Mount Zion, Illingworth, Halifax, West Yorkshire

Cist (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – SE 068 297

Archaeology & History

Mount Zion’s prehistoric urn

As with a number of prehistoric burials in the Halifax district, there is no longer any trace of the original site here.  It was a place that I wrongly attributed as being a dolmen in my early survey on West Yorkshire’s megalithic remains (Bennett 1994) — but at least I got the prehistoric tomb part of it right!  It was first found, quite accidentally, in February of 1877, when a grave-digger working in the grounds of the Mount Zion Chapel at Ovenden (as it was known in them days) hit upon a large stone beneath the earth he was digging.  Thankfully the grave-digger was a conscientious chap and, instead of just digging up the obstruction, decided to inform others of his discovery.  A temporary halt was made on his grave-digging and thereafter a careful dig was organized to explore what he’d found.  Some years later an account of the discovery was reported in H. Ling Roth’s (1906) work on the history of Halifax, where he told:

“On digging about 2ft (61cm) below the surface of the ground, a slab of stone impeded the work, and on its removal, a square cavity, formed of four upright stones, was discovered, in which the urn had been placed bottom upwards (see old photo, PB), and the mausoleum filled with gravel… The urn had not been disturbed since its removal from its present site, but still remains on its original base: a rude stone which formed the floor of its ancient sepulchre.  The urn measured when first discovered 19in (48cm) in height by 13in (32.5cm) in diameter at its orifice, but only 4in (10.2cm) at its base.  Below its rim it has the usual curved division which is here ornamented with dots made with a pointed instrument when the clay was in a soft state.”

Mr Roth went on to tell how a Dr Dolan of Halifax examined the broken bones and contents within the urn and found them to be human.  Intriguingly it seems there was some evidence of prehistoric dental practice from the remains!  Dr Dolan told:

“There is unmistakable evidence on this point from some of the bones of the skull, particularly from the preserved portions of the petrous part of the temporal bone showing meatus auditorius, from the right malar bone, and from fragments of the flat bones of the cranium.  The teeth offer confirmatory evidence.  I have found several which had evidently been subjected to great heat, as they were completely calcined.  But there was one which had been only partially burnt, the burnt part being quite black; and another, unburnt, which seems to have dropped from the jaw before the fire had reached it.  One of the teeth seems to me to have been ‘stopped’, and this opens out a question  whether the art of dentistry was known to the inhabitants before the Roman invasion.  From the size and structure of the bones, I believe the majority of them to have belonged to a female of adult age.  There are certain bones, particularly some phalanges, which seem to me to be those of a child.  As we do not however possess the whole of the original contents of the urn — much having been extracted from it on its discovery — there may probably have been, when first interred, the relics of others than those we at present possess.”

The remains of the urn were eventually presented to the care of the Bankfield Museum by the Halifax antiquary, F.A. Leyland.

A definitive account of this little-known site was recently published by Raymond Varley (2021), and all interested readers can refer to his work here.


  1. Bennett, Paul, Circles, Standing Stones and Legendary Rocks of West Yorkshire, Heart of Albion Press: Loughborough 1994.
  2. Leyland, F.A., The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Halifax, by the Reverend John Watson, M.A., R.Leyland: Halifax n.d. (c.1867)
  3. Roth, H. Ling, The Yorkshire Coiners, 1767-1783; and Notes on Old and Prehistoric Halifax, F.King: Halifax 1906.
  4. Varley, Raymond, “A Large Bronze Age Collared Urn found at Mount Zion Chapel, Ovenden, near Halifax, West Yorkshire,” Academia 2021.
  5. Watson, Geoffrey G., Early Man in the Halifax District, HSS: Halifax 1952.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian