The Huntcliff Figure (Saltburn-by-the-Sea, Unknown Artist, Possibly British Iron Age)

As mentioned in the previous North East Statues piece Landmarks in Steel, the Dorman Museum in Middlesbrough is home to a “Bronze Age fertility statue discovered on Saltburn Beach”. The text panel at the museum states the monument was carved almost 4000 years ago and reads that “the form seems to be of a pregnant woman and may have been a tribal fertility symbol or deity”.

A little taken aback by how vague this text panel was, I recently enquired with the museum’s collections staff about the object. Disappointingly, the Collections Management System (the computer software used by museums to keep tabs on their objects) at the Dorman Museum held no information on the statue either. However, after a call out on Twitter, where one follower revealed they like to rub its stomach when museum staff aren’t looking, (Warning! North East Statues do not condone this behaviour. It isn’t good to touch museum objects due to conservation – museums need to preserve and maintain their objects) I’ve been able to compile some details on this mysterious figure.

According to the Cleveland Sites and Monuments Record, the statue (which I shall refer to as, the Huntcliff Figure in this article) was recovered from the bottom of Huntcliff, in Saltburn in the year 1886. It was then taken to The Ship Inn (which sits a stone’s throw away from the cliff) and placed on a pedestal outside.

In the 1980s the then-owners of the pub – Scottish and Newcastle Brewers – made the decision to give the Huntcliff Figure to The Dorman Museum on permanent loan. Keeping the figure outside wasn’t benefiting it due to damage from the seaside weather and air. Pub punters weren’t helping the condition of the statue either (see the images above). “Derrick” left his mark by engraving his name on it and there are other visible marks of vandalism.

20th Century Postcard of the Ship Inn, Saltburn-by-the-Sea where The Huntcliff Figure stood outside until the 1980s (Image courtesy of East Cleveland Image Archive)

Carved from one block of stone (broken through the middle at some point) with detailed facial features and a flat back, the piece is visibly figurative. Yet, as Hedley Swain wrote in their 1995 piece, ‘Talking Heads: Three ‘Celtic’ Heads from East Cleveland’ for Moorland Monuments: Studies in the Archaeology of North East Yorkshire; ‘It is impossible to discern sexual characteristics’ making it undistinguishable as male or female. However, the stomach and ‘large disproportioned thighs’ may allude to it being a female. This makes the Dorman Museum’s assumption of it as a fertility statue slightly more convincing; throughout history, curvy carvings of female figures have stereotypically been associated with childbearing and aphrodisiac powers (case in point the Venus of Willendorf). Alas, the only person who will know if the Huntcliff figure does either of these is our Derrick. Maybe it gave him long-lasting virility and he had many an offspring!

Andrew Hutchinson’s illustration of the Huntcliff Figure from Hedley Swain’s piece, ‘Talking Heads: Three ‘Celtic Heads’ from East Cleveland’ in Moorland Monuments: Studies in the Archaeology of North East Yorkshire (1995).

Alongside the complex interpretation of what the figure represents and what its purpose was, is the issue of placing a date on the carving. The portrayal of human faces was common in Iron Age cultures, (the third period of the Prehistoric period, after the Stone Age and Bronze Age). So we could presume it was created roughly between 800 BC – 1st Century AD.

If this theory is correct, the Huntcliff Statue isn’t quite 4000 years old and it certainly doesn’t make the oldest entry for North East Statues (the equally mysterious Noth Ings Bride Stones would still take that honour), but whatever its purpose or age, (a pagan deity perhaps) The Huntcliff Figure is a reminder of human activity in the East Cleveland region in prehistoric times, and is a testament to the skills these people possessed.

Derrick if you read this, please get in touch at

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