Roos Carr Figures: Faces From the Past

Detail of the Roos Carr figures

The Discovery


In 1836 some labourers cleaning a ditch at Roos Carr, near Withernsea in East Yorkshire made a surprising discovery. About two metres below the surface they came across a collection of well-preserved wooden objects including several 'warrior' figures with stone eyes, a wooden box, a serpent-headed boat, and various other wooden articles 'too much decayed to remove'.

Four of the figures; together with the boat and various other attachments which seemed to be arms, paddles and shields; were given to the Hull Literary and Philosophical Society and eventually became part of the collections of Hull Museums. A fifth figure was acquired by the museum in 1902. One of the men present at the time of the discovery had apparently given the 'ancient doll' to his daughter to play with!

In the 19th century four of the figures were fixed into the boat, with the 'arms', shields and paddles glued or nailed on wherever they seemed to fit. Recently, the figures were conserved using more sympathetic methods - the Victorian glue and varnish were removed and they were taken out of the boat. Under close examination it became clear that there are subtle differences between the figures, for example, some have nostrils whilst other don't. These differences (not to mention the fact that there isn't room on the boat for the fifth figure!) strongly suggest that there were originally two boats complete with crews.

Arms and the man!


Modern examination has established that the figures, which are between 35 and 41 cm tall, are carved from yew wood and have quartzite eyes. It also seems that the pieces of curved wood, previously considered to be short 'arms', fit perfectly into another hole - and were actually intended as detachable male genitalia! Perhaps it was felt that the Victorian museum visitor should be spared a lesson in anatomy...

From Noah to ritual deposition


People have been intrigued by the Roos Carr figures ever since they first came to light. How old are they and what were they for? They have at various times been attributed to Viking invaders and even identified as representing Noah and his family! The question of date has been resolved by radio-carbon testing - the figures are now known to be about 2,600 years old. This places them in the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age. But the question of their purpose is more difficult to fathom...

Modern archaeologists consider them to represent votive offerings of some kind, perhaps gods or ancestor figures. The fact that they were apparently recovered from 'a layer of blue clay' suggests that they were originally deposited in or near water. This would be in keeping with the wider European cult practice of depositing items such as metalwork in rivers, marshes and other marginal land.

Totally Unique?


There are actually nine other surviving comparable figures in Britain and Ireland, ranging in date from about 2500 BC to 148 BC. They are made from a number of different woods - ash, pine, yew or oak. Some are definitely male; some, like the Roos Carr figures, have removable genitalia and so could be either male or female. Only one, from Ballachulish in Scotland, is unambiguously female.

A Glimpse Into the Past


A recent study has suggested that the choice of wood may be significant and relate to the particular god being represented. Perhaps there is a link between a particular god and a type of wood, such as Odin (or his earlier manifestation, Ull), and the yew tree. While this is an intriguing theory, there is only one certainty. The Roos Carr figures will continue to fascinate us for many years to come. Not least because of the glimpse they provide into a complex prehistoric world of ritual and religion which we can only wonder at.