Margaret Smith from Malton Museum writes about some intriguing figures in the Malton Museum collection.

These chalk figurines are made in an Iron Age tradition, but were found in the area of the Roman civilian settlement at Lady Spring, to the south-east of the fort. It is likely that there was some kind of shrine there in the Roman period that had its origins in the Iron Age.

The figures were found in the 1968-78 excavations, underneath Roman remains, so they were brought to the museum along with other Roman discoveries. It is likely that they date from the 1st Century AD. What makes these figures important to the area is that they have been almost exclusively found in North-East Yorkshire, mainly at the Garton/Wetwang Slack archaeological site, which makes sense as chalk is in abundance in this part of East Yorkshire.

Similar figures have been found in Withernsea and Kent. The Withernsea figure is the most detailed and is now part of the British Museum’s collection. The Malton figures are special because they are some of the only ones which still have their heads.

Depictions of people in the Iron Age are very rare, so these figures are important. When they were first carved, they would have been a gleaming white and so would have had a very striking appearance. Most of the figures are carved wearing a belt with a sword slung across their backs, and so are thought to portray a warrior which serves to contradict the opinion that Iron Age people were peaceful. However, with the sword at the back this could be interpreted as a peaceful gesture of welcome.

Only 50 of these figures have been found in this area, and even after extensive research there is still no precise idea as to their use.

In a 1988 study of the various chalk figures, I M Stead speculated on their significance. “Are they warrior gods, dolls, game pieces, did they have a magical function? We may never know.” The fact that most have been found without heads brings up even more questions. Some, like the ones in Malton, were found near a water source or spring.

Who made these figures? Why have they exclusively been found in NE Yorkshire? What do they tell us about Iron Age people?

Maybe we will be able to answer some of these questions in the future.

You can see these figurines on display at Malton Museum.

More information on the Wetwang/Garton slack site can be found here

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