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.


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.

Ongoing work……

Sorry for the lack of posts over the last month and a half but marking and assessment got in the way…… but my attention can now turn back to deserted medieval villages. Currently work is progressing on reviewing the 127 sites listed in Hampshire (including those in the New Forest). The settlements of the New Forest are an interesting conundrum, with a number of places mentioned in the Domesday Book as at the time (1086) being in the forest. People have taken this to indicate that when the New Forest was created, that large populations were displaced and settlements deserted. There are 33 such sites listed on the 1968 Gazetteer – but are these all truly deserted villages? The Domesday record is complex – it is not directly recording villages but manors – areas of landholdings that could be taxed. As such all the place-names in Domesday may not refer to villages and settlements but areas of land. For a number of the 33 sites, they have now become associated with existing settlements. For example Bovre in Domesday becomes Boldre – a settlement still there today. But in 1086 had it been abandoned as it was subsumed into the New Forest only to develop again in the same spot at a later date – or was becoming part of the Royal forest not as fatal as some have suggested? This is a topic that has been debated over the years – and you will have to wait until later in the year when we complete Hampshire to see what we have decided!!!!

As well as progressing with the website the project has also been busy on a number of other activities. We are currently in the process of writing a grant application – that if successful would see the extension of the website to include all known deserted settlements, not just those listed in 1968. This would involve looking through all the local and national records but would also allow people to suggest sites that may have failed to come to the public’s attention previously.

Another project is under-development to use the website and deserted settlements in the teaching at the University of Hull to aid the development of digital literacy in the students studying History and Archaeology. Although the modern day student has grown-up in a digital world, their ability to apply and reuse digital knowledge is often lacking. The process of researching and writing the village biographies for this website is an excellent case study in the use of digital as well as traditional sources of information. The step-by-step process of undertaking this research will be used in practical sessions with students this September culminating with an exercise in visualisation – recreating Wharram Percy in Minecraft…… but more on this to come…….

Sorry for the short post this week, but just a few of the things that the project is up to at the moment. Watch this space for more information soon……