MSRG Spring Conference in Lincoln

Over the weekend I attended the Medieval Settlement Research Group Spring Conference in Lincoln. This event was organised by Carenza Lewis – now Professor for the Public Understanding of Research at the University. It took as its focus a review of work done in Currently Occupied Rural Settlements (CORS) in Eastern England. Most of this work originated in Carezna’s work with Access Cambridge, but was then taken, and expand by the many different communities that had been involved. So both the Saturday and Sunday were a mix of local people presenting their own projects, results and challenges as well as the ‘professional’ workers on the subject. The professional here is in quote marks – not to be derogatory to this group of people but to emphases the high quality and professional presentations made by all the community groups. Nearly all sticking to time, all well supported by very good visual aids and all clear and audible to a large lecture theatre. They are all to be congratulated on their work and show what a blurred line exists between amateur and professional.


I am not going to summarise all the work these groups have done here as that would be a real disservice to the many insights they gave at the conference but here are the groups that presented and the links to their websites were many of their materials can be freely accessed.


Sharnbrook Local History Group


West Wickham & District Local History Group –


Pirton Local History Group –


Great Bowden Heritage and Archaeology –

Lutterworth Fieldworkers –


Binham Local History Group –


Bingham Heritage Trails Association


Nayland with Wissington Conservation Society –

North Yorkshire

Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Archaeology group –

All of these groups had undertaken the technique of 1x1m test pits throughout the villages trying to locate finds (mostly pottery) to plot the development of their settlements. Although each settlement paints a slightly different picture, one overarching theme seems to be a decline in activity in most (but not all) settlements in the 15th- 16th centuries (well a reduction in the pottery that was recovered). This could be explained by issues of the post-black death period and I for one are looking forward to Carenza’s paper on this that will be appearing soon in Antiquity. She presented the issues surrounding this idea and the nature of the evidence on the Saturday afternoon.

This test pit methodology has been rolled out a numerous villages across the country and the tight control on the method and the consistent approach to having one pottery specialist look at the pottery does help comparing one settlement with the next. What would be really interesting is to see if this methodology produced similar results in deserted settlements – digging in the back plots of medieval houses long since gone – does the pottery assemblages here also see a decline? Of course many of the deserted settlements are not necessarily deserted until later on – and any sampling strategy of sites to be chosen would have to look at the variety of dates and possible reasons for desertion, and so some deserted sites may mirror some of the CORS sites and show a revival in the 17th century. But perhaps a DURS project (Deserted Unoccupied Rural Settlement Project) may be an interesting addition to the CORS project…..

Also tackled over the weekend were issues of the development of settlements and field systems. Looking at ‘persistent’ places and the added value of Portable Antiquities Scheme data was Adam Daubney, the role building survey can play in helping understand complex landscape development was presented by Jeremy Lake of Historic England, looking at evidence for Middle Saxon development and settlement on the edges of existing settlements were Duncan Wright and Richard Mortimer, place-names and settlement development was tackled by Richard Jones and Susan Oosthuizen looked at the origin of open field systems and suggesting a twelfth century date for the classic three-field system.

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Excellent opening slide of Richard Jones’ talk


All in all a very interesting weekend with plenty to ponder. An although the focus was clearly on surviving settlements, all the papers presented also brought forward new questions to answer on deserted settlement as well. You cannot study one with the other. The final part of the weekend though directly tackled this issue – with a visit to the deserted village of Riseholme, just outside Lincoln and this will be reflected on in the next post……

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.

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.


Medieval Village Research Group Archive

Two weeks ago I managed to get down to Swindon to visit the Medieval Village Research Group Archive housed in the Historic England (formerly English Heritage) Archive. We had evaluated this resource at the start of the Beresford’s Lost Villages project back in 2009, but now looking forward to the future of the website, and an update of the 1968 Gazetteer, it was time to go back to plan the wholesale review of the archive.


In 1952, after late night discussions at Wharram Percy between John Hurst and Maurice Beresford, the Deserted Medieval Village Research Group was formed, which would act as a platform for further study of desertion by people from a range of disciplines. One role of the group was the compilation of county lists of deserted sites. This took as its basis the list of 1353 sites that Beresford had provided in his Lost Villages of England in 1954. Through a network of county correspondents and the tireless visits of Maurice Beresford and John Hurst, this list was added to and amended, with the publishing of all sites identified up to 1968 (2263) in Deserted Medieval Villages in 1971 (Beresford et al. 1980, Sheail 1971). After 1970 the regular meetings to add settlements to the list became less frequent and a backlog built up, so the list was supplemented by those produced by county correspondents. This increased the number of settlements to 2813 by 1977 and a new distribution map drawn, but no consolidated list ever published (Beresford et al. 1980). This continued work showed that counties originally with few deserted sites, where gradually appearing on the distribution map (Aston 1985). As well as compiling lists of sites, the group also played a part in the preservation of sites and the emergency recording of those under threat. This was partly due to John Hurst’s day job at the Ministry of Works and with particular oversight of budgets and funding allocation.  Since 1978 the archive had been deposited on loan at the National Monuments Records in the Archaeological Record Section (Aberg and Croom 1986), transferring to the Archive in Swindon when it opened.

The word ‘deserted’ was dropped from the title of the research group in 1971 to emphasise the interest in all types of settlements, not just those that were deserted (Beresford et al. 1980). The archive was added to until the late 1980s, when a further name change to the Medieval Settlement Research Group, and a refocus of activity saw the archive closed. This also coincided with the point in time both Beresford and Hurst were nearing retirement and their standardised approach could not continue to be enacted with such precision. The archive by this point contained a wide and varied array of material. It contained the county lists, suggestions and queries from members of the public and interested local researchers, copies of reports and site visits, as well as information on individual sites. This information often comes with notes on the documentary evidence, physical remains, sketch maps and aerial photographs.

Current contents of archive

The archive consists of a number of different elements. The most substantive part is over 285 box files. These contain maps, photographs but also the county information (see below). As well as these there are 9 card index cases. Most of these contain the collection of individual cards for each deserted settlement, and small scale aerial photographs.

One of the 280 or so red box files. Reproduced with permission from the Medieval Settlement Research Group.

One issue with the archive is there is no readily available index of all the sites it contains. A computerised database was created in 1990 but all trace of this has disappeared (unless anyone out there knows of its location?). Although the archive resides within the Historic England Archive it is clear through a number of simple searches that not all the villages have made it onto the computerised records of Historic England. So which villages are included in the archive and what information does it hold?

And so the process has begun at looking at this information and starting to list the villages. For each county there is one, or sometimes two, red box files containing general information about the county. This includes on most occasions Maurice Beresford’s notes from Lost Villages of England, hand written notes on the mentions of villages from the National Archives such as taxation records, publications about villages in the county, documents that include information on more than one village site in the county, and superseded lists of deserted settlements. This includes the list from 1968, as well as earlier lists published in the annual reports of the research group, as well as lists of shrunken settlements and settlements that have since been deleted from the lists. On some occasions it includes new additions to the 1968 lists.

As well as this general box, each county then has a number of files on individual sites, either continuing in the general box file, or accompanying it in a number of additional files. These files include sites listed in 1968, but also other sites. The contents of each file varies. It may be a scrap of paper listing documentary references, it may be a letter highlighting the presence of a site, it may be an aerial photograph or may be more substantial information. For example the file on Old Sennington in Gloucestershire contains a page and half report on the 1936 excavations at the site by the excavator – a small insight into these unpublished excavations. So working through county by county there are additions to the 1968 list to be found here in these box files.

The other source of information are the card index files. Listed by county, here each settlement has its own card with basic locational information and documentary evidence, sometimes sketches and St Joseph aerial photographs from the Cambridge University Collection of Aerial Photographs. As well as the DMV card drawers there are also drawers containing cards on shrunken settlements, and the queries draw which includes sites that have not been assessed but also ‘traps’, sites (particularly those from evidence spotted on aerial photographs) which in the past had been identified as settlement remains but has since been shown to be something completely different. Once example in this section is Naunton in Gloucestershire. There is clear documentary evidence that this is the site of a deserted medieval settlement, but the features originally spotted have now been shown to be an access road and hut emplacements from the Second World War.

Faint soil marks of the hut emplacements at Naunton. Copyright Google Earth
Faint soil marks of the hut emplacements at Naunton. Copyright Google Earth

Below is an example of one of DMV cards showing the nature of the detail they can contain. This lists the grid reference, the reference from Beresford 1953, Domesday book entry, 1334 and 1332 lay subsidy information, note on 1517 evictions and a number of other documentary references.

The front of the card for
The front of the card for East Compton village in Berkshire. Reproduced with Permission from the Medieval Settlement Research Group.
card back
The sketch on the back of the card for East Compton, Berkshire. Reproduced with Permission from the Medieval Settlement Research Group.

On the back of the card there is a sketch of the site from a site visit. There are cards for all deserted sites accepted by the group, and this list is longer than those that have separate box files. Going through these will also add more sites to the 1968 list…..

So this long process has begun. The archive is a treasure trove of material. As well as the detailed information it contains there is also the social history of the group and the personalities behind its creation – so much so it can be hard to concentrate at the job in hand and you get distracted by the odd letter from an interested party putting forward their local site for consideration. Over the coming months there will be more visits to the archives as the listing of sites continues…….

If anyone wishes to view the archive themselves, they must contact Historic England ahead of their visit as the material is kept in climate controlled storage and needs to be brought out ahead of any visit.


Aberg, A. and J. Croom 1986. ‘The Medieval Village Research Group Index’, Medieval Settlement Research Group Annual Report 1: 14.

Aston, M. 1985. Interpreting the Landscape. London: Batsford.

Beresford, M.W. 1954. The Lost Villages of England. London: Lutterworth.

Beresford, M.W., J.G. Hurst and J. Sheail 1980. ‘M.V.R.G: The First Thirty Years’, Medieval Village Research Group Annual Report 28: 36-38.

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.