Bounded, dense, impish, intense … the Isle of Wight

Bounded, dense, impish, intense … all words which surfaced in discussions about the Isle of Wight when Miranda and Anwen met up with local researchers to discuss the potential shape of the Englaid project case study.

Binstead beach, north Wight
Binstead beach, north Wight
St Lawrence beach, south Wight
St Lawrence beach, south Wight

During a fleeting visit, we traversed the island, trying to absorb its tremendous variability. We traveled from a benign north coast, where England felt so close and where wooden trackways, fish traps and post alignments have been assembled in the intertidal mud since the Neolithic period, to an almost malevolent southern one, where Iron Age and Roman burials have been recovered, numerous ships have been wrecked, and where the sea was whipping itself up into a weekend storm. We were struck by the strong presence of the geological basis of the island, running broadly in strips from east to west. Yet it was also clear (and became more so through our discussions with researchers) that the east and west of the island had distinct characters – closed and open, respectively, in feel.

Lines made with undercliff clay and sandstone
Lines made with undercliff clay and sandstone

We focused on some of the island’s fabrics – clay, sandstone, limestone, chalk, flint. Miranda drew lines with beach clay and mudstone.

Sandstone outcrop, Brighstone
Sandstone outcrop, Brighstone

This fiery sandstone outcrop caught Anwen’s eye as we flashed by.

Pebble in the undercliff clay
Pebble in the undercliff clay
Pebble made from undercliff clay
Pebble made from undercliff clay

We were impressed by the force represented by the sea and pebble battered clay along the undercliff coast – pebbles pressed into the clay and even clay pebble pummeled out of its matrix.

Flint, sandstone, limestone, chalk, clay - farm building at Alverstone
Flint, sandstone, limestone, chalk, clay – farm building at Alverstone
Clay, flint and limestone rubble - Brading Roman villa
Clay, flint and limestone rubble – Brading Roman villa

Also striking was how materials gathered from across the island’s landscapes were assembled in its architecture – in Roman villas and more recent farm buildings. The Isle of Wight landscape, and islanders’ relationships with this landscape were apparently condensed within its buildings.

Isle of Wight researchers
Isle of Wight researchers

During our very productive discussions with researchers Frank and Vicky Basford, Becky Loader, Rosie Edmunds and Owen Cambridge we were able to crystalise some of these thoughts. We discussed the rapid rate at which finds data, particularly coins, are currently being produced on the island; how having a distinct edge (the coast) had affected the character and development of the island’s archaeology; and how islander’s contacts with mainlanders on both sides of the Channel had toed and froed over our study period. We came away armed with further lines of enquiry to follow, a plastic bag of bluish clay, some rapidly penciled line drawings, and an appetite to return for a more sustained visit!

North Northumberland case study area visit

As we are rapidly approaching the second half of the second year of the project, data collection for the English Landscapes and Identities project has now practically reached its end. Whilst Chris Green spends his time pondering temporal fuzziness and creating nationwide trend surfaces (well, in between hanging out with surfer dudes on a beach in Western Australia…), Zena, Anwen, Laura and myself are starting to focus in earnest on our case study areas. Here is our most up-to-date map with the latest case study areas highlighted, now displaying a clear preference for random transects across various landscape zones:

Case study areas EngLaId, March 2013
Case study areas EngLaId, March 2013

Unlike the national survey, which will use data in an uncleaned format, we intend to work with ‘clean’ data-sets for our case study areas. We are still developing the cleaning methodology at the moment, which should hopefully be finalised by the time Chris Green is back from Down Under.

In the mean time, I decided to go on a little field trip to the North Northumberland case study area. The current area is depicted in more detail below, cutting across the upland zone of the Northumberland National Park as well as the more low-lying coastal zone:

Northumberland case study area: modern land use
Northumberland case study area: modern land use

Those that know the region will immediately see that this area includes a number of recent and ongoing projects that fall within the broad EngLaId period, such as recent work at Yeavering (http://www.gefrin.com/), Bamburgh (http://www.bamburghresearchproject.co.uk/), quite a few sites covered by the Historic Village Atlas (http://www.northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk/understanding/historyarchaeology/historicvillageatlas) and the Discovering our Hillforts Heritage project (http://www.northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk/understanding/historyarchaeology/hillfortheritageintroduction), but also, of course, the fantastic discoveries made by Archaeological Research Services at Lanton Quarries (http://www.archaeologicalresearchservices.com/lantonwebsite/index.htm).

The rationale behind the field trip was therefore two-fold. First, I wanted to familiarize myself with the landscape of this region of England – which, in terms of the coastal landscape at least, is not entirely dissimilar to my native country the Netherlands (note the particularly ‘prominent’ contours on the photo below…). (Once you turn around and go inland, though, the landscape looks totally different – too many hills!)

Holy Island, as seen from the tidal causeway
Holy Island, as seen from the tidal causeway

The second reason for my trip was to talk to as many people as possible about the archaeology of the region, trying to identify possible collaborations or at least shared interests. A big Thank You must therefore go to staff and students at the Department of Archaeology at the University of Durham, for organising a seminar where I could present the EngLaId project and discuss methodologies and ideas. In particular, I would like to express my gratitude to Rosemary Cramp, Sarah Semple, Tudor Skinner, Brian Buchanan and Sofia Turk for their feedback and suggestions.

The following day, I had a very informative discussion with Rob Collins, FLO for Northumberland, who showed me some really cool finds including a recently conserved ritually destroyed sword from a potentially new Anglo-Saxon cemetery site. Over the days that followed, I went out to visit two potential new Anglo-Saxon cemetery sites in the case study region, and looked at their wider landscape setting – for obvious reasons I won’t be able to show any photos here, but it was interesting to note some clear similarities between the two sites.

Following my meeting with Rob, I had a discussion with Sam Turner of Newcastle University about the use of Historic Landscape Characterisation. Although HLC is obviously first and foremost a planning tool, and therefore not optimally designed for academic research, we agreed that it’s use is nevertheless important, as the early medieval period remains frustratingly hard to detect in the archaeological record. To give an example, below is a pie chart detailing the relative quantities of entries relevant to the different EngLaId periods as detailed in the Northumberland HER, with the early medieval period representing only 6%:

Northumberland case study area: HER data by period
Northumberland case study area: HER data by period

And here is another one, this time comparing entries from the National Record of the Historic Environment:

Relative number of entries for each EngLaId period from the National Record of the Historic Environment for the Northumberland case study region
Relative number of entries for each EngLaId period from the National Record of the Historic Environment for the Northumberland case study region

As Rosemary Cramp stated after my presentation in Durham, the under-representation of the early medieval period is of course to a degree caused by the fact that the interest in the early medieval period in this part of the country is relatively recent, at least compared to antiquarian and earlier 20th-century archaeological interests, which focused largely on surviving prehistoric earthwork sites in the National Park. It will be interesting to compare this pattern to other parts of the country, especially those away from upland regions with good survival of earthworks.

One glimmer of hope for the early medieval period is provided by Rob Collins’s work within the PAS, as here, the data-set for the case study area comprises no less than 42% early medieval records! However, with a grand total of 51 finds in total (compare to several thousands for the Humber case study area, for example), much more metal-detecting and reporting remains to be done here.

PAS finds for case study area by period
PAS finds for case study area by period

Over the weekend, I spent some time visiting the Cheviot hills to explore the landscape around the two aforementioned cemetery sites, as well as the better-known landscape around Yeavering, climbing the Iron Age hillfort of Yeavering Bell to obtain a better picture of the royal palace site Ad Gefrin.

The eastern end of Ad Gefrin (the yellow field in the centre of the image), as seen from the eastern end of Yeavering Bell
The eastern end of Ad Gefrin (the yellow field in the centre of the image), as seen from the eastern end of Yeavering Bell
Yeavering Bell, as seen from Ad Gefrin
Yeavering Bell, as seen from Ad Gefrin

It was interesting as well to see some relict field systems on the slopes in the Cheviots from Yeavering Bell.

Cheviot Hills as seen from Yeavering Bell looking south, with faint traces of relict field system visible
Cheviot Hills as seen from Yeavering Bell looking south, with faint traces of relict field system visible lower down the north-facing slope, just below the darker vegetation

On Monday morning, Graeme Young of the Bamburgh Research Project was kind enough to come meet me for a chat and a tour around the castle and the excavation trenches (now covered in tarmac). It was very informative and inspiring to hear him talk about the project, and many thanks must go to him for taking the time off to come down despite the weather getting noticeably worse!

Hope-Taylor's old trenches reopened
Hope-Taylor’s old trenches reopened
Site of an early medieval coastal cemetery, as seen from Bamburgh Castle
Site of an early medieval coastal cemetery, as seen from Bamburgh Castle

That evening the rain and sleet started coming down in earnest, so it was good timing to have a HER visit arranged afterwards, where I went through a pile of grey literature to get a general sense of what was going on and request copies of a selection of reports, focusing on those which reported on relatively large-scale investigations. Many thanks must go to Liz Williams and other HER staff for arranging a desk, answering my questions and providing endless cups of tea!

The course of the Roman road known as the Devil's Causeway
The course of the Roman road known as the Devil’s Causeway

All in all, a very fruitful visit that resulted in a lot to think about, the most important conclusion I could draw from it probably being the importance of talking to local archaeologists. No matter how much the digital era has revolutionized the archaeological practice, local in-depth knowledge remains vital to our understanding of the past.

Case studies 1: dipping into the data

Over the last few months, the Englaid researchers have been beginning the process of engaging critically with the mass of evidence we have brought together for case study areas. One outcome has been the production of case study evidence summary sheets – a useful way of considering and collating key qualities of the different evidence types available for these areas. For some case study areas (for instance in Cornwall and the East of England) we’ve also been liaising closely with local researchers so that we can try to link our own investigations into local research programmes – building on or making connections with existing, ongoing and imminent projects.

Unsurprisingly, now that we’ve started engaging in earnest with the vast body of data we’ve assembled, we’ve had some interesting discussions about how to integrate and also how to fulfill the research potential of the various evidence sets. This is obviously much more of an issue in case study areas where we will be viewing and analysing evidence at a site level, rather than through the coarser lens of 1km squares. For instance we’ve been thinking through methods of refining or cleaning data and also of enhancing it in various ways. We’ve also been considering at what level/scale ‘cleaned’ data becomes analytically visible or relevant (more to come on this …).

From this point onwards we’re hoping to provide regular updates on the blog regarding how we’re getting on with the case study analysis. For now, it’s worth mentioning that our initial rummaging about with the evidence from case study areas, has generated a slightly revised case study map (which Chris Green has kindly visualized for us).

Chris Green and I also thought we’d have a play about with how to produce ‘snapshots’ of the case study evidence using the text from the data summary sheets and medium of tag clouds (http://www.wordle.net/create).

Northumbria evidence summary sheet tagcloud
Cumbria evidence summary sheet tagcloud
Marches evidence summary sheet tagcloud

Overall, we quite like the outcomes, especially once you start refining the tag clouds – grouping words into phrases like ‘watching brief’, removing the name of the case study area, and removing generic words like ‘archaeology’, ‘archaeological’, ‘site’, ‘report’ etc. (which I only did for the Isle of Wight and obviously you could fiddle about with this some more!).

Isle of Wight evidence summary sheet tagcloud

Isle of Wight evidence summary tagcloud (‘cleaned’)

The way in which geological information, the names of key sites and local researchers, evidence types, the structure of the documents themselves (headings and subheadings), and even the names of places which have strong research links with the case study area (in the case of the Isle of Wight, Oxford) become (more or less) evident and are juxtaposed is interesting. We also think that they work well as pithy reminders of some of the key traits of the case study areas.

Assembling more data, thinking through case study areas …

Over the last month, members of the Englaid team have been involved in a couple more regional HER meetings and have engaged with the broader research community at a workshop in Oxford on Landscape and Scale (more to come on this in a separate posting …).

Firstly, we would like to thank those who hosted to the south west and eastern regional HER meetings – in particular Chris Webster in Somerset and Vanessa Clarke in Bedford Borough – for having us along to these forums. We are also extremely grateful to all who attended these meetings for providing such thoughtful and constructive feedback on the project’s work so far as well as on its broader aims – your collective input is very much appreciated and as the following discussion hopefully shows we are considering your suggestions very carefully.

One outcome of our broader consultation with HER officers and the wider research community has been that we have begun to review the project’s original case studies (those set out in the original project design). The form and location of the project case studies has become a topic of considerable interest and we have now received a wealth of good suggestions as to how to reshape the case studies in order to satisfy our key aims of:

1) providing a sense of regional landscape variability across England
2) foregrounding data from under-exposed research areas
3) showcasing particularly rich combinations of data from the various sources consulted
4) linking into regional research agendas

The provisional results are illustrated below (the original case study areas are outlined in pale yellow).

The main outcome of this broader consultation is that many of those we have talked to felt that it was important for our case studies to traverse different landscape zones rather than focusing on areas defined either geographically (such as the Yorkshire Wolds) or by modern political boundaries (counties such as Suffolk or Norfolk). One particularly bold consequence of this is the new case study area which traverses the middle of England from east to west (a suggestion which came from the East Midlands regional HER meeting – thanks in particular to Ken Smith of the Peak District National Park Authority). We have also included a greater number of river valleys (for instance the Alne valley in Northumbria, the Lea Valley in Hertfordshire, and the Humber estuary), and a distinct island – the Isle of Wight – in part, to balance out a previous emphasis on upland areas. Two more interpretatively-led additions are a case study revisiting Hoskins’ Lincolnshire, rendered so evocatively in his seminal work The Making of the English Landscape, together with a strip of land traversing Hadrian’s Wall in order to explore the affects of this substantial piece of landscape architecture. It is also worth emphasising that the revised case studies are not fixed. Other than the case studies which we have already begun work on – the Dartmoor and Tamar Valley, Devon, and the Mendip Hills, Somerset – we would continue to welcome further ideas regarding the areas we have (re)defined. However from this point onwards, most revisions we make to the case study areas are likely to be exercises in fine-tuning rather than substantially reworking.

Finally, we have received another wave of datasets over the past month and would like to express a huge thanks to those involved in producing them. We are extremely grateful to Victoria Brown (Humber), Stuart Cakebread and Mel Bell (Greater London), Nick Crank (Milton Keynes), Sally Croft (Cambridgeshire) Ben Croxford (Kent), Lucie Dingwall & Melissa Seddon (Herefordshire), David Evans (S Gloucestershire), Jonathan Goodwin (Stoke), Teresa Hocking (Berkshire), Beccy Loader (Isle of Wight), Sarah Orr (W Berkshire) John Oxley (City of York), Sheena Payne-Lunn (Worcester), Colin Pendleton and Sarah Poppy (Suffolk), Rachel Salter (W Sussex), Mike Shaw (Black Country), Isobel Thompson (Hertfordshire), Liz Williams (Northumberland) and Julia Wise (Buckinghamshire) for sending through the HER datasets for these areas. Thanks, once again, to Keith Wescott at ExeGesIS for his continued support with processing the Englaid query for HBSMR-users.

The receipt of a new tranche of NMP data from English Heritage for the East Midlands region is much appreciated – we have now collated the NMP data for roughly half of England and are very much enjoying exploring its potential. One other more specific dataset we have kindly been given is Janice Kinory’s database of (mainly later prehistoric) salt-working sites, produced as part of her doctoral research. As the attendees of recent regional HER meetings have seen, we are now in a position to start interrogating in further detail the correspondence between various datasets and also their particular qualities.

Devon field trip and Project Advisory Board meeting

It has been a busy week for the EngLaId project team. Over the Bank Holiday weekend, Letty and Miranda went to Dartmoor to explore this case study area and do some drawing. They were joined by the poet Alice Oswald (author of Dart) and her husband Peter Oswald, whose local knowledge of the area provided an immensely valuable contribution to the trip. Even the weather decided to hold out, which was wonderful, if unexpected!

Multi-period field systems near Scorriton, as seen from the moor.

Sites visited included Lydford, an Anglo-Saxon burh on the western edge of Dartmoor overlooking the moor. Lydford, now a small village, was a royal burh with spectacular natural defences on three sides, whilst the bank that defended the only easy access to the settlement is still visible as earthworks in the landscape today as well. During the medieval period, the parish of Lydford also included the entire area of Dartmoor’s upper moor.

The earthworks at Lydford with their current occupants.

Miranda spent an afternoon drawing from the earthworks; keep an eye out for the visual blog to see the results of that!

Miranda drawing the landscape from the inside of the defensive bank at Lydford.

The following day, we explored the moor near Scorriton, walking part of the Two Moors Way and the Abbot’s way, which originally would have connected the abbey of Buckfast with those of Tavistock and Buckland on the other side.

The Two Moors Way, as it winds down into the valley where it intersects with the Abbot’s Way and the river Avon.

Miranda found a wonderful spot inside a Bronze Age settlement enclosure from where she spent a few hours drawing the landscape surrounding the Avon valle, whilst Letty followed the Abbot’s Way a bit further, retracing the steps of countless travellers who must have walked here since at least the early medieval period.

The Bronze Age settlement enclosure from where Miranda was drawing, as seen from the opposite hill.
A pregnant horse along the Abbot’s Way.

After this truly wonderful weekend, it was time to go back to reality and prepare for the annual project Advisory Board meeting, where the team presented progress to a committee consisting of Prof. Sir Barry Cunliffe, Prof. Richard Bradley, Prof. Mark Pollard, Prof. Helena Hamerow, Dr Jeremy Taylor and Dr Roger Thomas. After an introduction by Chris Gosden, Laura Morley presented progress on data collection, followed by a joint presentation by Anwen Cooper and Chris Green on the potential and problems of the data from Somerset, one of the first regions for which we had collated a complete dataset (many thanks must go once more to the HERO from Somerset!).

Laura Morley presents progress with data collection.

The Advisory Board provided much helpful feedback, and after a short tea break the presentations continued, first with Letty ten Harkel presenting preliminary work on the Devon case study area, followed by Miranda Creswell who presented her work on recording the team’s working methods, her landscape drawings and other art and, finally, the public engagement side of things in relation to a pilot project she is developing … again, watch the visual blog for more details!

Members of the Advisory Board providing feedback (from left to right: Dr Jeremy Taylor, Prof. Helena Hamerow, Prof. Richard Bradley and Prof. Sir Barry Cunliffe)

The day ended with a very useful and constructive discussion. The EngLaId team would therefore like to thank the Advisory Board for their time and effort, and looks forward to the next meeting in a year’s time!