The Newall Bones

The discovery of human and animal bones at Newall gravel pits in 1968 was a rare and unusual find for our region. Waterlogged sites are nationally important – Flag Fen, Must Farm, Sweet Track, Star Carr. It may well be that a site of similar status was discovered at Newall.

Why isn’t Newall part of this national list? The circumstantial evidence suggests a very well preserved waterlogged site, so why don’t we know more about it?

This article details the destruction.

PW/CD/SR 2019

Our two principal actors in the Newall bones saga are Eric Cowling of Otley (Rombalds Way, 1946) and Dr. Barry Matthews, regional soil scientist and Labrador explorer, (Soils of the Leeds District, 1970). Many other characters shuffled on, acted badly and died, but the play opens with Cowling and Matthews.

The backdrop was regional mineral extraction at Newall which had radically removed the glacial ‘drift geology’ in search of gravel. Cutting through overlying river sediments, the open cast works eventually hit ancient lake deposits and the ‘Newall bones’ began to appear.

Cowling’s pathway through alluvium to Newall was not accidental as he had long cultivated contacts with earlier gravel diggers at Washburn Foot and Knotford on his famous flinting expeditions. In his 1936 paper ‘Flint Implement Sites in Mid-Wharfedale‘, Eric reports a workman at Washburn Foot reburying a bucketful of flints – a method of long term preservation not today recommended by museum professionals (see Yorks. Arch. Journal 1936, 33 and the Cowling collection, Otley Museum – published papers and private notebooks).

The Geological Survey regional memoir also reported bones unearthed from a depth of 12-15 ft in gravel workings at Knotford, east of Otley. Mr. J. Selwyn Turner informed the Survey he had found (apparently abundant) remains of red deer, horse and pig in dredged material – and that their skulls were full of peaty sand and shells of the wandering pond snail Limnae pereger (see Stephens, Mitchell & Edwards 1953 ‘Geology of the country between Bradford and Skipton‘ (HMSO), p. 142). No-one knows where these bones ended up, presumably the snails wandered off with them.

Auroch horn had previously been brought to Cowling from Newall by gravel workers (see O/NG/ba/10 at Otley Museum) and it is in this context that we begin the diary of events which launched the ‘Newall bones’ into the 20th century archaeological spotlight.

Our sole objective in this 50 years of pathological intrigue, claims, counter claims and unrealised promises, is to clarify the history of our earliest inhabitants and understand their position in life from their location post mortem. Whilst there has never been any doubt about the extreme difficulty of the investigation, we could never have imagined the diary that follows, which can reasonably be described as a very serious comedy of errors. The words of the people involved at the time have been used throughout.

Wed. 14th Aug. 1968
Workmen for Stephen Toulson excavating gravel near Boots Beck, Newall and searching for lost machinery in mud at depth of 14ft., discover human bones. Scattered over a wide area of about 12ft. square., other bones may have been dug up or discarded. Water was drained Thursday morning for further search. Site Manager, Mr. F. Crookes washed and cleaned the bones and laid them out in the Company Office for inspection by the Police and stated that they will “eventually be offered to Otley Museum” (Wharfedale Observer, 16th Aug. 1968).

Cowling’s notebook O/QP/dc/1, (Otley Museum) records ‘Mr Stokes (sic – Crookes, see above), manager at Newall Gravel pits showed me some bones in the boot of his car’. Eric (ETC, Eric Thackeray Cowling) arranged to visit the site in two days, where he found Dr. Barry Matthews (BM) who had removed the bones to the coroner.

Autopsy Report 1969
This autopsy report records that on August 15th 1968, ‘some bones’, were said to have been found in a gravel pit at Otley by workmen. Brought to Dept. Forensic Medicine at Leeds University by Police on instructions of Brown, Coroner. Professor David Gee (DG) pathologist to examine. Tibia sawn for sampling of bone dust.

ETC meets BM at Otley Museum and is told that the BM as soil scientist is planning to record the bones in an academic journal (unspecificied), report them in the Yorkshire Post and then display them in Leeds Museum. ETC reminds BM that Toulson/Crooks wanted a display at Otley and is told that no approach can be made to the Coroner for 6 months. ETC waits a year, until it becomes obvious that ‘we were being stalled’ (O/QP/dc/1).

During this period more bones are brought to the Museum. In a subsequent meeting with BM in 1975, PW (Paul Wood, former keeper of Otley Museum) is told that after initial press reports (of 1968), BM had spent ‘a month of weekends on site, excavating, photographing – with the result that further human bones came to light’. Neither ETC or BM clearly reported what these bones were, or exactly where they were from, but they should have included a second, or even third, individual. The relationship between Cowling and Matthews breaks down in confusion.

At unknown date and without archaeological context, BM submits wood sample (species unrecorded) to Japan Isotopes for radiocarbon dating. A single unsecure and uncalibrated radiocarbon assay is returned – later calibrated by SR to 5910-5450 (cal BP, 2 sigma i.e. 95% probability and the widest date range calculated) in 2002. No lab record survives. ETC and friend Stanley Pickles stage a ‘sit in’ at the Pathologist’s Office until the bones are returned.

BM, giving reasons for lack of progress since 1971, states taking charge of Soil Survey Cumbria and annual expeditions to Labrador (letter, 24th July 1975). PW continues long campaign to clarify provenance of bones by convening a Museum meeting on 1st Nov. 1975 between ETC, BM, PW, DG and Phil Mayes (county archaeologist), Dr. Keith Manchester (palaeopathologist) and Dr. Brust (zoologist). The meeting confirms a second individual from remnant humerus, and positively identifies cattle, sheep, pig and horse (PW/memo of meeting).

On a request for the Coroner’s report of 1969, PW is told that it is confidential and eventually sent a completely different document ‘Human remains at Pudsey’. The Newall report dental examination by Prof. Hopper of Leeds suggests the lower jaw bone to be female.

DG requests a second 100ml bone section for amino acid testing, purpose unclear and results unpublished. A skeletal report by Dr. Manchester deduced the more complete human skeleton (i.e. all the other human bones save the partial left humerus previously noted) to be male, 5’6″ (168 cm), 17-25 years old and with spina bifida occulta (“closed” spina bifida). BM fails to publish in ‘Antiquity‘ and suggests ‘Nature‘ journal as next option.


Newall skeleton PW drawing 2019
Human remains from Newall Gravel pits west of Otley.


It was 1978 and 10 years had elapsed since the discovery of the Newall bones. In the absence of clear identity and gender, the Museum set out the skeletal remains in a display which would fascinate visitors to Otley for the next three decades. Long term sexual transition problems would continue when Prof. Gee was going to establish whether the remains were from man or woman (letter, 3rd March 1978).

BM returned in 1980 stating that he had discovered a flint axe-sharpened stake from a Neolithic settlement ‘some years previously’ and that the site should be officially protected and that he had permission from Col. Dawson, landowner, to excavate to the west of the original site. He would write a popular article for Geographical magazine and further suggested that CD (Christine Dean) could help him write a novel about the discovery. We asked again for the results of the amino-acid assay and insisted that he contact the responsible archaeologist, Phil Mayes, at Wakefield.

The Telegraph & Argus of 11th June 1980 announced that ‘County Archaeologists believe they may have discovered an ancient settlement near Otley which could date back to 3000 BC’. The Yorkshire Post added ‘it would be of national significance’. Their ‘discovery’ caused the Museum to register its surprise ‘considering we have been enjoying the company of at least one and a half of its occupants for 12 years’ (T&A 19th June inst.). In a letter to Mayes, we expressed pleasure at the progress, whatever it was, ‘even if we discover that the bones are of a recently dead Museum Keeper with a stake through his heart’. In the same month BM wrote to say he would put his paper in Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, which was not forthcoming.

Mayes judgment that ‘bone racemization was not available and palaeobotanical horzions not securely dated’ was known, but the news that the botanist David Bartley ‘has already sampled a peat column and we expect the C14 from it in the near future’ was not. The result was never communicated (Letter, 14th July 1980). It was further said that the DoE had agreed to fund excavations and that in August the team were waiting for dry weather to begin the dig for a Neolithic settlement (Yorkshire Post, 2nd Aug. 1980). Answering a question from BM in 1983, we wearily repeated that there was ‘no report, or analysis, or any dig taking place’.

Aside – the fallout.
Meanwhile, in 1981 and on a very different geographical horizon, ‘Dr Barry Matthews, a Government scientist, who tried to draw attention to radioactive pollution at Seascale, was dismissed for this “offence”‘ (The Guardian, 14th Feb. 1984). Matthews had won international recognition for his work on atmospheric warming and ice melt in the Canadian arctic permafrost, and also raised an early warning of regional fallout from Chernobyl. The personal fallout for Matthews was the compulsory purchase of his Penrith home after refusing to pay legal costs in a dispute with neighbours. Arrested at Leeds Station in 1984 over a ticket dispute, Matthews responded to Police questions in Inuit dialect. At the subsequent self-defended hearing in front of Justice McKinnon, he was told to ‘stop the McEnroe tactics’, later adding that ‘he did not give a jot what Dr. Matthews put in the book he intends to write about the case’. He might have had the wrong ticket, but with Sellafield, Chernobyl and climate change he was clearly going the right way. Sadly for Matthews, the cost of travel was too high.

Returning to the ‘badlands’ of Wharfedale in January 1986, BM proposed a Newall excavation with unemployed archaeology students funded by the Manpower Service Commission. The MSC did not agree to the scheme, nor did Amey Roadstone give access to the site. After 10 years of pleading, we finally recieved his report on Newall and the bones which he then wanted the museum to publish. In March 1986, BM requested the bones for display at Leeds University in order to raise funds and ‘knock some sense into the MSC and the Archaeology Unit at Wakefield’. BM puts out press reports on ‘his’ discovery in 1968 and has the new County Archaeologist, John Hedges, intending to carry out trial excavations later that year. There is no report of any dig taking place (T&A 13th March & Wharfedale Observer 14th March 1986). BM requests a stone axe from the Museum collection to match cuts on his wooden stake.

And that’s only part I!

Coming soon! Don’t miss the next thrilling instalment – a stilt village?
‘Otley woman’ and her morbidity, with yet more professional promises to resolve her disputed pathology….

1 thought on “The Newall Bones”

  1. […] below ground heritage’, presumably in the context of disturbance by the 9m piling. Finds from Newall gravel pits would therefore seem relevant – and are not mentioned at all by WSP. The report sets an […]


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