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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.