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!