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.

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