The Newall bones part III

Part III of our Newall bones trilogy brings the ‘bones diary’ up to date.

Randy Donahue’s (RD) Dales project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board to the tune of £21, 809, was under the direction of RD and Prof. W.A. Lovis of Michigan and Bradford. The wider Dales programme was said to include surveys and excavation at ‘Otley Bridge End’ and ‘Sandbeds Sites 1-4’. These investigations were actually carried out over two seasons, 21st May to 3rd June 2009 and 1st to 31st July 2010.

Despite promise of Bradford University’s community links, Otley was given no information whatsoever and only found out by gossip that people were digging and that a landowner ‘demands total secrecy’. That a publicly funded project designed to foster ‘community links’ can operate in total secrecy with no local consultation or reporting whatsoever, highlights the cavalier way in which we believe much ‘funding based’ archaeological projects are run. The previous ‘research based’ agenda is dead.

To expose this pathetic plot scenario to archaeological light, it was none other than the late, great Eric Cowling who had published the ‘Sandbeds sites’ in the first place (see Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 45, 1973). No site plans, core samplings, stratigraphy, finds or dating context was ever made available when the bones were belatedly returned to the Museum years later. Did ETC turn in his alluvial grave?


Some form of academic cross fertilisation seems to have occured between Donahue/Lovis and Dr. Paul Preston for his Oxford University doctoral thesis. Preston’s work ‘ground proofing’ sites of early prehistoric activity in the North of England seems to have included some desktop based work on Newall. This research is only known to us from a speculative trawl of the West Yorkshire Historic Environment Record online (HER) in 2019. The HER record for Newall notes Preston’s opinion that Matthew’s trackway of 1988 was not of early prehistoric date – a valid opinion but not one based on any archaeological sampling. The HER further records that Dr. Preston gave the site a ‘new location’ and we assume this was based on secondary sources and did not involve any fieldwork. As with Donahue and Lovis, we are not privy to the report itself and have to rely on abstracts and local hearsay.


As professional expertise faced with amateur bungling has always been the implied cause of our problems, why do the former so often fail their own tests in a deathly silence? While Tim Taylor was transfigured to the gothic academia of Vienna, our current attempts to disinter Donahue and Lovis has found little more than retiring ghosts who have taken their memorials with them. When Bradford rattled its storeroom cupboards to see if Donahue left anything behind, nothing fell out. Certainly not twenty-one thousand pounds worth of results. The location of those results, conclusions or even professional reputations remain a mystery, although the precedent seems repeatedly clear.

The weary writers of this retrospective have always contended that our earliest known inhabitants and their historic environment deserve a better memorial, as do the original pioneering double act of Cowling and Matthews. There seems little doubt that if the Newall bones dating context continues to fail, then we will, like our Neolithic ancestor, display uncontrollable facial twitching.

In summary, after 50 years Otley still has a stunning, if battered, box set of human and animal remains from a lakeside settlement – always open to scienctific endeavour which serves the interests of those actually interested, be it AMS radiocarbon dating, isotope analysis or genome sequencing.

Tibia newall pw - Copy
Human remains from Newall Gravel Pits – rickety right tibia and sectioned left tibia from our very own prehistoric ‘lady of the (post-glacial) lake’. PW illustration September 2019.

SR/PW/CD October 2019.