Heslerton Parish Project


The Heslerton Parish Project

20 years of archaeological research in the Vale of Pickering (LRC 2000)

Dominic Powlesland


“ There are certain regions of the British Isles which have long been recognized as areas of primary archaeological importance. One of these, Eastern Yorkshire, comprises three distinct geomorphological areas: the North Yorkshire Moors, the Vale of Pickering and the Yorkshire Wolds. Archaeological work has been in progress in the area since the late 18th Century and the work of pioneers such as Greenwell and Mortimer has been fundamental in developing the basic corpus of information which now forms an essential element in the literature of prehistoric studies. Subsequent work by Brewster (1952, 1957, 1963 and 1981), Manby (1974, 1975 and 1980) and others has developed this body of information and clearly emphasized the traditional view of the area's importance, particularly in the field of British Prehistory.
The Heslerton Parish Project was established to provide a framework for major archaeological work, both rescue and research, into which the evolution of the landscape of Eastern Yorkshire, an area of established national significance, could be placed. At this time, references to assessments of the prehistoric and Anglian evidence emphasized the sepulchral bias: Longworth (1961), Simpson (1968), Clarke (1970), Cunliffe (1974) and Rahtz, Dickinson, Watts (1980). It was also clear from statements made by the Prehistoric Society in 1978, that a number of archaeological bodies were developing a "landscape strategy". They stated that it was vital "... to establish as wide a range as is possible of environmental, economic, chronological and social evidence." The general statement was qualified by a number of conditions which should be met in the selection of "nationally important projects". These included sites with well preserved organic material, sites sealed beneath alluvial, colluvial or aeolian deposits, sites where environmental, economic or structural evidence is preserved and settlement or cemetery sites where total or substantial excavation is possible. Work carried out at Sherburn and West Heslerton had indicated that most if not all of those conditions could be satisfied by the parishes along the southern edge of the Vale, while suitable sites satisfying the wide range of conditions must be rare on either the Wolds or the Moors. ”
From ‘The Heslerton Parish Project’ distributed manuscript, Yedingham 1980

With the current emphasis on defining research frameworks in British archaeology it is easy to forget that in many parts of the country integrated research frameworks have formed the basis for ongoing archaeological projects for more than two decades. In the Vale of Pickering, North Yorkshire, two such projects have been in progress for more than twenty years: the work of the Vale of Pickering Research Trust at Seamer and Flixton Carrs, being carried out under the direction of Tim Schadla-Hall, and the work of the Landscape Research Centre around West Heslerton following a research design ‘The Heslerton Parish Project’ produced in 1980. In both these cases remarkable results of national and international importance have resulted from these projects.


At Heslerton it was already felt, by the end of the 1970’s, that rural rescue excavations undertaken without a solid and broad based research design addressing the context of the archaeology being examined would have a greatly reduced value. During the late 1970’s the threats to archaeology from development both in the town and the countryside far outstripped the available resources for rescue excavation from the Department of the Environment (DOE). There had been a tendency during the middle 1970’s to simply dig sites because they were there and threatened, and the limitations imposed by available funding meant that many important sites were destroyed unnoticed while other lesser sites were being examined elsewhere. This was a contributing factor in the development, at that time, of the first County Sites and Monuments Records (SMR), created to quantify, identify and locate all known archaeological resources within each county, a resource which, if used during the planning process, could prevent the loss of major sites. A fundamental and intractable weakness of this approach, one even more apparent today under the ‘polluter pays’ provisions made through PPG16, is that SMRs have generally been reactive rather than pro-active, containing information relating to known sites rather than the results of active landscape assessments designed to identify the unknown components and their potential. There are few locations in Britain where an absence of recorded evidence within an SMR can be correlated with a genuine absence of archaeology. An attempt to counter the weakness of low density or low detail SMR cover through the requirement for evaluation excavations to enhance the record prior to full planning applications only goes part of the way to solving the problem. This is particularly the case with large quarrying operations where either randomly or regularly spaced trenches covering tiny percentages of threatened areas have often failed to reveal major archaeological components.


The Heslerton Parish Project (HPP) was designed to combine rescue excavation with a landscape assessment programme covering a 10km. by 10km. area, spanning the interface between two major landscape zones, the Vale of Pickering and the Yorkshire Wolds, through the application of intensive remote sensing, field observation and discussion with local farmers and thus gain a greater understanding of the landscape context of the multi-period deposits being examined as part of the on-going rescue archaeology programme. It was argued from the outset that the detailed examination, assessment and interpretation of the landscape archaeology of the Heslerton Parish Project area would provide information that was relevant to a much more extensive area, extending both to the east and to the west, along the southern side of the Vale of Pickering where similar geology, soils, environment and topography prevail; this has indeed proved the case. The physical and ecological uniformity of the landscape between the River Derwent in the middle of the Vale of Pickering and the Great Wold Valley 15km. to the south is such that the research area defined at Heslerton comprises a representative sample of this extensive landscape.


The Anglian Settlement excavation at West Heslerton was amongst the first projects to receive funding from English Heritage on a project funding basis (Powlesland 1998). The threat to the site in this case was from plough damage; this remains the most widespread and significant physical threat to the rural archaeology of lowland England. A conscious decision was made by English Heritage to excavate rather than to preserve the Anglian settlement at West Heslerton as an example of such a site in the North of England. Although the site was being physically eroded by ploughing, the case for excavation was based substantially upon national academic priorities rather than simply a rescue imperative.


Although a large part of the energy and resources invested in the Heslerton Parish Project have been directed towards the excavations of an Early to Middle Saxon settlement and an associated Early Saxon or Anglian cemetery, the project remains multi-period and multi-faceted in its objectives, concerned primarily with the evolution of the Human Landscape from the Mesolithic to Mediaeval periods (Powlesland, Haughton & Hanson 1986, Powlesland & Haughton 1999). One aspect of the project is probably more important than any other - the continuity, duration and focus of the project over more than 20 years. The project has been fortunate in gaining repeated support from English Heritage and its predecessor organisations, initially through the rescue archaeology programme, and more recently from the archaeology commissions programme; without this support none of the work undertaken over the last two decades would have been possible. Although attention has been primarily focussed upon the very large scale open area excavations, for which Heslerton has become well known, running hand in hand with this fieldwork a programme of regular air-photographic sorties undertaken over a 15 year period, a high resolution multi-spectral scan of much of the project area, resulting from a NERC data award, and a series of relatively small scale targeted geophysical surveys have radically transformed our understanding of the landscape (Donoghue & Shennan 1988a, 1988b, Donoghue, Powlesland & Pryor 1992, Powlesland, Lyall & Donoghue 1997). The high levels of investment in the archaeology of Heslerton has resulted in a huge increase in the known archaeology within the project area.


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