The Donkey Field Excavation

North Riding of Yorkshire


Yorkshire Water



During the winter of 2010-11, NAA carried out an excavation and commissioned a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey during construction of a Yorkshire Water pipeline in the Donkey Field, part of the Whitby Abbey scheduled monument. Although limited in extent, the work demonstrated the archaeological potential of the Donkey Field and produced an assemblage of finds to augment those from the large-scale investigations of the abbey by English Heritage in the 1990s.

Evidence for the Anglian abbey was represented by a small number of finds from later contexts, including a distinctive polyhedral-headed bronze pin. However, the GPR survey identified several structures and other features that are potentially associated with this period of activity and may be suitable for future investigation.

The main results of the work were associated with the medieval abbey. Excavation of a group of features produced evidence for 12th-century ironworking and possibly other craft activity, constrained by a ditched boundary. The use of sophisticated ironworking techniques was indicated by a fragment of fired clay from a brazing shroud, used to coat iron objects in a copper alloy.

By the 13th century, a cobbled roadway ran southwards downslope from Abbey Plain (at the top of the 199 steps) towards a suggested monastic wharf on the harbour. At its north end, the roadway may have been flanked by a very large stone building, probably a barn up to 35m long, part of which was recorded by the excavations. It may have belonged to a complex of structures and was surrounded by cobbled surfaces. Within the barn, a deposit of goose and freshwater fish bones placed on the floor possibly represented the remains of a meal from the abbot’s table, being markedly distinct from the other animal bones found. It was uncertain how long the building and road were used, but by the post-medieval period the roadway had been built over much of its length by a bank—possibly as a result of post-Dissolution building works—and had been long-forgotten by the beginning of the 19th century.

In the post-medieval period, the Donkey Field was in agricultural use. However, in the second half of the 19th century, the jet-working industry was booming in Whitby and temporary workshops sprang up all around the town. Evidence for two workshops was recorded by the archaeological work, identified by quantities of jet-waste, tools and unfinished and finished jewellery items. One workshop, located opposite St Mary’s churchyard at the top of Church Lane, was presumably situated to cater to tourists visiting the church and abbey, and appears in the background of images of Victorian Whitby captured by the celebrated pioneering photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe. The other, more lightly constructed shed, was positioned well-off the beaten tourist-track and was only identified as a jet-workshop due to the amount of jet-debris found in a drain. It can tentatively be identified in the background of only one of Sutcliffe’s photographs, and was probably only briefly in use, perhaps quickly falling victim to the apparently common phenomenon of jet workshops burning down!   

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