The Lie of the Land: analytical survey of earthworks and landscapes

In his pioneering book The Making of the English Landscape published in 1955, W.G. Hoskins noted ‘everything in the landscape is older than we think’. The evidence for this is all around us. And once you know what to look for, you can’t help but see it.

Not much of England has escaped being altered by humans. Even in the seemingly wild places – such as the bleak uplands of Dartmoor or the rugged peaks of the Lakes – you can find evidence for past human activity. These previous interventions play an integral part in defining the character of the countryside we see and value today. The earthwork banks of prehistoric enclosures, the network of roads and field boundaries that connect and divide the countryside, and the fabric of village houses are all imprints of past inhabitants. The English landscape therefore incorporates the actions, behaviour and beliefs of people, and represents a living record of the past.

The English landscape represents a living record of the past

The English landscape represents a living record of the past

Analytical survey is a powerful tool that can help unravel the stories embedded in the landscape record. Through keen observation, careful recording and thoughtful analysis of visible archaeological and historical remains, insightful interpretations of a site or landscape can emerge. It is especially powerful when combined with desk-based research – incorporating information from current and historic maps, aerial photographs, historical documents and the findings of previous research. It can also help target further research using other specialist techniques (such as geophysical survey, archaeological excavation or environmental assessment) and can provide a wider context for their results.

Analytical survey of earthworks and landscapes has a long tradition in Britain, and is the oldest of archaeological techniques. It was employed by early antiquaries, such as John Aubrey who, in the 17th century, produced a fine plan of the henge at Avebury using an elementary plane-table. The work of these early landscape surveyors was based on good observation skills and an inquisitive mind. These remain key attributes for anyone undertaking analytical survey today. Modern technology – such as Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) and Total Station Theodolites (TST) – can greatly speed up the recording process, but cannot replace experience, a sharp eye and the ability to challenge and review the evidence.

Modern technology can greatly speed up the recording process, but cannot replace experience and a sharp eye.

Modern technology can greatly speed up the recording process, but cannot replace good observation skills and experience

Analytical survey can identify the chronological relationships between different elements of a site or landscape, and can provide useful information on the form of monuments. This makes it ideal for the Round Mounds Project where we are searching for indicators of the reuse or misidentification of late Neolithic mounds. Analytical survey can be undertaken at a range of levels and was initially employed in the assessment stage of the project. This involved a desk-based study, aimed at assembling and reviewing existing historical, archaeological and topographic information on known castle mottes, followed by a rapid field investigation of selected sites. From this work a basic understanding of the nature and historic development of the landscape surrounding each motte was formulated, allowing an assessment of its prehistoric potential to be made.

A key component of the fieldwork element of the Round Mounds Project is the large-scale analytical survey of each motte selected for detailed investigation. The survey work is being carried out using a combination of GNSS and TST equipment, completed in the field using traditional survey techniques. It is hoped that meticulous examination of the earthwork remains will reveal evidence for successive phases of monument construction and alteration. This could take the form of features such as regular breaks-of-slope and ledges, carried around all or most of the circumference of the mound. When faced with a massive motte and impressive castle ramparts, this type of subtle evidence can easily be overlooked or ignored as insignificant. However, by adopting an inter-disciplinary approach to examining the fabric of each mound, the project team hope to determine if these subtle external markers are true indicators of chronological depth.

Subtle changes visible in the profile of the mound at Brinklow Castle, Warwickshire

Subtle changes visible in the profile of the mound at Brinklow Castle, Warwickshire

As the seasons change, the leaves fall from the trees, and the low winter sun casts long shadows across the landscape, the earthwork evidence for past human activity becomes easier to spot. Members of the Round Mounds team will therefore be out in earnest – clad in layers of fleece and waterproofs – trying to identify evidence that at least some of our castle mottes are older than we think.

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2 thoughts on “The Lie of the Land: analytical survey of earthworks and landscapes

  1. Pingback: The Round Mounds Project on tour: talks and conference presentations | The Round Mounds Project

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