Early Excavations at Deserted Medieval Settlements

In the early days of archaeology, long before the acceptance of deserted medieval settlements, sites were investigated for a number of reasons. Some flowing legends of long lost settlements, others under the misapprehension of the presence of prehistoric or Roman remains, This week we have a quick look at three of these early excavations that were carried out in the nineteenth century – Woodperry in Oxfordshire, Yoden in County Durham and Trewortha in Cornwall.

The earliest excavations of a deserted medieval settlement to reach published form were those at Woodperry in Oxfordshire (Wilson 1846). The site was excavated by Rev John Wilson, Fellow, later President of Trinity College, Oxford and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquities in the early 1840s. Here the excavations revealed part of the church and churchyard but also a number of buildings. Although it was clear that the reasons for excavating in the area were to look for the lost village and church, some of the reporting of the finds shows the preoccupation with early periods. The results published in Archaeologia, reported the Roman Antiquities discovered at Woodperry in Oxfordshire with only a brief mention of the settlement (Wilson 1847).

The site of Woodperry had been recorded in the mid-eighteenth century when the local antiquarian Hearne mentioned in his diary having been told of ‘Foundations of old buildings, frequently dug up there, and that there is a Tradition that there hath been a Town there’ (Wilson 1846: 117). The finds from the excavations where varied – a number of arrowheads, bone chessman, a whet stone, and a range of iron tools. The excavations of the church site recovered fragments of stone work as well as monumental grave slabs (Wilson 1846). The report and illustrations of the finds can be found here: http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-1132-1/dissemination/pdf/003/003_116_128.pdf

The identity of the site known as Yoden on the 1968 Gazetteer of deserted medieval settlements has been somewhat debated. It was given the name Yoden by antiquarian writers but has since been identified as Horden (Middleton 1885, Turnbull 2004). The site is now surrounded by the modern settlement of Peterlee and a small area of earthworks do survive. They are not clear from the air but form two parallel lines of enclosures along a possible east-west green. Excavations by Mrs Rowland Burdon in 1884, reported on by Robert Middleton at a meeting of the Society of Antiquities of Newcastle-upon-Tyne proved the medieval date of the remains uncovering what were described as ‘foundations of the rudest descriptions, consisting entirely of mere shapeless masses of un-hewn stone’ (Middleton 1885: 186). Again the site had been excavated on the pretence ‘that Saxon remains might be found, and it was surmised that possibly the site might have been previously occupied by the Romans’ (Middleton 1885: 186). It is hard to tell whether ‘the use of the spade has proved it to be medieval only’ was a hinting at disappointment (Middleton 1885: 186). Later on Middleton does note ‘I had hoped that something of greater antiquity might be found below these scanty remains’ – medieval archaeology had yet to come of age (Middleton 1885: 187).The finds included a whet stone, green-glazed pottery, a bronze buckle and a few bones. The buildings were interpreted as herdsmen’s or quarrymen’s houses.

Another early excavation of a deserted medieval site was that at Trewortha in Cornwall in 1891-2 by Rev. S. Baring-Gould (1895a, 1895b). Here he excavated a number of long houses in a complex landscape of prehistoric and medieval field systems and settlements. He revealed the walls and internal features of this settlement, but could not date it, with the only suggestion being post-Roman conquest. To help explain the structures and their use he drew parallels with published information on Eskimo communities, as well as describing one of the buildings as a Council Chamber (1895b). This aside, his plan of the settlement and excavated remains must be admired for their detail, even if they may be a little fanciful. Slowly the connection between features on the ground and once present villages was being made.

Plan of building excavated at Trewortha, Cornwall (Baring-Gould 1895a)
Plan of building excavated at Trewortha, Cornwall (Baring-Gould 1895a)

These three early excavations show the evolution of the study of medieval settlements. From initial ‘disappointment’ of the remains not being of greater antiquity to interpretations based on analogies with ethnographic groups to cope with unknown structures. At the turn of the century, work continued a pace at deserted sites, with earthwork surveys continuing and scientific approaches being adopted such as at Great Beere in Devon in the 1930s.


Baring-Gould, S. 1895a. ‘An Ancient Settlement of Trewortha Marsh’, Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall 11: 57-70.

Baring-Gould, S. 1895b. ‘Ancient Settlement of Trewortha’, Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall 11: 289-90.

Middleton, R.M. 1885. ‘On Yoden, A Medieval site between Castle Eden and Easington’, Archaeologia Aeliana 10: 186-187.
Turnbull, P. 2004. A Deserted Medieval Village off Eden Lane, Peterlee, Co. Durham. The Brigantia Archaeological Practice Unpublished Report.

Wilson, J. 1846. ‘Antiquities Found at Woodperry, Oxon’, Archaeological Journal 3: 116-129.

Wilson, J. 1847. ‘Roman Antiquities Discovered at Woodperry in Oxfordshire’, Archaeologia 1847: 392.

Medieval Village Research Group Archive

Two weeks ago I managed to get down to Swindon to visit the Medieval Village Research Group Archive housed in the Historic England (formerly English Heritage) Archive. We had evaluated this resource at the start of the Beresford’s Lost Villages project back in 2009, but now looking forward to the future of the website, and an update of the 1968 Gazetteer, it was time to go back to plan the wholesale review of the archive.


In 1952, after late night discussions at Wharram Percy between John Hurst and Maurice Beresford, the Deserted Medieval Village Research Group was formed, which would act as a platform for further study of desertion by people from a range of disciplines. One role of the group was the compilation of county lists of deserted sites. This took as its basis the list of 1353 sites that Beresford had provided in his Lost Villages of England in 1954. Through a network of county correspondents and the tireless visits of Maurice Beresford and John Hurst, this list was added to and amended, with the publishing of all sites identified up to 1968 (2263) in Deserted Medieval Villages in 1971 (Beresford et al. 1980, Sheail 1971). After 1970 the regular meetings to add settlements to the list became less frequent and a backlog built up, so the list was supplemented by those produced by county correspondents. This increased the number of settlements to 2813 by 1977 and a new distribution map drawn, but no consolidated list ever published (Beresford et al. 1980). This continued work showed that counties originally with few deserted sites, where gradually appearing on the distribution map (Aston 1985). As well as compiling lists of sites, the group also played a part in the preservation of sites and the emergency recording of those under threat. This was partly due to John Hurst’s day job at the Ministry of Works and with particular oversight of budgets and funding allocation.  Since 1978 the archive had been deposited on loan at the National Monuments Records in the Archaeological Record Section (Aberg and Croom 1986), transferring to the Archive in Swindon when it opened.

The word ‘deserted’ was dropped from the title of the research group in 1971 to emphasise the interest in all types of settlements, not just those that were deserted (Beresford et al. 1980). The archive was added to until the late 1980s, when a further name change to the Medieval Settlement Research Group, and a refocus of activity saw the archive closed. This also coincided with the point in time both Beresford and Hurst were nearing retirement and their standardised approach could not continue to be enacted with such precision. The archive by this point contained a wide and varied array of material. It contained the county lists, suggestions and queries from members of the public and interested local researchers, copies of reports and site visits, as well as information on individual sites. This information often comes with notes on the documentary evidence, physical remains, sketch maps and aerial photographs.

Current contents of archive

The archive consists of a number of different elements. The most substantive part is over 285 box files. These contain maps, photographs but also the county information (see below). As well as these there are 9 card index cases. Most of these contain the collection of individual cards for each deserted settlement, and small scale aerial photographs.

One of the 280 or so red box files. Reproduced with permission from the Medieval Settlement Research Group.

One issue with the archive is there is no readily available index of all the sites it contains. A computerised database was created in 1990 but all trace of this has disappeared (unless anyone out there knows of its location?). Although the archive resides within the Historic England Archive it is clear through a number of simple searches that not all the villages have made it onto the computerised records of Historic England. So which villages are included in the archive and what information does it hold?

And so the process has begun at looking at this information and starting to list the villages. For each county there is one, or sometimes two, red box files containing general information about the county. This includes on most occasions Maurice Beresford’s notes from Lost Villages of England, hand written notes on the mentions of villages from the National Archives such as taxation records, publications about villages in the county, documents that include information on more than one village site in the county, and superseded lists of deserted settlements. This includes the list from 1968, as well as earlier lists published in the annual reports of the research group, as well as lists of shrunken settlements and settlements that have since been deleted from the lists. On some occasions it includes new additions to the 1968 lists.

As well as this general box, each county then has a number of files on individual sites, either continuing in the general box file, or accompanying it in a number of additional files. These files include sites listed in 1968, but also other sites. The contents of each file varies. It may be a scrap of paper listing documentary references, it may be a letter highlighting the presence of a site, it may be an aerial photograph or may be more substantial information. For example the file on Old Sennington in Gloucestershire contains a page and half report on the 1936 excavations at the site by the excavator – a small insight into these unpublished excavations. So working through county by county there are additions to the 1968 list to be found here in these box files.

The other source of information are the card index files. Listed by county, here each settlement has its own card with basic locational information and documentary evidence, sometimes sketches and St Joseph aerial photographs from the Cambridge University Collection of Aerial Photographs. As well as the DMV card drawers there are also drawers containing cards on shrunken settlements, and the queries draw which includes sites that have not been assessed but also ‘traps’, sites (particularly those from evidence spotted on aerial photographs) which in the past had been identified as settlement remains but has since been shown to be something completely different. Once example in this section is Naunton in Gloucestershire. There is clear documentary evidence that this is the site of a deserted medieval settlement, but the features originally spotted have now been shown to be an access road and hut emplacements from the Second World War.

Faint soil marks of the hut emplacements at Naunton. Copyright Google Earth
Faint soil marks of the hut emplacements at Naunton. Copyright Google Earth

Below is an example of one of DMV cards showing the nature of the detail they can contain. This lists the grid reference, the reference from Beresford 1953, Domesday book entry, 1334 and 1332 lay subsidy information, note on 1517 evictions and a number of other documentary references.

The front of the card for
The front of the card for East Compton village in Berkshire. Reproduced with Permission from the Medieval Settlement Research Group.
card back
The sketch on the back of the card for East Compton, Berkshire. Reproduced with Permission from the Medieval Settlement Research Group.

On the back of the card there is a sketch of the site from a site visit. There are cards for all deserted sites accepted by the group, and this list is longer than those that have separate box files. Going through these will also add more sites to the 1968 list…..

So this long process has begun. The archive is a treasure trove of material. As well as the detailed information it contains there is also the social history of the group and the personalities behind its creation – so much so it can be hard to concentrate at the job in hand and you get distracted by the odd letter from an interested party putting forward their local site for consideration. Over the coming months there will be more visits to the archives as the listing of sites continues…….

If anyone wishes to view the archive themselves, they must contact Historic England ahead of their visit as the material is kept in climate controlled storage and needs to be brought out ahead of any visit.


Aberg, A. and J. Croom 1986. ‘The Medieval Village Research Group Index’, Medieval Settlement Research Group Annual Report 1: 14.

Aston, M. 1985. Interpreting the Landscape. London: Batsford.

Beresford, M.W. 1954. The Lost Villages of England. London: Lutterworth.

Beresford, M.W., J.G. Hurst and J. Sheail 1980. ‘M.V.R.G: The First Thirty Years’, Medieval Village Research Group Annual Report 28: 36-38.

Sheail, J. 1971. ‘County Gazetteers of Deserted Medieval Villages (known to 1968)’, in M.W. Beresford and J.G. Hurst (eds) Deserted Medieval Villages: Studies: 182-212. London: Lutterworth Press.