Where the dry chalk slopes of the Yorkshire Wolds meet the once marshy low-lying lands of the Vale of York lies the sheltered location of Pocklington market town. The settlement is located close to a good water supply from local springs and Pocklington Beck, and is known as “The Gateway to the Wolds”. Although Pocklington lies immediately outside the Yorkshire Wolds, the expansion of the town during the 21st century has resulted in a number of high-profile archaeological discoveries, revealed by developer-led archaeology.
The early prehistoric story of Pocklington is similar to the rest of the Yorkshire Wolds. At present there is no archaeological evidence for any human activity during the Palaeolithic or Mesolithic periods in the area; the first indications of a human presence in Pocklington is in the Neolithic. This was a period when the first farming techniques and processes started to reach Britain and Ireland from continental Europe. Woodland was cleared to create spaces to live and farm, and rivers were used to move around the landscape. Across the Yorkshire Wolds there is relatively little evidence for the settlements the Neolithic communities were living in, but the evidence for the way they were burying their dead is more plentiful. At Pocklington we currently have no archaeological evidence for any settlements or funerary monuments, but stray finds of worked flint that are scattered across the area indicates that people were using this landscape. These flint tools provide insights into their lives. Polished stone axes, a plane (or adze), arrowheads, and scrapers would have been used for hunting and farming related activities. The stone axes and plane would have been used to chop down trees and for wood-working, while the arrowheads were used for hunting animals, birds and fish. Flint scrapers were used to clean animal skins in the process of making leather.
Towards the end of the 3rd millennium BC archaeological evidence suggests that new groups of people came to settle in Britain from mainland Europe, bringing with them the first metal objects in Britain. We do not currently know how numerous these groups were on the Yorkshire Wolds and archaeologists are still debating the nature of their interaction with earlier communities. During this Early Bronze Age period, communities buried their dead in individual graves which were covered with round mounds of earth, creating a visible reminder of their ancestors across the landscape. Landscape re-organisation occurred in the later Bronze Age, when a series of large linear earthworks of banks and ditches were constructed across the Yorkshire Wolds. In contrast to the rest of the Yorkshire Wolds, there is relatively little archaeological evidence for human activity in the Pocklington area during the Bronze Age. Isolated finds of socketed bronze axes, a flat axe, looped spearhead and a flint core indicate that people were present, but no trace of the settlements in which they lived have yet been found. Aerial photographs reveal the cropmarks of a triple ditched dyke to the north of Pocklington which may be part of the later Bronze Age landscape re-organisation, but further archaeological work is needed to confirm their date.
As with the rest of the Yorkshire Wolds, there is an increased visibility in the archaeological record of a large complex of funerary archaeology in the Pocklington area during the Iron Age. Aerial photographs reveal the cropmarks of large complexes and square barrow cemeteries to the south-east and north of the town. The cropmarks show the ditches, trackways, enclosures and square barrows that were dug by communities during the Iron Age and recent archaeological discoveries have provided further information about the people that died here, although no archaeological evidence for the settlements in which this communities lived has yet been excavated. Prior to the development of land near The Balk, to the south-east of Pocklington, archaeologists revealed the remains of seventy-six square barrows and 160 burials dating from the Middle to Late Iron Age. The skeletons found were of men, women and children; most had been placed in a crouched position and buried with grave goods which included a sword, shield, bracelets, brooches, pendants, glass beads and pots (Stephens 2022).
Studying these burials can provide us with an insight into the cultural expression, beliefs and religion of the Iron Age communities in this area. Around 800 BC a young man, aged between 17 and 23, had been buried in a crouched position, with a broken sword placed by his side and four spears placed along his spine and one over his groin. The spear shafts appear to have been broken before the grave was filled in. The choice of objects, the position they were placed in the grave, as well as the way they had been treated before being placed in the grave, and the relatively young age of the man suggest that this burial could be that of a young warrior, or someone important within the local community. Similar burials in East Yorkshire have been found which appear to have had spears thrown or placed into the open grave during the burial rite. We do not know what this burial ritual meant, but it could be a ‘warrior’s death’, which was enacted to ensure a safe passage to the afterlife, or a ceremonial martial salute.
Further archaeological work in the area uncovered the remains of a chariot burial. Originally found at Arras Farm near Market Weighton in the 19th century, the cemetery there became the type site for the tradition of the square barrow burials, initially known as Arras Culture. Chariot burials have been found in the major cemeteries of the Yorkshire Wolds and East Yorkshire and are usually some of the most lavish burials from this period. The chariot burial excavated close to The Balk contained a human skeleton, two pony skeletons laid on their side and the remains of a chariot. Although the wooden remains of the chariot have disintegrated over the millennia, the archaeologists were able to determine what the chariot may have looked like. The remains of an iron tyre were found around what would have been the wooden wheel, and stains in the ground left by the rotted wood indicated that the wheel had twelve spokes. There would have been a box-shaped compartment that the driver stood in, bridle bits for the horses, and an iron nave hoop band which went around the axle but this ‘dismantled’ chariot burial was heavily damaged by the plough.
Another area of cropmarks to the north of Pocklington was investigated by archaeologists in 2018, ahead of housing development. The unexpected discovery of a further Iron Age chariot burial here has no parallel in Britain at present. Between 300-150 BC a large grave 4.7m by 3.9m had been excavated and a male in his late 40s, or later, had been buried with a chariot and two ponies. Rather than dismantling the chariot before burial and burying it next to the horses, as seen in other chariot burials in East Yorkshire, the chariot and horses were buried upright: ‘in harness’. The two horses had been carefully positioned by the mourners with their back legs bent and their hooves just off the ground, looking as if they were about to jump upwards out of the grave. The chariot had also been buried upright, with the male placed in a fetal position inside the chariot. Around the head of the male had been placed six piglets, possibly an offering or the remnants of a funerary feast set aside for the deceased. A shield and a decorated bronze and red-glass “dragonfly” brooch had also been placed in the grave. The shield had been laid face down in the grave and it was not until conservation work was undertaken that the highly decorative metal shield fittings were seen. Copper-alloy plates had been decorated with a La Tène style asymmetrical design, with triple spiral motifs. The design was made by hammering the copper-alloy sheet from underneath. A scalloped border was also present, which has no parallels with other Iron Age finds across Europe. The shield does not appear to have been specially made for the burial, a slash mark made by a sword is visible in the upper right-hand side, indicating that the shield had been used before it was buried (see Stephens 2022).
These discoveries have added Pocklington to the list of important Iron Age cemeteries found across East Yorkshire, contributing to the potential for further research in this area. Post-excavation assessment is still being undertaken on the Pocklington burials which will provide information about the people buried there. Strontium-isotope, DBA and carbon-nitrogen protein analysis can inform us whether people had been born in the Pocklington/Yorkshire area or had come from further away, and also what foods they ate in their diet. The archaeological excavations have not revealed the settlements that the people buried in the cemeteries were living in. Were they living in ladder settlements, the cropmarks of which can be seen around the area, or were these settlements in use after the cemeteries? Another possibility is that the settlements were located close to the cemeteries. At Wetwang, the Iron Age settlement was located next to its contemporary cemetery, and the location of Pocklington between the high ground of the Yorkshire Wolds and the low wetlands of the Vale of York is a prime position for settlement. Further investigation needs to be undertaken to locate the settlements that these communities were living in during the Iron Age.
There is plenty of evidence of human activity across the Yorkshire Wolds during the Roman period, with little immediate impact apparent after the Roman conquest. The cropmarks of ditches, trackways, enclosures and field systems are present on aerial photographs of the Pocklington area. These have yet to be investigated, but may relate to settlements dating to the 1st-4th centuries AD. Roads were constructed across the Yorkshire Wolds, one of which crossed the Pocklington area south of the town in the approximate line of the modern A1079. It linked York with the Roman settlement and port at Brough-on Humber and would have been used for the transport of goods and produce. Villa sites began to be established across the region, the majority of which were close to or on the western Yorkshire Wolds escarpment, taking advantage of the fertile soils, water supplies and the proximity to the Roman road leading towards York and Brough-on-Humber.
Located to the south of Pocklington near Cocoa Beck are the indications of the presence of a villa. Large quantities of pottery and ceramic building material have been found during fieldwalking in the area, totaling 1,153 Roman pottery sherds and approximately 9,000 pieces of stone and ceramic roof tile and box flue and hypocaust tile. Concentrations of tesserae and painted wall plaster were clustered around one area, revealed by a geophysical survey to be the site of a 35m long winged corridor building with a series of rooms. The building lay within an enclosure measuring 100m by 50m, in part overlying a ladder field system, suggesting that the villa may have developed from an earlier Iron Age settlement, but further archaeological work is needed to confirm this. The pottery indicated that the site continued to be occupied until the 3rd and 4th centuries.
Finds in around Pocklington add to the Roman knowledge of the area. A hoard of late 4th century AD silver coins of the Emperors Valens and Valentinian was found in the late 19th century and other isolated coins, brooches, rings and an armlet indicate a Roman presence in the area. In contrast to the settlement evidence we have for Roman Pocklington, there is only one recorded burial that has been found to date; a grave, excavated in 1940, containing a skeleton associated with two sherds of Roman pottery, possibly dating to the 4th century AD.
The evidence for Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian settlements on the Yorkshire Wolds is sparse and appears to have been located mainly along the Wold-edge and along the Great Wold Valley. Pocklington’s name possibly indicates an Anglo-Saxon founding of the settlement, derived from the Old English Pocela and tun, meaning ‘Pocela’s farm’. In 627 AD St Paulinus was sent from Rome to convert the English and local tradition suggests that he baptised people in Pocklington Beck along the north side of the churchyard (including the pagan priest Coefi, who returned to Nunburnhome a converted man, and destroyed the images of idols in the temple there). Isolated finds of coins, brooches, pins, buckles, and strap fittings dating from the 8th century AD suggest that people were living in the Pocklington area in this period. Recent archaeological work to the north of Pocklington has found evidence of an Anglo-Saxon settlement, but no further details have yet been released. An Anglo-Saxon gold and garnet cloisonné panel discovered outside Pocklington also provides a tantalising glimpse of the people that were living here.
As with the Roman period, there is some evidence that the communities who may have been living here were also burying their dead in the Pocklington area. Excavations to the south of Pocklington in advance of a housing development revealed a small number of early Anglo-Saxon burials within a major Iron Age cemetery site. Grave goods from these burials included polychrome glass beads and a square-headed brooch, dating between the 5th-7th centuries AD. Across the Yorkshire Wolds in the early Anglo-Saxon period, communities buried their dead within or close to prehistoric funerary monuments. This may represent a deliberate association with the past inhabitants of the region and an assertion of ownership of the land.
The Yorkshire Wolds are rich in evidence for the centuries after the Norman Conquest in 1066 AD. Small village settlements with stone churches were established across the region, a church was present at Pocklington by the time of the Domesday survey in 1086 AD. The medieval settlement pattern was likely to have been nucleated, with extensive open fields laid out around the village. While conditions on the top of the Yorkshire Wolds were not favourable for farming, the lower land around Pocklington was close to several springs and would have been more fertile. The importance of these springs for the villagers of Pocklington is highlighted by the site of St Helen’s Well: ‘one of the holy wells.’ An old custom was the dropping of pins into the well on Easter Sunday by the children of Pocklington.
In 1086 AD the Domesday Book records that Pocklington was the land of King William and had fifteen burgesses. It had land for fifty-three ploughlands (one ploughland was the area that could be ploughed by eight oxen in a year, around 120 acres). There were twelve men’s plough teams (groups of eight oxen) to work the fields, as well as woodland and three mills. The Domesday Book recorded an approximate population of 2.5 households for Pocklington, putting it in the smallest 20% of settlements recorded in 1086 AD. The value of the lands fell from £56 in 1066 AD to £8 in 1086 AD, indicating that the lands were partially waste, possibly destroyed in fighting after the Norman Conquest. Surviving earthworks of a potential medieval settlement can be seen to the east of present-day Pocklington and the remains of field systems and ridge and furrow cultivation can be seen across the parish.
Due to its location close to the York to Brough-on-Humber road Pocklington was probably a market centre before it received a grant for an annual four-day fair in 1245 AD. Further fairs were added and the town’s market was founded in 1299 AD. Pocklington Beck runs through the centre of the town and determined the early street pattern on a northeast-south-west alignment; it also enabled the growth of a woollen industry, possibly using fleeces from sheep grazed on the Yorkshire Wolds. Combined with the corn milling industry, the wool trade was the basis of Pocklington’s prosperity during the medieval period. The 14th century saw a shift in the agrarian economy as a result of falling demand for grain following the Black Death and a series of epidemics, which drastically reduced the population. Areas devoted to grain production would have ceased to be economically viable as labour costs rose and prices fell. A potential medieval settlement to the east of Pocklington may have been deserted as a result of this.
In the post-medieval period Pocklington continued to prosper. Pocklington School was founded in the early 16th century by John Dowman (or Dolman), the son of William Dolman, lord of Pocklington manor. The school played a significant economic role in the town, with gentry pupils boarding there. By the 17th century the town had seven annual fairs and a Sunday market. The road from York to Beverley was improved and turnpiked in 1765 AD which helped the flourishing wool export trade from Pocklington via Hull and York to the Continent. Industries connected with the textile and agricultural industries developed and were prosperous. Other industries included shoemaking, tanning, brewing and malting.
In order to transport goods quickly to the growing industrial towns of Yorkshire proposals for the creation of a canal to connect Pocklington to the Humber Estuary and/or other waterways of the region were put forward in 1765 AD. The proposals did not gain enough support and it was not until 1815 AD that an Act of Parliament was passed authorising the construction of a canal, which was completed in 1818 AD. The canal ran for 9.5 miles from the navigable River Derwent to a point on the turnpike road, about one mile south of the town. Coal, lime, fertiliser and industrial products were brought into Pocklington, and agricultural products such as corn, flour and timber were exported to the West Riding of Yorkshire. The canal lock had parallel sides constructed in red brick, splayed at each end beyond the gates and stepped at the lower end. The canal basin was 200m long, with a shouldered bottle next narrowing at the far end. Dredging has indicated a solid base in some locations, possibly stone setts. Warehouses and other associated buildings were constructed to supply the demand brought by the canal. A bone mill driven by a beam engine was also established. Following the introduction of the Market Weighton to York railway line in 1847 AD the canal was sold to the York and North Midland Railway the next year with trade declining until the last cargo was carried in 1932. Despite declining and becoming derelict over the 20th century, Pocklington canal is a main feature of the town and plans to infill the canal in the late 1950s led to the formation of the Pocklington Canal Amenity Society, established in 1969 to protect, restore and promote the canal. Seven miles of the canal is now navigable again, and the whole 9.5 miles has a towpath.
A famous resident of Pocklington is the 18th century anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce. Initially living in London with his aunt and uncle, his mother and grandfather sent him to Pocklington School in 1771 AD after they became worried about his relatives’ Methodist influence. When he was fourteen he wrote a letter from his school to the press, detailed his anti-slavery views. After studying at Pocklington School, William studied at Cambridge University and became the MP for Hull in 1780 AD. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries William campaigned for an end to the trade in which British ships were carrying black slaves from Africa. For eighteen years William regularly introduced anti-slavery motions in parliament, and in 1807 AD the British slave trade was abolished. A bronze statue of William as a teenager was unveiled at Pocklington School in 2007 by the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu.
The Hiring Fairs of Martinmas were held in November and were the annual opportunity for farm and domestic workers to find a new job or renew their current one. The Hiring Fairs were the workers chance to spend their wages, which they only received at the end of the years’ work. A poster for Pocklington Fair from 1863 AD details the trading of horses, cattle, sheep and pigs, essential livestock in a farming community. Over the 20th century the number of workers in the agricultural industry declined, as people moved to towns to get jobs in other industries. By the end of the 20th century only 10-31% of the population in the area was employed in agriculture, forestry and fishing, a marked contrast to the high percentage that would have been employed in the industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Throughout the 21st century Pocklington has continued to expand, with recent developer-led archaeology in advance of housing development leading to exciting discoveries about the Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon communities who lived here between 1000-3000 years ago.