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……


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.