acted as boundary divisions in the landscape, and a large number of associated burial mounds. These barrows are funerary monuments which date from the Late Neolithic through to the Early Bronze Age, around 4000 years ago. They are typically of a type known as a bowl barrow, with a round mound of earth several metres in diameter. This covers one or more burials, surrounded by a circular ditch and sometimes an outer bank. These burials could be inhumations, with pottery vessels as grave goods, or cremations, with the ashes contained in decorated urns.

It is pieces of such urns which Copperthwaite has drawn. This pottery was handmade, often from coarse clay, built from coiled rings and fired in a bonfire rather than a kiln. As a result, it is very fragile. Copperthwaite notes:

“The figuring upon these fragments appears to have been impressed by instruments for the purpose whilst the clay was wet. The clay does not seem to have been ground or tempered, small stones are contained in it, and the pottery so little baked as to have no ringing sound when struck. The workmanship about equal to that on the pastry of a standing pie.”

The digging of barrows was a popular pastime for local clergy and antiquarians during the second half of the 19th century; it was not unusual for several to be investigated in a single day. Today, they are of national importance, designated as scheduled monuments. Which Birdsall barrow these finds are from, and who was involved in the work, is not recorded in the notebook. The date of 1845 for its investigation is quite early compared to others in this area of Yorkshire. This is a question that further research into other archaeological records may hopefully be able to answer.

ZUN 4 Extract from a ‘Plan of the Roman Camp and the Town and suburbs of Malton..’, showing the NE corner of the Roman fort and burials found along the course of the Thirsk Railway cutting, 1865. Note the location of Section C—C to the east.
ZUN 5 Extract from an undated sketch plan of Malton, showing that ‘Three British Barrows formerly stood here”, in an area to the east of the Roman fort.

References to further burial mounds in Malton can be found on the two plans within the collection. These show the location of barrows which no longer exist as visible monuments. They now lie either under a ploughed field, or were disturbed by the building of the Thirsk and Malton Railway line, which opened in 1853. On the larger of the two plans [ZUN 4], a section drawing [C—C] dated 1865 records that these tumuli were “Exposed when the railway cutting was widened, laid down by C Monkman”. This drawing also notes that the surface of Orchard Field was levelled in 1800-5.

Charles Monkman was a fellow antiquarian, and a contemporary of Copperthwaite who, in the 1860s, published accounts of archaeological discoveries in the local newspaper the Malton Messenger.

To have this level and detail of 19th century recording, with the stratigraphic information, as well as the location plan and annotations is incredibly useful for today’s archaeologists, who are investigating the archaeology in the immediate vicinity of these finds.

ZUN 4  Extract from a ‘Plan of the Roman Camp and the Town and suburbs of Malton..’, showing Section C the NE corner of the Roman fort and burials found along the course of the Thirsk Railway cutting, 1865

Next time in The Papers of William Charles Copperthwaite – Part 3 we will focus on the Roman finds in Copperthwaite’s notebook.


To find out more

Malton Museum

Further reading

‘The Forgotten Landscapes of the Yorkshire Wolds’ by Chris Fenton-Thomas, 2005. Stroud: Tempus Publishing.

‘The Early Barrow Diggers’ by BM Marsden, 1999. Stroud: Tempus Publishing.

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