North arrows are an essential convention of archaeological maps and tend to be quite dull. Yet, in bids at deliberate archaism or humour, to create specific links and allusions to the character and time-period of the archaeology recovered, or simply to spark the imagination, occasionally the more idiosyncratic and daring archaeologist has attempted to break ranks and ‘go crazy’ with the north arrows.

The most famous example is Brian Hope-Taylor – an artist and archaeologist – who created some fabulous maps, plans, sections and isometric reconstructions for the excavation report of the Anglo-Saxon royal palace at Yeavering (Ad Gefrin). While many north arrows are conventional, a series were more elaborate and attempted to resonate with the early medieval world, and its manuscripts, art and archaeology. The result is vibrant, exciting and creates a cartographic cross-over with many late 20th-century fantasy novels where similar north arrows are often deployed. View them for yourself here.

Fig. 1 – Long boat as seen from above navigates the North Sea in a map depicting early Northumbria and Yeavering’s location
Fig. 12 – Two archers and two hooded figures beneath arches – inspired by the lid of the 8th-century whalebone casket known as the Franks Casket
Fig. 33 – An elaborate Lindisfarne Gospel manuscript-inspired cross
Fig 39 – Warrior holding a spear as north arrow for a plan of the timber buildings at Yeavering
Fig. 41 – Elaborate north arrows with skeletons within the cardinal lines
Fig. 43 – Elaborate north arrow with warriors at east and west, two figures framed the south, and a spear as the north. At the centre is a building – the arch of Jerusalem – inhabited by birds and beasts, inspired by the back panel of the Franks Casket;
Fig. 44 – Perhaps the craziest of all and the north arrow that most closely ties in with the image, a flaming spear north arrow with an ox’s skull at the centre. This is used to depict the distribution of burned daub within structure D2 – a building destroyed by fire blown by a south-westerly wind and a cache of ox skulls beside the eastern wall;
Fig. 53 – A sleeping face at the centre of the north arrow


Fig. 55 – A stupendous red, blue and black north arrow with birds, human figures inspired by the Franks Casket around it (two with the half-kneeling stance of Weland the Smith as depicted on the Franks Casket). They are framing four of Structure E – the trapezoidal ‘theatre’ structure revealed at Yeavering. Unsurprisingly, this north arrow is part of the plan of Structure E
Fig. 111 – For a map showing the distriction of long-cist cemeteries in southern Scotland, a cist-grave forms the vertical rectangle beneath the north arrow, with east-west denoted by the early Christian memorial formula ‘Hic Iacet’.


As you can see, some have a funereal theme to them and I would like to see these innovative designs inspired by Insular art and artefacts, many carefully tailored to the subjects of the plans they accompany. Most strikingly for Fig. 44 illustrating Building D and Fig. 55 illustrating Structure E, they are in dialogue with the subjects of the maps and plans they accompany.

I hope these examples serve to inspire archaeologists and archaeological illustrators in the age of digital images and maps. There is certainly no excuse nowadays for not making maps, plans and sections distinctive and memorable by employing legibible but also distinctive graphics. So why not let north arrows be the avenue to explore such elaboration and the imagination?

A decade ago, Dr Brynmor Morris helped me illustrate an article on Pictish mortuary practices. At my request and his design, we tried out a bespoke north arrow. You can read the article here.

Now I concede Bryn’s adaption of one of the warriors from a Pictish stone from the Brough of Birsay is not up to Hope-Taylor standard. Still, it did offer a distinctive flavour to the paper in which it appeared on multiple maps from location maps to site plans.

I must do more of these!