On August 14, 1968, workmen at Newall Gravel Pits near Otley stopped to search for a piece of broken machinery. They were 14ft down on the north bank of the River Wharfe, when a bone was discovered protuding in mud. Animal bones had been found before, but this turned out to be human. Police found other bones, scattered over a 12sq ft area but this was no crime scene so archaeologists were notified. The bones, from the same body, were about 5,000-years-old, from the Neolithic Age. What follows is a synopsis of findings by Leeds University and Bradford University’s archaeology department. Few Neolithic human remains have been found in Wharfedale. These bones, which were displayed in Otley Museum, were called ‘the female skeleton’. But only 20per cent was recovered, the rest possibly destroyed by excavations or flooding.The skull and femur were missing. Part of her lower jaw containing a tooth was unearthed; signs of bone loss around the molar suggested she was in middle adult life.

Bones provide details of health, diet, geographical mobility, whether food was grown or hunted. Flints discovered in Wharfe and Aire valleys were displayed in Otley Museum, many unearthed by founder, Eric Cowling. There was a ‘prehistoric highway’ along Wharfedale, with migrant groups coming and going. Cowling found Wold flint and predicted that settlements would eventually be found along the river. As yet none have been, nor have flint artefacts appeared in the area where Otley Woman was found. Whether she lived in a village near the Wharfe is open to speculation. The bones are believed to be from a female aged about 30, about 5ft tall. Could her body have been placed in a shallow lake minus her skull and femur, as a ritual burial? During quarrying, bones could have been lost for ever, but the efforts of Eric Cowling and museum volunteers helped bring Otley Woman ‘alive’.

She led a physical lifestyle, carrying heavy goods on her right side, resulting in tibial curvature. Women carried animal carcasses, stone and children. There was evidence of osteoarthritis, possibly the result of Vitamin D deficiency. No evidence of a violent death. Some animal bones were identified, including wolf, cow, pig, deer and dog, indicating hunting and animal domestication. There’s evidence that fresh water molluscs, hazelnuts and berries were in the diet, but fish bones didn’t survive.

There are more questions than answers relating to the life and death of Otley Woman. What is needed is a thorough investigation

but the stumbling block has been lack of finance, and it’s unlikely with the economic effects of Covid that money will be forthcoming. Otley Museum was closed in its 50th year in 2011. The Otley Woman remains were boxed up, and along with other exhibits, put into storage. The museum’s excellent archives have been kept by volunteers, in premises owned by Otley Cycling Club, who came to the rescue.

Today Newall Gravel Pits form part of the Otley Wetland Nature Reserve. Otley needs a new museum, and a place where its ‘oldest’ woman can be displayed in a respectful way.