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!

What are deserted medieval settlements?

Beresford’s Lost Villages website is compiling descriptions for all the known deserted settlements in England. In past posts we have looked at the progress made so far on a number of counties. In this post we examine what actually is a deserted medieval settlement?

These are settlements which appear in documentary sources such as the Domesday Book, medieval tax records and maps, but have since seen a dramatic decline in population to the extent that at some point they have been classed as deserted. They can also be areas that show clear evidence of former settlement in the form of earthworks, building remains or abandoned churches. The reasons for desertion are varied, whether from land exhaustion, coastal erosion, a change in land use or the whim of wealthy landowners. Over 3000 such sites have been identified across England.

Hound Tor on Dartmoor - walls of long house
Hound Tor on Dartmoor – walls of long houses

These sites were often termed as Lost Villages in the early days of investigation, but then the term Deserted Medieval Village or DMV became more popular. By the 1980s the term Deserted Medieval Settlements was adopted to show that all types of settlement including hamlets and farmsteads needed to be considered and not just villages. On the Beresford’s Lost Villages website we use the original term ‘Lost Villages’ as it has been funded by a generous bequest by the Late Maurice Beresford whose pioneering 1954 publication led the way in identifying and locating these settlements.

On the ground these settlements may have left no trace to the naked eye – completely ploughed-out or landscaped in later years. Sometimes tell-tale humps and bumps may signify past settlement. These may be hiding stone walls of houses in areas where there was a ready supply of building materials. Sometimes the humps and bumps represent route ways – often termed hollow ways, that have been produced by years of passing people and animals. Boundaries between properties and buildings may also be shown by the presence of ditches and banks.

Here are some examples of deserted medieval settlements – their evidence and how they have been identified. All three of these sites are under the guardianship of English Heritage and can be visited. A later post will explore in more detail why settlements became deserted.

Wharram Percy, North Yorkshire

This is probably the most well known deserted settlement, due mainly to the research and excavations carried out for over 40 years. The presence of a settlement here was known from the presence of the settlement in the taxation records, and the location of a parish and a church. There are also clear earthworks visible at the site. The site is publically accessible, with access off the B1248 Beverley to Malton road. A car park is situated 750m from the site, with a walk to the site down a steep slope. A guide book for the site is available from English Heritage or from one of the other English Heritage properties close by, such as Helmsley Castle (Oswald 2013).

House sites at Wharram Percy
House sites at Wharram Percy

A sizeable village was once present. In total there would seem to be around 40 peasant house plots at Wharram, but it is unsure if all would have been occupied at the same time. A roughly north-south hollow way is bounded on either side by the house plots. Two manor house sites have been uncovered; one that was abandoned in the thirteenth century, and indications are that the northern one was abandoned some time in the fourteenth century. At the south of the village is the church which was in use until 1949. To the south of this is the mill pond. Close to the church are the only surviving buildings – a row of three cottages, which were finally vacated in the 1970s. The excavations at the site have revealed an extensive occupation from at least Roman times.

Wharram Percy and St Martin's Church
Wharram Percy and St Martin’s Church

Wharram Percy was mentioned in the Domesday Book and 30 people were taxed in 1377. A record of tenant holdings from 1368 also records 30 farmhouses and cottages in the village (Wrathmell 2010). By 1435 only 16 households are recorded showing the decline of the settlement had begun (Wrathmell 2010). Further reduction in population is noted in the 1517 enquires that took place across the country into the enclosure of farmland. These record that after 1488 four cottages at Wharram had been removed (Wrathmell 2010). It has been well established that the fate of Wharram was the conversion of arable land to pasture. Over time more and more land was removed from arable production. A legal case that was heard in 1555 helps date the final stage of conversion to 1527 (Wrathmell 2010).

There are many resources on Wharram including the series of 13 volumes publishing the results of the excavations. For more detailed information on Wharram, see the pages on the Beresford’s Lost Villages website including a full consideration of the evidence and the site’s connection with Maurice Beresford or the detailed record for Wharram in the listing of villages in the East Riding of Yorkshire. More information on Wharram Percy can also be found in the History and Research section on the English Heritage website.

Hound Tor, Devon

The site of Hound Tor is probably one of the most well known settlements on Dartmoor. The location of the village is between Hound Tor and Greater Rocks lying on a gentle slope. The village can be accessed by parking on a minor road to the south of Manaton, followed by a half-mile walk. The village itself consists of about eleven buildings located within an enclosure (Beresford 1979). Full excavation of the site was completed between 1961 and 1975. The buildings would appear to consist of eight houses and three corn drying barns.  Three of the houses are clear longhouses with cross passage ways.  The remaining buildings are smaller and may represent smaller houses or out buildings. The buildings are clustered together and have small enclosures, possibly gardens close to the longhouses. There is no discernible plan to the settlement and it is suggested that although there is evidence of rebuilding, the settlement plan reflects the original layout of the settlement (Beresford 1979).

Corn-drying barns at Hound Tor
Corn-drying barns at Hound Tor

The village itself seems to have developed in the middle of the thirteenth century and then became deserted in the middle of the fourteenth century (Beresford 1979). More recent pottery analysis has suggested that the settlement was still occupied into the late fourteenth or maybe early fifteenth century (Allan 1994). Unlike other deserted sites on Dartmoor, documentary evidence exists for Hound Tor including an entry in the Domesday Book with a population of six recorded. Hound Tor or its residents appear in documents throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (Beresford 1979).

The reasons for desertion are not completely clear but there is evidence to suggest this was due to climate change (Beresford 1979). As Hound Tor was one of the highest villages above sea level on Dartmoor, there is a claim that the changing climate would have affected these sites earlier and more deeply. There is evidence for bad harvests but there are also good harvests mixed in with those years. Pollen analysis does show a change from arable to pastoral activity in the fourteenth century which may have been a contributing factor (Austin and Walker 1985).

For more information on Hound Tor see the History and Research section on the English Heritage website

Gainsthorpe, North Lincolnshire

The first aerial photograph of a deserted village was published by O.S.G. Crawford in 1925 of the site at Gainsthorpe in Lincolnshire (Gerrard 2003). Here clear earthworks of the settlement can be seen with route ways and building outlines.

Gainsthorpe Village earthworks
Gainsthorpe Village earthworks

The site is located off the A15 just to the south of Scunthorpe in North Lincolnshire. The site is not sign-posted from the A15, but can be found on Gainsthorpe Road which is sign-posted for Cleatham. There is a sign from this access road. There is a short walk down a farm track from the car park.

The aerial photograph of the site was initially taken as it was thought to be the location of a Roman fort. However when he publishes the picture, Crawford draws on a seventeenth-century account of the site by Abraham de la Pryme (Crawford 1925). In 1697 De la Pryme gives the account of the remains of the settlement, describes foundations of buildings, streets and a possible location of a church. He recounts local tales that the town was ‘exceeding infamous for robberys, and that nobody inhabited there but thieves; and that the country haveing for a long while endur’d all their villanys, they at last, when they could suffer them no longer, riss with one consent, and pulld the same down about their ears’ (De le Pryme 1870: 127-128). He does continue suggesting that a more likely explanation was ‘the town has been eaten up with time, poverty, and pasturage’ (De le Pryme 1870: 128). A much more likely reason for desertion.

Gainsthorpe Village
Gainsthorpe Village

For more information on Gainsthorpe village see the History and Research section on the English Heritage website.

Deserted settlements are found throughout the country and can illustrate how people in the past coped with change. Often these settlements are not deserted overnight, but long-term changes to population and land use see dramatic reductions in the number of people living at the settlement.


Allan, J. 1994. ‘Medieval Pottery and the Dating of Deserted Settlements on Dartmoor’, Proceedings Devon Archaeological Society 52: 141-148.

Austin, D. and M.J.C. Walker 1985. ‘A New Landscape Context for Houndtor, Devon’, Medieval Archaeology 29: 147-152.

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

Beresford, G. 1979. ‘Three Deserted Medieval Settlements on Dartmoor: A Report on the late E. Marie Minter’s Excavations’, Medieval Archaeology 23: 98-158.

Crawford, O.S.G. 1925. ‘Air-Photograph of Gainstrop, Lincs’, Antiquities Journal 5: 432-433.

De la Pryme, A. 1870. The Diary of Abraham de la Pryme, the Yorkshire Antiquary. Durham: Publocations of the Surtees Society 54.

Gerrard, C. 2003. Medieval Archaeology: Understanding Traditions and Contemporary Approaches. London: Routledge.

Oswald, A. 2013. Wharram Percy Deserted Medieval Village. London: English Heritage.

Wrathmell, S. 2010. ‘The Desertion of Wharram Percy Village and its Wider Context’, in C. Dyer and R. Jones (eds) Deserted Villages Revisited: 109-120. Hatfield: University of Herefordshire Press.