coaxials: the story of a phd

Welcome to the project blog. I am based at the University of Bradford, and the project in question is my PhD research:

‘the later prehistoric landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales: a GIS approach’.

The Coaxial Field Systems

The Yorkshire Dales contain some of the best preserved prehistoric landscapes in Britain. Alongside the Mesolithic flint scatters and Neolithic henges, later prehistoric ‘coaxial’ field systems also survive – these are some of the most extensive of their type in northwestern Europe (in terms of both area and time-depth), and form the focus of my research. A limited amount is understood about these land management systems, but they are identified by their long, straight field boundaries that run parallel to each other up the dale sides and across the moors, sharing the same axis (hence the name!). Many of the coaxial boundaries survive as stone banks, but it is likely that they were originally maintained with fence, hurdle or hedge lines along the top to make them stock-proof.

Coaxial field boundary running across moorland above Swaledale

Coaxial field boundary running across moorland above Swaledale © H. Brown

You can find English Heritage’s introduction to prehistoric and other field systems here and information on prehistoric landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales here.

The Research

Prehistoric field systems of the Dales first caught the attention of antiquarians in the late 19th century and despite the accumulation of over a century of observations and data since, these disparate sources have not previously been drawn together. Principal resources include lidar data and aerial photography archives, the Historic Environment Record database, annotated maps and manuscripts such as the Raistrick Collection, and the results of recent field projects conducted by community groups.

This data is being synthesized to create an integrated GIS. Subsequent analysis and interpretation will focus on unravelling the spatial and temporal evolution of the Dales coaxial systems, alongside consideration of social and cultural implications of such boundary organization, morphological development in response to changing economic conditions and natural topography, and the relationships of the coaxials to earlier/later natural and cultural features. In particular, I will be comparing individual field systems within the Dales with each other and with similar examples from further afield.

Coaxial boundary on limestone above Grassington. © H. Brown

Coaxial boundary on limestone above Grassington. © H. Brown

The project also focuses on the landscape and data as a heritage resource. As such, the links with the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA) and local groups are very important. The GIS format will allow the results of the project to feed directly into the HER to aid resource management, and elements such as self-guiding walks (watch this space!) will allow members of the public to find out more about their historic environment.

My supervisors at the University of Bradford are Professor Ian Armit, an expert in Iron Age archaeology, and Dr Chris Gaffney, an archaeological geophysicist; together with Dr Roger Martlew (YDLRT) and Robert White (Senior Historic Environment Officer, YDNPA), they try and keep me on track!

The Funding

The PhD is primarily funded by a Collaborative Doctoral Award from the Arts & Humanities Research Council, and involves a partnership between the University of Bradford, the YDNPA, and the Yorkshire Dales Landscape Research Trust (YDLRT). This type of funding is designed to allow students to get some practical ‘industry’ experience, so I am currently on a 6 month placement with the National Park Authority, based in Bainbridge, Wensleydale. In addition to finding out how the Historic Environment Record functions, this also gives me practical access to the database and resources that are kept here. My research is also interlinked with that of fellow Phd student, Mary Saunders; whereas I am taking a GIS approach to analysis of the field systems, Mary will be looking closely at prehistoric features using non-invasive fieldwork techniques.



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