Tag Archives: Prehistoric Field Systems

Data and Deliberations: Part 1

This is the part of the project where, having acquired my datasets, I have been cleaning them and converting them into a format I can use in my GIS. This has been more longwinded than it sounds, and what follows is a bit fiddly, but it’s a crucial part of the process. Don’t forget to click on the images to see bigger versions. The main datasets I have been wrestling with recently have been the Historic Environment Record database (kindly supplied by the National Park Authority), the National Mapping Pilot Project data (kindly supplied by English Heritage), lidar data (available from the Environment Agency) and aerial photographs (at the moment, I’m using a combination of prints from the HER and a layer available from ESRI that is similar to google maps). Historic Environment Record There are over 80 HERs in England, each of which contain details and records of the known archaeological sites, finds, interventions and surveys that have been recorded/have taken place within their area of jurisdiction – in this case, the Yorkshire Dales National Park. This makes them one of the major go-to sources for archaeological research. The Yorkshire Dales HER contains nearly 32,000 entries, the majority of which contain details including location and interpretation, and can be searched by various categories. But while the database is a mine of information, there are the inevitable limitations: for example, it has been compiled by numerous people over the years, resulting in a plethora of conventions and standards.

Fig. 1 Each of the red dots on this map of the Yorkshire Dales represents one of the 32,000 records from the HER.

Fig. 1 Each of the red dots on this map of the Yorkshire Dales represents one of the 32,000 records from the HER.

Obviously the records pertaining directly to the individual field systems are of interest, but so is the rest of the database – it provides a useful context against which to examine the field systems, acting as a background view of the prehistoric landscape. Fig. 1 shows the ‘raw’ data with each separate record represented by a dot. The distribution is interesting: the majority of known archaeological sites and findspots cluster in the valleys, with more white space visible on the higher ground – is this a real distribution of past human activity, or a reflection of present activity happening away from the less hospitable peat covered moorland where archaeology-spotting is more challenging?

Fig. 2 Prehistoric features and finds from the HER.

Fig. 2 Prehistoric features and finds from the HER.

So the first step was to sort the individual records into broad chronological phases, based on the ‘from’ and ‘to’ fields that have been filled according to the interpretation of the inputter. These can be selected from a ‘thesaurus’ of terms, such as ‘Late Iron Age’, so there is a reasonable degree of uniformity, but there is also a spectacular number of different combinations, making life difficult for me. I went for the low-tech approach and, with the help of the ‘find’ function in Excel, removed records for all those sites of unknown date and later-than-prehistoric origin. And then the remainder were broadly categorized into Early Prehistoric, Late Prehistoric and Prehistoric as it was felt that the majority of the features could not be accurately dated more narrowly than this. Their distribution is shown in fig. 2 below. National Mapping Project   The NMP dataset is a body of data that dates from the 1990s. It was collected as part of a project conducted by the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments of England with the aim of identifying visible archaeology from aerial photos: the Yorkshire Dales served as a pilot project to assess the effectiveness of the method over uplands. Aerial photographs from the Dales were transcribed, and recognizable features recorded with the use of a system of symbols. As it was done with pen and paper it has since been scanned to produce a digital copy.

Fig. 5 A tile of data from the National Mapping Project. The dotted areas with arrows represent ridge and furrow, the solid lines mark lynchets. The crosses are grid reference points.

Fig. 3 A tile of data from the National Mapping Project. The dotted areas with arrows represent ridge and furrow, the solid lines mark lynchets. The crosses are grid reference points.

When faced with a national park-worth of this data (fig. 3 shows how it arrived), it is quite overwhelming and difficult to work out what’s going on. It arrived as a set of raster files, so the first step was to vectorize it to make it possible to select each symbol individually. This also allows the removal of any smudges, grid reference points or paper ‘edges’ that are not real features. Then it was just a case of assigning each polygon to an appropriate layer category using AutoCAD. When I say ‘just…’, it was actually very fiddly and time consuming, but as a result I have a series of useful, colour-coded layers to add to the GIS (fig. 4).

Fig. 6 An area of NMP data near Kettlewell. The dark green polygons are features interpreted as field boundaries and lynchets; light green represents ridge and furrow; brown dotted lines are tracks; brown represents buildings.

Fig. 4 An area of NMP data near Kettlewell. The dark green polygons are features interpreted as field boundaries and lynchets; light green represents ridge and furrow; brown dotted lines are tracks; brown represents buildings.

It is not possible to assign dates to the features in the NMP data but it was possible to assign them to broad categories that cover, for example, evidence of extraction industries, ridge and furrow, settlement, and lynchets and field boundaries. Of course, some of those field boundaries belong to prehistoric field systems; the aerial perspective makes them relatively easy to identify (much more so than on the ground). The NMP report (Horne & McLeod 1995) identifies at least 35 prehistoric coaxial field systems. These are shown in fig. 5, alongside those known from the HER data (with varying degrees of confidence), and it is clear that there are already some overlaps and underlaps between the datasets. The NMP dataset in particular gives good coverage of the landscape as a whole, and will, for example, help to explain ‘gaps’ between recorded field systems where more recent ridge and furrow or lead mining is present.

Fig. 7 Comparison of field systems as identified in the HER and NMP datasets.

Fig. 5 Comparison of field systems as identified in the HER and NMP datasets.

One of the main reasons for going through these datasets so thoroughly by hand is that I am now much more familiar with the data. I have moved on to processing the lidar data that exists for the Park – more about that next time… Horne, P. & McLeod, D. 1995. The Yorkshire Dales Mapping Project. A report for the National Mapping Programme. Air Photography Unit: Royal Commission on Historic Monuments of England.

Visualizing the prehistoric landscape

Conveniently for me, my dad is a graphic designer. Also conveniently for me, he is retired and can be persuaded that he has time on his hands to apply some of his skills to his daughter’s phd project… hence the image below, which I hope gives some indication of what the landscape at Conistone Dib, Wharfedale, may have looked like in use in late prehistory. It’s a combination of dad’s illustration and my photograph, and is based on the archaeology and geomorphology of the area that is coming into focus in this project.

“Oh no, it’s crow stew again for tea”. Two iron age kids entertain themselves while the grown ups look after the animals. Illustration: Bryan Brown.

“Oh no, it’s crow stew again for tea”. Two iron age kids entertain themselves while the grown ups look after the animals. Illustration: Bryan Brown.

Research trip: Céide Fields, Co. Mayo

Uncovered neolithic field wall at Cíede (with the visitor centre and North Atlantic in the background). © H. Brown

Uncovered neolithic field wall at Cíede (with the visitor centre and North Atlantic in the background). © H. Brown

In October 2013 I made a trip to County Mayo, northwest Ireland, ostensibly to visit friends, but also to visit the Céide Fields visitor centre. Céide has a wonderfully extensive landscape of prehistoric coaxial field systems, which has been preserved so effectively by several metres of peat and blanket bog that have developed on top of them. Field walls were first unearthed in the 1930s by the local school teacher, Patrick Caulfield, as he was digging peat in his garden in Belderrig, 7km west of Céide. Years later, his son, Seamus, went on to become an archaeologist (and eventually professor) and returned to investigate the Belderrig and Céide field systems (Caulfield 1978, 1998). Years of research ensued, which included tracing the lines of the field boundaries for kilometres under the peat by using an iron rod to probe the ground: when the metal rod is driven into the soft peat, the operator can feel whether or not there is a stone boundary at the bottom which can then be mapped to reveal walls, buildings and tombs.

Probing for field walls: the metal probe is used to detect their presence and the bamboo canes measure the depth of the peat. © H. Brown

Probing for field walls: the metal probe is used to detect their presence and the bamboo canes measure the depth of the peat. © H. Brown

Over the years more than a thousand hectares of fields have been traced in this way, revealing an expansive managed landscape. Radiocarbon and pollen dates obtained from materials across the site indicate that the field systems were already abandoned and covered in peat by 2500BC (Caulfield 1998) making them the earliest known field systems of this type in the world. The remains of the walls – which must contain many thousands of tons of stone – indicate a coherent and structured Neolithic society, with sufficient labour resources to clear woodland, divide up and maintain the land in an organised manner. The large area and extent of the fields suggest they were used for pastoral farming, although the team have discovered some early plough marks in the vicinity of settlement.

Roots of the c.5000 year-old scots pine preserved in peat, now taking pride of place in the visitors' centre. © H. Brown

Roots of the c.5000 year-old scots pine preserved in peat, now taking pride of place in the visitors’ centre. © H. Brown

All this is particularly interesting in the light of the Yorkshire Dales field systems, given that the Irish examples appear so similar in form yet date several thousand years earlier than the presumed date of their Bronze/Iron Age Yorkshire counterparts.

The arrangement of archaeology and visitors’ centre at Céide is fantastic – definitely a lesson in presenting ancient archaeological landscapes that could potentially be so uninspiring. The undertaking comes under the jurisdiction of the Office of Public Works and appears to be a success, attracting numerous visitors in a location where it is very difficult to be ‘just passing’. The centre itself is a striking pyramid cut into the blanket bog; inside, it is built around a large, gnarled scots pine tree trunk, around 5000 years old, that was preserved in the local peat.

One of the most notable aspects of the Céide visitor centre is the emphasis that is put on the field systems as a landscape, as opposed to just a site. This is underlined by the large proportion of the exhibition that is dedicated to the regional geology, geography and the local formation of peat and blanket bog. The exhibitions spiral up to the top of the building, where a viewing gallery (incorporating a glass-covered all-weather option – this is Ireland, after all) affords extensive views over the centre and beyond, placing the fields firmly in the context of the dramatic cliffs and expansive panoramas of the north Mayo coast. Definitely worth a visit!

References

Caulfield, S. 1978. Neolithic fields: the Irish evidence. In Bowen, HC & Fowler, PJ (eds) Early land allotment in the British Isles. A survey of recent work: 137-144. British Archaeological Reports 48. Oxford: Archaeopress.

 Caulfield, S. 1983 The Neolithic settlement of North Connaught. In Reeves-Smyth, T & Hammond, F (eds) Landscape Archaeology in Ireland: 195-215. British Archaeological Reports 116. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Caulfield, S., R. O’Donnell & P. Mitchell. 1998. 14C dating of a Neolithic field system at Céide fields, county Mayo, Ireland. Radiocarbon 40, 629-40.

© H. Brown

© H. Brown