Medieval Village Research Group Archive visit 2

At the end of March we managed to go back to the Historic England Archive in Swindon to continue work on the Medieval Village Research Group Archive – see this earlier post for an outline of the archive.

This time we completed  the review of the evidence for deserted sites in the counties that have been completed in full on the website to date. Back last year we had managed to review the counties up to Durham and on this trip it included the sites in Durham, Essex, Gloucestershire and East Riding. This includes checking information on the sites listed on the 1968 Gazetteer and seeing if there is anything else to be added, either from within the box files on each county or written on the individual index cards for each village. Some times these show the debate surrounding including a site on the Gazetteer or over the location. They also record information on damage to sites through the period the archive was active from the 1950s-1980s.

This review of the evidence for these counties has brought to light some new information on a number of sites that will be reviewed in due course, added to the website and reported here. As well as the review of the sites listed on the 1968 Gazetteer, this visit also recorded any new sites that did not make it onto this Gazetteer so that in the future the website can be brought up to date.

As well as the counties that have been completed for the website, we also managed to review counties Hampshire-Kent. Currently the full descriptions for all the villages in Hampshire are being written by the project and should appear in the summer. These counties were viewed to see if extra information was available on any of the settlements and to record settlements not on the 1968 Gazetteer.

As well as reviewing the county evidence, one other task is to look at how the lists of deserted settlements have evolved over time. On a country-wide scale there have been two nationally published lists of deserted settlements – that published in 1954 by Maurice Beresford in his Lost Villages of England, and that published in 1971 in Deserted Medieval Villages – known as the 1968 Gazette and this forms the basis of the current version of our website. But buried within the archive are other lists. Some of these were published as separate county lists within the Annual Reports. In 1977 a new map of deserted settlements was published by the Group – but no Gazetteer accompanied this – although different dated lists of settlements do exist. These are often hand edited earlier lists – for example the list for Gloucestershire is that published in 1965, with hand-added additions and deletions.

IMGP1209
The first page of the 1965 list of deserted villages in Gloucestershire – with hand addition – this acted as the list for this county for the 1977 map. Courtesy of Medieval Settlement Research Group

 

From these lists it should be possible to produce the 1977 Gazetteer – to sit along side the original 1968. In 1977 it was noted that the total of deserted villages had increased to 2813 – we have yet to work out if these lists come to this amount. There is also a final list of deserted settlements per county from when the archive was closed in 1988 – so another Gazetteer should be possible – both of these are a work in progress.

This is just a short report on the work of a few days of work that now needs to be followed by a few weeks of cataloguing and sorting….. Thanks once again to staff at Historic England for supporting access to the archive.

 

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Cambridge University Collection of Aerial Photograps

One of the best and earliest collections of aerial photographs is housed at Cambridge University and includes many taken by JK St Joseph at the behest of the Deserted Medieval Villages Research Group in the 1950s. There is an online catalogue where you can search for photographs by subject or place – see the previous blog on aerial photographs here. In recent weeks the website has gone through an overhaul which is improving access to many resources.

Since then, images have started to appear on the Cambridge University Collection of Aerial Photography website – a great addition when studying settlement – http://www.cambridgeairphotos.com/. At the moment it is hit and miss whether the one you are looking for is available but a number of early ones are starting to appear – at least ones from the 1960s and many showing excellent village earthworks. Currently there is no way to copy images but look at these two links and they will give you examples of what to expect – Clopton in Cambridgeshire and Wharram Percy in Yorkshire.

As well as searching for specific places there is a Village theme which contains a number of excellent examples for browsing – and can be found here. Of the near 12,000 photographs listed in this theme nearly 4,000 have photos online.

CUCAP
Screenshot of the ‘Villages’ theme….

 

This is obviously still a work in progress but big steps have been made in recent months putting more and more images online – so keep going back to see what additions appear in the future.

Deserted Medieval Settlements in learning and teaching

Using the experience of creating site biographies for the ‘Beresford’s Lost Villages’ website, Deserted Medieval Villages will be used in two different ways with the new first year archaeology students at the University of Hull this year both improving digital literacy.

1. Researching and retrieving digital information

Many different digital resources are available for archaeological research. Many of these have been utilised when researching deserted medieval settlements. Using this as an example students will be guided through the process of locating information. This will include national and local records such as through Heritage Gateway and Pastscape, through published works available online such as the Victoria County Histories available from British History Online, and other resources such as Google Earth and early Ordnance Survey maps. The process that has been followed by the website will be replicated in class exercises with accompanying lecture notes and hands on practical sessions. Later in the course students will have to research their own site and write a biography – but this time it will be a prehistoric or Roman site rather than a deserted village.

2. Issues of scale and reconstruction

Having taught archaeology students for the last 15 years there are a number of concepts that students appear to struggle with throughout their course. These revolve around interpreting raw archaeological data from excavations and surveys, and visualising how these sites looked and operated in the past. The three main problematic concepts are: scale, interpretation, and visualisation.

  • Scale: Students are unable to appreciate scale – so may see an aerial photograph of a large enclosure but state it is a building, when several buildings could fit inside;
  • Interpretation: From humps and bumps on the ground or features plotted on aerial photographs they find it difficult to interpret the remains and what they would have been in the past. They stick to standard statements when interpreting the features. In a recent paper a student stated there were no roads until the Romans came to Britain in a project discussing a prehistoric landscape covered in drove way features – they were unable to make the leap that the drove way was a communication route;
  • Visualisation: In class we can show an image of site – excavations, survey, plot and we can show a reconstruction of the site. The harder task is for a student to take the raw data and create the reconstruction themselves. They can ‘write’ a reconstruction but without artistic ability they cannot create a reasoned reconstruction themselves and go through the process of making, experimenting and defending their choices based on archaeological data.

How to tackle these issues? One way is to find a medium which will allow the students to use a data set from a site, and enable them to make the reconstruction – and that medium is readily available in Minecraft, a computer game that is being used in many different educational contexts. The results may not look realistic but what is being modelled here is the interpretation and the decision making process of turning raw archaeological data into a living past, not the style of the end product.

Wharram Percy, Deserted Medieval Village

This is probably the most well-known deserted settlement, due mainly to the research and excavations carried out for over 40 years. At Wharram Percy there are clear earthworks visible as well as a wealth of other archaeological evidence in the form of geophysical surveys and excavated remains. Although one of the most studied deserted village, there are still debates concerning the interpretation of these remains. As a case study in archaeological interpretation and visualisation it offers an example which is supported by the wide range of materials but also contested interpretations that could be tested.

What is not being produced here is an accurate reconstruction of Wharram Percy and the final look of the village is not important – what is key are the decisions taken along the way to recreate the site based on the available evidence and a way of tracking the decision making process is being included.

The basis of the exercise will be the village in the year 1250. This itself will be based on contested evidence, but the framework will be constructed by the team with the decision making process documented. The framework will include the major boundaries and divisions across the site, upon which students can place their interpretations of the variety of structures from the site. This will include the peasant houses, the manor houses and the church. From the evidence of the excavated sites, students can then propose interpretations of areas that have not been investigated.

Both of these elements will be going live for students in October and the process has been funded by a ‘Student Innovation in Learning’ grant from the University of Hull. The Minecraft element is being developed by Joel Mills (iLearningUK). We will post later in the year with some of the results!

Some South Yorkshire deserted villages

This week blog comes from a campsite next to a deserted village in South Yorkshire – Wildthorpe. The Brodsworth Community Archaeology Project has been running since 2001 investigating eight parishes to the west of Doncaster. Within these eight parishes are a number of deserted settlement sites, and over the years a number of small pieces of fieldwork have been carried out at these sites.

The project is run by the Universities of Sheffield and Hull as a training excavation for their students but also as an opportunity for the local community to be involved in the archaeology of their area. For more information see Brods.

Bilham

Bilham now exists as a farm and a cluster of cottages away from the former settlement. Bilham Hall was destroyed in the nineteenth century. Test pitting has located the Hall, but no sign of the medieval village has yet been found.

Bilham. Copyright Google Earth.
Bilham. Copyright Google Earth.

At Domesday Bilham is recorded with neighbouring Hotton Pagnell so a true population is difficult to present. In 1377 11 people paid the poll tax. Over the next two centuries there is a general decline population. In 1379 there were eight being charged, in 1524 were five paid. The settlement never seems to have been very large.

Stotfold

Stotfold (or Stotfield) is today represented by a single farm. Field walking and Geophysical survey in the area directly surrounding the farm has recovered medieval pottery and a possible location of the village immediately under the present farm and in the field to north. This must have never been a settlement of any size.

Stotfold Farm. Copyright Google Earth.
Stotfold Farm. Copyright Google Earth.

The geophysical survey shows faint ridge and furrow with possible settlement to the bottom.

Stotfold geophysical survey.  Copyright Brodsworth Project
Stotfold geophysical survey. Copyright Brodsworth Project

Again this was never very sizable. A minimum population of four are recorded in the Domesday Book, a very low amount is paid in 1334, and only three people pay the Poll Tax in 1377 along with another settlement.

Wildthorpe

Part of the remains of the village of Wildthorpe are a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and now lie under the FootGolf course of Doncaster University Centre at High Melton. Trenches and test pits outside of the scheduled area suggests that the settlement does not extend to the north or the east. A geophysical survey of the settlement suggests some buildings remains – and excavations in the late 1960s did reveal building footings and 14th-15th century pottery.

Geophysical survey of Wildthorpe village. Copyright Brodsworth Project.
Geophysical survey of Wildthorpe village. Copyright Brodsworth Project.

There is limited documentary evidence for Wildthorpe. It appears in Domesday with a single priest recorded as the only population, but the lord had one plough. The last documentary reference in the tax record is 1302. Its relationship with its neighbour, High Melton is unclear. The later medieval church is at High Melton, but no priest was recorded at Domesday. Wildthorpe now lies in the parish of Cadeby, the village to the south. There are records of the settlement up until the late seventeenth century when it appears to become deserted.

More on these settlements in later additions to the website.

Early excavations – competing with Wharram

Wharram Percy is the often quoted excavation of a deserted medieval village and was revolutionary in the way we approach excavations of deserted medieval villages – but it was not the only one in this early period. As a previous post has shown that sites had been excavated in the nineteenth century, even if they had not been directly identified as medieval villages. Here we review three of the pioneering projects of the early twentieth century.

Great Beere, Devon

In the early days one of the sites oft quoted as the first scientific excavation of a medieval settlement was that at Great Beere, Devon undertaken by Jope and Threlfall in 1938-1939. There is very little left that can be seen, with war time ploughing destroying all surface work. The site was initially identified by a Mr N.C. Bulleid in 1937 when he found a number of sherds of medieval pottery on his farm, and recognised them. He was the nephew of Arthur Bulleid, excavator of Glastonbury Lake Village (Jope and Threlfall 1958). He undertook some excavation which showed the remains of buildings an then he called upon the Devon Archaeological Society to undertake a more detailed investigation.

The excavations uncovered the foundations of one house, one barn and two corn-drying kilns as well as trial trenching a number of structures (Jope and Threlfall 1958). It is believed that the settlement began in the late twelfth century with its occupation at its peak during the thirteenth century (Jope and Threlfall 1958). There are discussions as to whether it existed at Domesday but if it was included it may have been counted as part of the Royal Manor of Tawetona. The settlement does not appear in the later tax records and may have been hidden in the records of other settlements due to the dispersed nature of settlement in the region.

The house that was revealed was seen as a typical longhouse type, with evidence of division into three areas. The centre was the living area, with the animals to the east and a possible sleeping area, devoid of a large number of artefacts (Jope and Threlfall 1958).  The excavation report for this site can be accessed in Medieval Archaeology, the journal of the Society for Medieval Archaeology, available via the Archaeology Data Service – click here for a link.

Seacourt, Berks

Seacourt is one of the earliest DMVs to be excavated in Berkshire. Initial excavations in 1937-9 seem to have taken place in the ‘original nucleus’ of the village, finding domestic structures, medieval pits and part of the village church (Bruce Mitford 1940). The site has also produced Roman pottery implying a farm or hamlet nearby, whilst pottery of the tenth-twelfth century must represent the first stages of the medieval village (Biddle 1961-2). The second phase of excavations in 1958-9, in advance of the construction of the Oxford Western by-pass was focussed on the central area of the earthworks (Biddle 1961-2). This included the main north-south street that runs along the length of the area given over to the by-pass (Biddle 1961-2). The 1958-9 excavations revealed evidence of structures no earlier than mid-late twelfth century suggesting that this area was a late twelfth-thirteenth-century extension from the original village core (Biddle 1961-2). In 1959 rapid recording was undertaken of the fuller area of the main street uncovered in advance of road construction (Biddle 1961-2). Wooden buildings in the village seem to have been replaced by stone-built houses, probably in the first half of the fourteenth century (Biddle 1961-2). The site did not reveal evidence of the typical longhouse with animals under the same roof. Instead houses were simple one or two-roomed cottages (Biddle 1961-2). The pottery sequence seems to come to an end by the late fourteenth century, suggesting desertion had occurred by c. 1400 (Biddle 1961-2). The excavations did not manage to locate tenth-twelfth-century activity at the site but the presence of pottery supports documentary references to an earlier phase of settlement (Biddle 1961-2). Later excavations at the site in 1987 revealed further settlement remains west of the by-pass, whilst analysis of aerial photographs has shown another main north-south hollow way surviving in this area. In total at least nine house platforms have been identified (NMR Pastscape Record No. 336317).

The documentary evidence suggests that the Domesday vill of Seacourt was reasonably populous, whilst in contrast only three tax payers were recorded in 1327 and 1332 and the vill’s 1334 Lay Subsidy assessment also seems low, perhaps suggesting contraction before the Black Death. The estimated desertion of the site by c. 1400 is supported by a letter dated 1439 which notes that the church had collapsed and only two buildings remained occupied in the village (Bruce Mitford 1940).

Upton, Gloucestershire

The site was excavated between 1959 and 1968 under the leadership of Philip Rahtz as part of the courses taught at Birmingham University. The earthworks of Upton are located to the east and north of Lambs’ Cottage. A possible nine crofts are visible to the north and south of the line of the valley. A number of house platforms are located in these crofts and positioned near the central valley area (Hilton and Rahtz 1966). To the east are further building platforms. The entire settlement seems to be demarcated by stone banks at the back of the crofts. At least 27 buildings have been suggested across the site with one situated outside the main settlement interpreted as a possible sheepcote (Hilton and Rahtz 1966, Dyer 1995).  This evidence suggests the number of structures is probably greater than 27 as a single earthwork may hide a number of structures (Rahtz 1969). The excavation concentrated on a building complex at the centre of the site (Hilton and Rahtz 1966, Rahtz 1969). This revealed a series of stone buildings focused around two separate longhouses which expanded and were adapted over time, preceded by timber structures (Hilton and Rahtz 1966, Rahtz 1969). During excavation Roman material was discovered suggesting earlier occupation in the area (Hilton and Rahtz 1966). It is suggested that the main building phases are later twelfth to fourteenth century. Only a handful of finds can be dated to the fifteenth century and are nothing more than indications of people walking across the site (Hilton and Rahtz 1966).  In 1973 a number of trenches were excavated across the site to improve the water supply (Watts and Rahtz 1984). A watching brief conducted at the time recorded 49 features, including some that are not visible on the earthwork plan of the site, as well as buildings outside the core of the settlement (Watts and Rahtz 1984).

Upton was part of the large Blockley estate of the Bishop of Worcester (Hilton and Rahtz 1966).  Upton is first mentioned in a land dispute in 897. By the thirteenth century Upton was favoured for its pasture with in 1299 pasture for 500 wethers (male sheep) – the highest recorded in the manor that year (Hilton and Rahtz 1966). However the population in this period was also rising. In 1275 11 paid the Lay Subsidy, although their contribution was low (Hilton and Rahtz 1966). In 1327 eight people are taxed (Hilton and Rahtz 1966).  By 1332-3 only four people are taxed showing at this point the decline had begun (Hilton and Rahtz 1966). By 1334 Upton was now recorded with Blockley. A number of accounts for the manor of Blockley from 1383-4 do not include Upton, and the only mention of it was the lord of the manor paying the Lay Subsidy suggesting there was no-one else left in the village to pay (Hilton and Rahtz 1966). Much of the manor of Blockley was increasingly used in this period as the main pasture ground for the flocks of the Bishops of Worcester (Hilton and Rahtz 1966).

The 1960s see an increase in excavations and survey work. There was Dudley and Minter working at in Cornwall and Devon at sites such as Lanyon, Hound Tor, Dinna Clerks and Garrow, Alexander in Cambridgeshire at sites such as Childerley and Clopton, G Beresford at Barton Blount and Goltho, Still and Pallister at West Hartburn to name a few……

References

Biddle, M. 1961-2. ‘The Deserted Medieval Village of Seacourt, Berkshire’, Oxoniensia 26/27: 70-201.

Bruce Mitford, R.L.S. 1940. ‘The Excavations at Seacourt, Berks, 1939: an Interim Report’, Oxoniensia 5: 31-41.

Dyer, C. 1995. ‘Sheepcotes: Evidence for Medieval Sheepfarming’, Medieval Archaeology 39: 136-164.

Hilton, R.H. and P.A. Rahtz 1966. ‘Upton, Gloucestershire, 1959-1964’, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 85: 70-146.

Jope, E.M. and R.I. Threlfall 1958. ‘Excavation of a Medieval Settlement at Beere, North Tawton, Devon’, Medieval Archaeology 2: 112-140.

Rahtz, P.A. 1969. ‘Upton, Glos., 1964-68’, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 88: 74-126.

Watts, L. and P. Rahtz 1984. ‘Upton Deserted Medieval Village, Blockley, Gloucestershire, 1973’, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 102: 141-154.

Complex settlement patterns – Quarrendon and Hardmead in Buckinghamshire

In the last post on aerial photographs Quarrendon was used as an example where you can clearly see the earthworks of the site on Google Earth but can also view a range of images on Unlocking Buckinghamshire’s Past website. This post we look in a little more detail at this and another site in Buckinghamshire at Hardmead. Both of these sites show the complexity of studying medieval settlement and matching village earthworks to documentary evidence. Both these sites demonstrate the polyfocal nature of the settlement with clusters of dwellings joined together – sometimes over quiet a distance to form a single settlement unit. Both of these sites have been extensively studies and excellent papers published in the Records of Buckinghamshire series. Readers are directed to these articles for the full story and excellent illustrations.

Quarrendon

There are three separate areas of earthworks in this area which have been given the identifications of I, II, and III in the 1968 Gazetteer of deserted village and this has continued into the modern record. They probably all represent the dispersed settlement of Quarrendon within a regional mixture of villages, ‘ends’, hamlets and farmsteads (Everson 2001). There is also extensive evidence of a sixteenth and seventeenth-century country house and landscape gardens in between Quarrendon I and II, which is recorded as partly pulled down in 1666 (Everson 2001).  Close to this area is located the remains of the church of St Peter’s. This is known from at least the twelfth century, but has a potential earlier origin perhaps back to the seventh century (Everson 2001).

Quarrendon I is the eastern most part of the settlement evidence. It is linked with Quarrendon II via an east-west hollow way. The remains are clear and can be seen from the air and on the ground. Survey work at the site has shown that the settlement was perhaps four or five farmsteads clustered around a green (Everson 2001).

Quarrendon 1 earthworks in Buckinghamshire. Copyright Google Earth.
Quarrendon 1 earthworks in Buckinghamshire. Copyright Google Earth.

Quarrendon II lies 800m to the west of Quarrendon I.  There is some evidence that there was more settlement towards the west (Everson 2001). A hollow way runs west-east across to the site of the bridge across the stream. There is a triangular green to the south of the hollow way and around this are a cluster of four enclosures but they are not clearly defined. A watching brief close to the bridge over the stream at the site recovered a large quantity of pottery including a small amount of tenth to eleventh-century pottery (Everson 2001).

Quarrendon 2 earthworks in Buckinghamshire. Copyright Google Earth.
Quarrendon 2 earthworks in Buckinghamshire. Copyright Google Earth.

Quarrendon III is located nearly two kilometres to the north-east of the main sites at Quarrendon I and II. The earthworks are not as clear as the other two sites. However the nature of the settlement looks similar with small enclosures around a potential green.

Quarrendon 3 earthworks. Copyright Google Earth.
Quarrendon 3 earthworks. Copyright Google Earth.

All the taxation records only mention a single settlement. At Domesday Quarrendon is recorded with a minimum population of 28. It is assessed with an average payment in 1334. In 1524 there are 20 tax payers but by 1543 and 1563 there are only four households recorded.

The survey work at the site seemed to show that the settlements had been deserted by the time the country house is constructed in the mid sixteenth century (Everson 2001). As part of the depopulation of the settlement at Quarrendon I there seems to be one large property. There is evidence of conversion of much of the arable to pasture. By 1540 there had been created 960 acres of pasture (Everson 2001).  In 1636 Quarrendon was described as ‘anciently enclosed and depopulated’ (Everson 2001).

The Beresford’s Lost Villages website has continued the use of three separate areas at Quarrendon, although they should be considered as all part of the same settlement. It continues calling them DMVs as they is clear evidence of a deserted medieval settlement of a size larger than a hamlet, but they should all be considered as one settlement site, with Quarrendon III being a distant outlying element to the settlement.

Hardmead

In the 1968 Gazetteer of deserted medieval villages there are two separate sites, recorded as Hardmead I and II, and these are probably two parts of a polyfocal settlement (Sheail 1971). Hardmead I is the northernmost of the areas of the settlement, and hence given the name in a number of publications and the Beresford’s Lost Villages website as North End. Please note that in 1971 Beresford termed this the East End, but this seems to be in error (Beresford 1971).  Until the 1960s there were upstanding earthworks but the area has been heavily ploughed. These earthworks represented a range of crofts around a village green (Smith 1985).  A moated site was situated to the east which is suggested to be the main manor house site.  A survey and watching brief took place at the site between 1973-4 during levelling of the earthworks, and a number of trial trenches were also excavated (Smith 1985). Pottery from the site dated from the twelfth to nineteenth century. The church of Hardmead is located between the two sites.

Hardmead 1 (North End) ploughed-out earthworks. Copyright Google Earth.
Hardmead 1 (North End) ploughed-out earthworks. Copyright Google Earth.

Hardmead II is the southern most of the areas of the settlement, and hence given the name here South End. Please note that in 1971 Beresford termed this the West End, but this seems to be in error (Beresford 1971). Again until the 1960s there were upstanding earthworks but the area has been heavily ploughed.  A further moated site at this southern end was also associated with the site of the village (Smith 1985). When the moat was destroyed pottery dating from the eleventh/twelfth to fifteenth century was recovered.
Within the tax records Hardmead is always recorded as a single settlement. Hardmead is recorded in Domesday with a minimum population of 36. This is a large population for the area and the size of landholding is greater than the surrounding area. It has been suggested that a dependant village is also included within this assessment (Smith 1985).  In 1344 the settlement pays an average amount. By 1524 there are 22 people paying the Lay Subsidy and in 1603 80 communicants are recorded (Dyer and Palliser 2005).  A 1638 estate map shows that after enclosure there were many small tenant holdings that were scattered and probably uneconomic (Smith 1985). The northern area of Hardmead appeared to shrink but then remain occupied until the mid nineteenth century (Smith 1985).  In 1802 there are three farms, an old rectory and ten cottages in the parish. Five of the cottages were on the green, presumably here at the northern end of the site. It is suggested that the southern end of this settlement had gone out of use by the end of the fifteenth century (Smith 1985).

References

Beresford, M.W. 1971. ‘A Review of Historical Research (up to 1968)’, in M.W. Beresford and J.G. Hurst (eds.) Deserted Medieval Villages: Studies: 3-75. London: Lutterworth Press. 48-49

Dyer, A. and D.M. Palliser 2005. The Diocesan Population Returns for 1563 and 1603. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 363

Everson, P. 2001. ‘Peasants, Peers and Graziers: the Landscape of Quarrendon, Buckinghamshire, Interpreted’, Records of Buckinghamshire 41: 1-46.

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.

Smith, P.S.H. 1985. ‘Hardmead and its Deserted Village’, Records of Buckinghamshire 27: 38-52.

 

Sources – Google Earth and aerial photographs

One of the greatest resources for studying deserted settlements are aerial photographs. Unfortunately many of these images are copyrighted so are not reproduced here, but links are made to a number of excellent websites.

Aerial photographs offer an insight into the settlement layout and structure that can be hard to grasp from on the ground. They can be used to map the extent of sites and to look at the routeways connecting them to other local settlements. In the early days of deserted settlement exploration, one of the pioneers of aerial photography in England, JK St Joseph took many photographs for the Deserted Medieval Village Research Group, identifying new sites, and confirming possible sites listed by local contacts. Copies of his collection form the backbone of the Medieval Village Research Group Archive, but the originals are part of the Cambridge University Aerial Photographic Collection. Although these photographs are not available online, the catalogue can be searched to see which pictures are held and is available here. A simple search on the keywords ‘deserted medieval village’ reveals 10,093 hits! A number of the deserted medieval villages images appear in the publication ‘Medieval England: an aerial survey’ published by Beresford and St Joseph in 1979.

However St Joseph was not the first to use aerial photography to identify deserted villages. The earliest known aerial photograph of a deserted medieval village was that of Gainsthorpe published by OGS Crawford in 1925. The photograph had not been taken to identify a medieval settlement, but had been suggested as the location of a Roman camp (Crawford 1925). As with many of the nineteenth-century excavations at medieval settlements, investigators were seeking earlier periods, only to come up against the unknown world of medieval settlement archaeology. Luckily Crawford knew exactly what he was seeing and published it as the medieval settlement of Gainsthorpe.

Collections of aerial photographs are held by many organisations. As well as Cambridge University mentioned above, Historic England have a substantial collection of over 4 million photographs housed in Swindon. One of the online repositories of aerial photographs undertaken by Historic England is the Britain from Above website containing the Aerofilms collection of aerial photographs from 1919-1953. This can be searched online but does not contain many medieval settlements. Their collection can be viewed in person with a trip to Swindon.

Other local organisations also hold collections and several of these are becoming available online. Two excellent examples are Buckinghamshire County Council and Cornwall County Council. Unlocking Buckinghamshire’s Past is the online Historic Environment Record for the county. Included on the site are many aerial photographs – for example see the record for Quarrendon I. Here are several shots of the sites from the ground and from the air. Simply search for a sites and scroll down to the bottom of the records to see any aerial photographs they hold. The Cornwall site is called Flying Past and has a range of excellent black and white and colour photographs. These include the deserted sites of Trewortha and Brown Willy. There are other counties following suit and providing their own aerial photographs online.

And finally – there is Google Earth. This has revolutionised out access to instant full coverage of the UK. It allows landscapes to be viewed as a whole, rather than individual shots and from the comfort of our own armchair. The images mainly date from the early 2000s to the present day so do come with challenges, but they are now expanding with the digitisation of earlier photographs from 1945. Images vary in quality but many have clearly visible medieval settlement earthworks. The two examples below have already been mentioned above and images can be viewed and compared with those on Google Earth.

Part of the complex earthworks at Quarrendon, Buckinghamshire. Copyright Google Earth.
Part of the complex earthworks at Quarrendon, Buckinghamshire. Copyright Google Earth.

The earthworks at Quarrendon shown above are part of a complex landscape that forms three distinct areas of earthworks. The features are showing as earthworks, and can be seen from the air due to the shadows that these cast. In areas were houses were made predominately of stone, the outlines of buildings can sometimes still be seen such as at Trewortha in Cornwall below.

Trewortha deserted settlement, Cornwall. Copyright Google Earth.
Trewortha deserted settlement, Cornwall. Copyright Google Earth.

Whilst on most occasions sites are visible due to their existence as earthworks, sometimes these features may have been destroyed and ploughed flat. These features will be hidden for most of the year. They may show when the field has been recently ploughed and different colours of soil are visible such as at Cowlam below.

Ploughed-out remains of Cowlam village visible as soil marks. Copyright Google.
Plough-out remains of Cowlam village visible as soil marks. Copyright Google.

Other times crops growing on the field may show the remnants of the settlement remains such as at Lillingstone Dayrell below were the ditches of the settlement are showing as darker green as the crop has more access to water and is growing for longer, growing taller and ripening later.

The ploughed out remains of Lillingstone Dayrell
The ploughed out remains of Lillingstone Dayrell

And here lies one of the issues with Google Earth. Most of the images are from the last ten years. Since their initial identification, many deserted settlements have been ploughed-out, flattened and built over. Where a site was photographed by St Joseph or other early flyers, Google Earth may now show no indication of features and the site may have completely vanished. So in this digital age when we can visit our front door and street via Google, we cannot always gain clarity of life in the middle ages. Until there is greater mapping and digitisation of the earlier aerial photographs, we will still need to get up out of our armchairs to visit the archives to view this wonderful resources and its insight into the form and structure of these early settlements. And that is no bad thing.

References

Beresford, M.W. and J.K. St Joseph 1979. Medieval England: an Aerial Survey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crawford, O.S.G. 1925. ‘Air-Photograph of Gainstrop, Lincs’, Antiquities Journal 5: 432-433.