Heslerton Parish Project: Landscape Zones

The characteristics of the six identified landscape zones are summarised below:  


Zone One - The Wold Top

The largest zone comprises an area of open chalk downland covering the northern ridge of the Yorkshire Wolds and the more gradual slope towards the Great Wold Valley to the south. It is defined to the north by the 150m contour and elsewhere by dry valleys containing extensive deposits of alluvial sands and gravels frequently capped by colluvium (Zone 1A). Excavations undertaken by Canon Greenwell and J.R. Mortimer during the late nineteenth century established Eastern Yorkshire and particularly the Yorkshire Wolds as an area of importance second only to Wessex in the literature pertaining to British prehistory (Greenwell & Rolleston 1877, Mortimer 1905, Clarke 1970, Manby 1974,1975,1980,1999). The archaeology of this zone is most dramatically demonstrated by the upstanding monuments, the ditch and bank systems (the Wold Entrenchments) and the barrows. All of these upstanding monuments are now severely denuded but include major sites such as the East Heslerton long-barrow, the second longest long-barrow in England, partially excavated by the Vatchers in the 1960’s (Vatcher F & I. 1965). Intensive agriculture during the last 50 years has had a massive impact on this monument half of which is now levelled, although recently this part has been taken out of agriculture; the western half still stands about two metres high but is further eroded by ploughing every year.


Fig. 1: Geophysical survey over the ploughed out eastern end of the East Heslerton long-barrow. The quarry ditches on either side show as lighter markings, running up to the eastern entrance and burial chamber. The lack of any features showing to the west indicates that the quarry ditches here may have been completely ploughed away.

The extent of modern erosion is indicated by the wealth of levelled crop mark sites of similar features and the very shallow topsoils that characterise the Wolds. Only beneath the upstanding earthworks or beneath colluvial deposits in the dry valleys is any stratigraphy likely to have survived, though important environmental deposits must be preserved beneath the banks of the Entrenchments. Though this system of major boundary works has clearly had an influence on the land division of the chalk areas for a very long period of time, they remain an enigma, having been the subject of only minimal examination. Salvage excavation undertaken immediately adjacent to a section of the Wold Entrenchments in 1995 revealed fourth century occupation adjacent to this monument; however, the discovery of this activity during the levelling and extension of a farm yard did not provide sufficient evidence to gain a good understanding of the extent and full nature of the deposits. Although many upstanding monuments survive, these have contributed to the myth that barrows in particular were deliberately sited on ridges where their presence would remain most obvious. This may of course in some cases be true; however, the large number of barrows now identified in the low lying environment of the Vale of Pickering indicates that this model only has limited application. The East Heslerton Long Barrow for instance is sited below the Wold edge in a position only visible from very limited fields of view. The intensive air photography and multi-spectral survey have added far less to the archaeological canvas of the Wolds than to any other area within the HPP research area. It has become very clear that the key areas of activity lie in and adjacent to the Great Wold Valley where water was provided by the now all but disappeared Gypsy Race. Elsewhere the build up of colluvium in the dry valleys may have preserved important fragments of old ground surfaces which offer some long-term potential for the recovery of environmental data spanning long sequences.


Zone Two - The Wold Scarp

This zone, contained by the 150m and 90m contours, incorporates the steep, north facing scarp of the Wolds, where the steep incline has restricted the development and build up of fertile soils. That this zone is of considerable archaeological importance, despite the restrictions imposed by local geography, is demonstrated by the situation of two important Late Bronze/Early Iron Age palisaded enclosures on steep-sided knolls within this zone, at Staple Howe and Devil's Hill (Brewster 1963, 1981, Cunliffe & Rowley 1978). Similar sites can be postulated at regular intervals both to the east and to the west of the research zone and are likely to respond to geomagnetic surveying. The relationship between these small defended sites and the open areas of contemporary settlement in the base of the valley, and the relationship of both of these components to the early phases of the Wold Entrenchment system deserves further examination. It is tempting to see these sites as high status components in a Late Bronze Age estate structure defined by large pit alignment boundaries that were later replaced by bank and ditch features. The potential for the identification of well preserved sections of these pit-alignments on the Wolds is now very limited and their identification and preservation through scheduling should be given a priority. A single example identified from the air at Cat Babbleton, Foxholes parish, has since been levelled by bulldozer.  


Zone Three - The Wold Foot

This zone spans the basal red chalk and the Speeton clay deposits, and is located between the 90m and 50m contours. The presence of the spring line at the junction of the chalk and the clay gives the zone a particularly high potential. Both the present day villages of East and West Heslerton are centered in this zone. A number of buried or relict stream channels are indicated by aerial photography of the area. The potential of this zone for the recovery of important settlement evidence with the added potential for areas that remain relatively well preserved beneath a combination of colluvium and aeolian deposits has been admirably demonstrated by the discovery and excavation of the West Heslerton Anglian settlement (Powlesland 1998, 2000). The potential for the recovery of important new evidence from this zone cannot be doubted; however, the very conditions that lead to good preservation limit the potential for the recovery of airborne data either through conventional air photography or multi-spectral surveying. In contrast, the position with reference to archaeomagnetic surveying is very good; the remarkable results of the geophysical surveys undertaken on the Anglian settlement both by English Heritage and the Landscape Research Centre reflect the high magnetic contrasts that occur on the chalk and suggest that a proactive campaign targeting likely locations for settlement would produce results. It is worth noting that field walking over the area of the Anglian settlement failed to produce any indication of what lay beneath; the evidence recovered comprised mostly Neolithic and Bronze Age worked flints and mediaeval pottery, the latter probably derived from night-soils.  


Zone Four - The Aeolian Deposits

Zone four was defined by the rescue excavations of 1977-1985 (Heslerton sites 1 and 2), and consists of areas of windblown sand which serve to conceal and protect old ground surfaces and structural remains, with depths of up to three metres in places (Powlesland et al. 1986). The blown sands, which are derived from a much more extensive deposit of post glacial sands and gravels beneath them and to the north, have been accumulating since the late Neolithic period at least, though the mechanics of the process over time are far from perfectly understood. Crop mark evidence is unreliable here due to the great depth of overburden, while field walking cannot hope to give details of activity sealed well below the plough soil. Remote sensing and geophysical surveying can give reliable results when the windblown sand cover is restricted to depths of less than a metre, but for the deeper deposits only chance discovery during destruction coupled with intensive fieldwork can be used to assess the full potential of the sealed deposits. Although the blanket of blown sand, which remains the principal characteristic of this zone, has afforded the archaeological deposits a high degree of protection, the environmental preservation in this environment is very low, animal bone rarely survives and pollen counts are negligible; stratigraphic preservation is on the other hand high. The discovery during excavations at Cook’s Quarry of a series of round barrows, surviving in one case with its mound effectively intact, gave the first indication that the distribution of Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age funerary monuments was not primarily focussed on the Wold edge.    


Zone Five - The Dry Vale

An area of post glacial sand and gravel, zone five is bounded to the south by the overlying aeolian sand deposits and to the north by the lacustrine clays of zone six. Crop mark evidence indicates that this area of light soils experienced the same level of activity recognizable in zone four, and suggest that they cover a number of periods. Central to this zone is a continuous series of ladder settlements and field systems (of late Iron Age/Romano-British date) which can be traced for about 15km along the 27 to 30m contour lines in the southern part of the Vale. There is a corresponding ladder settlement in the northern part of the Vale, although this settlement is not so well attested by the aerial photographic evidence. Possible gaps in the aerial photographic record may indicate particularly well preserved areas of the settlement, covered by aeolian deposits, while particularly well-defined areas, where even individual hut circles can be identified, may prove to be the most seriously damaged by modern agricultural methods. The combination of air and ground based remote sensing in this zone produces remarkably detailed results. The results of fluxgate gradiometer surveys in this area are far better than we would have anticipated in a sand and gravel environment, perhaps reflecting the presence of iron pans in the filled enclosure ditches which excavation indicates had frequently been wet.  


Zone six - The Wet Vale

Zone six incorporates the small parish of Yedingham, and comprises a large flat area of lacustrine clays and gravels, frequently cut by relict, and now peat filled stream channels and including a number of slightly elevated gravel islands. Although Zone six would have supported a fenland environment during the later prehistoric period, successive drainage schemes, particularly during the last century, have dried out the greater part of the area in order to facilitate the present intensive arable farming. The results of conventional air photography in this area were always patchy; however this area responded very well to the multi-spectral survey, particularly in the thermal and infra-red wavelengths, and the picture that we have today is radically different from that established in the early 1980’s. The areas initially identified as isolated islands can now be shown to form parts of a series of low ridges running from east to west which were intensively used during the later prehistoric period for burial, indicated by the presence of both round and square barrow cemeteries. A series of trackways have now been identified that link these sites together or run south to north towards Yedingham where there have been river crossings since the later prehistoric period. From an archaeological point of view the drainage and intensification of agriculture in the centre of the Vale of Pickering has been a disaster; isolated pockets of peat may still provide us with key environmental evidence, particularly if they can be found in association with recognisable landscape boundaries; however, these areas are rapidly drying out which, coupled with the use of chemical fertilisers, will quickly lead to the loss of the pollen record; proactive assessment of the potential is urgently required.

Before we can look towards future research directions it is important to assess the impact of the research already undertaken and acknowledge the fact that, with the exception of the large-scale excavations, whilst we have learnt a great deal about the density, distribution and broad range of potential across our landscape, our understanding remains very limited.

Without objective sampling to recover evidence of date and activity range, relative importance and state of preservation, we must interpret the evidence with a degree of caution. It easy, for instance, to interpret a clear and well defined crop mark site as offering a higher degree of potential than a poorer defined group of crop mark fragments and yet the contrary is more likely to be correct, the high quality crop mark being produced in an environment where plough damage has eroded any occupation surfaces such that the contrast is simply between plough damaged natural and ditched features. The Anglian settlement at West Heslerton included a substantial area of ditched enclosures extending over about 4Ha. yet these never showed as crop marks, despite frequent favourable conditions; following the excavation this is easy to understand since, where these enclosures were best preserved, they and the associated surface deposits were sealed beneath hill-wash. In those areas where plough damage had taken place the features were severely truncated, reducing the likelihood of good crop mark formation. Another factor in crop mark formation observed in the project area was the sudden appearance in one year of well defined crop marks in a field where none had been noticed in the same crop before, despite the presence of other crop marks in the fields around it; discussion with the farmer revealed that the only change in the agricultural regime was that the field had been ploughed ‘a little more deeply’. In this case it appears that active plough damage has contributed to good quality crop mark formation perhaps breaking up soil pans at the interface between the ploughed and undisturbed soils which have otherwise generally restricted root development and therefore good crop mark formation.  Elsewhere in the research area a linear settlement or ‘ladder settlement’ extending for many kilometres along the southern side of the Vale was initially identified from the air through a series of crop mark fragments; even after fifteen years of air photography there are gaps in the crop mark record which reflect areas of deeper overburden and probably better preserved archaeology rather than actual gaps in the settlement, changes in soils or geology or the lack of suitable crops for crop mark formation. There has been little opportunity to undertake extensive field-walking surveys; however, in the case of the Anglian settlement which extended over more than 20Ha. there was no indication on the surface of what lay beneath. In the case of the field, cited above, that produced the ‘sudden’ crop mark the surface of the field was covered with Roman ceramics and other material and yet in following years there was hardly any material at all.

In contrast to the emerging landscape picture derived from the various remote sensing approaches, the large excavations at Cook’s Quarry and of the Anglian cemetery and settlement to the south have provided comprehensive and detailed new evidence which has a bearing both on the local and the national understanding of aspects of the archaeology of the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age, Late Bronze Age, Roman and Early-Middle Anglo-Saxon periods. For the Early Anglo-Saxon period the evidence is unparalleled in the North of England. The excavation of the Anglian settlement and the recent identification, using remote sensing, of a second such site of similar size within 2.5km. of that at West Heslerton reveals a surprisingly densely populated and utilised landscape in the Early Saxon period at least.

Archaeological research in Britain has to a large extent been driven by a combination of fashion, such as the focus on wetland sites in the 1980’s, and necessary rescue demands such as the explosion in urban excavations ahead of redevelopment particularly since the late 1960’s. In universities ‘theoretical archaeology’, more often concerned with broad concepts rather than data-centric research, has been the preoccupation since the mid 1970’s. This distinction between the ‘academic’ and the ‘applied’ archaeologies is a natural by-product of the development of field archaeology during the last 30 years; few universities have the resources or practical experience to undertake large scale fieldwork. It is a tragedy that the large scale excavations on which so many of us learned our craft as volunteers are now so rare. The two week ‘departmental dig’ is now wildly out of step with what is needed in terms of archaeological training and yet if there is to be a marriage between the purely academic and the practical spheres then closer ties are essential. It is deeply worrying that some excavations are seen as ‘research’ whereas others are not; surely all excavation and other fieldwork is research and must be undertaken with a research agenda even if that is merely ‘what happened here in the past’? An excavation undertaken without questions is merely an exercise in undigested data extraction which might, in the long run, help in the production of presence/absence maps without contributing in any real way to our understanding and therefore interpretation of the past. We need to be careful that our research questions are both achievable and in context. We need our heads examining if we believe for a minute that a single 1m. square ‘evaluation’ trench can provide what is required for a social reconstruction of,  for instance, 4th century Britain.   

Fig. 2: Plot showing the combined results of air-photographic, multi-spectral and geophysical survey plots. The Ladder settlement runs from east to west towards the top of the image. The main area of the excavations lies to the south of the ladder settlement in the centre of the plot.

Taking the Heslerton research area as a sample, we can define some pointers towards broad research objectives given the state of our knowledge today. These, if anything, highlight limitations in our knowledge that to a large extent reflect national rather than purely local limitations. They do, however, reflect the position established following more than 20 years research where we can in broad terms identify those areas within the research area where past activity was at its most intensive, those areas where aeolian and colluvial deposits are likely to conceal archaeological deposits from observation using some remote sensing techniques and those areas where plough damage has been so great that useful stratigraphic data and preserved occupation surfaces are most unlikely to survive. In all cases it should be assumed that within the broad strategy aspects, such as the need for the recovery of environmental data and absolute dating, are key components. In many parts of the research area the potential for the recovery of detailed environmental data such as pollen are prevaricated against by the parent geology; this does not make these areas any less important since they were clearly selected for occupation, a decision which is likely in part to be due to the very conditions that deny the preservation of some evidence. It would be wonderful if we could discover a waterlogged Anglo-Saxon or Roman settlement; present evidence indicates that such survival is extremely unlikely despite that fact that some parts of the ladder settlement run through areas that had in the past been very wet. We may in some cases need to take an off-site approach to the recovery of environmental data, seeking suitable locations for the recovery of appropriate evidence in the vicinity rather than directly on site.

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