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when combined with desk-based research – incorporating information from current and historic maps, aerial photographs, historical documents and the findings of previous research.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. Continue reading

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Holy Mounds, Sacred Springs. Prehistoric mounds and their landscapes.

To put the Round Mounds Project in context, Dr Jim Leary describes some previous work on Neolithic round mounds in Wiltshire and how those sites might give us some clues in the search for other similar mounds elsewhere…

One way of identifying mounds with potential for prehistoric origins is to look at the landscape settings of known prehistoric mounds and target sites in similar settings. Recent work on three huge mounds in Wiltshire has proved invaluable.

Silbury Hill: The largest prehistoric mound in Europe

Jim Leary, David Field and Gill Campbell. 2014. Silbury Hill: The largest prehistoric mound in Europe.

On the chalk massif in Wiltshire, near the famous Avebury henge, is a huge pudding bowl-shaped earthen mound called Silbury Hill. It dates to the later Neolithic period, and at 31m high is the largest prehistoric mound in Europe. Recently it was the focus of a multi-million pound archaeological and conservation project after a cavity opened up on the summit in 2000. Although many have suggested that it could have acted as an elevated arena, one of the most striking aspects of the mound is its setting – occupying a low-lying position surrounded by high terrain. This precludes the desire for height and visibility as the main reason for construction. It was not meant to be a prominent feature within the landscape; in fact it is relatively hidden when viewed from afar. Its associations are low down in the landscape – with water. Indeed, Silbury Hill occupies a springhead location and is situated at a confluence of springs and winterbournes of the River Kennet, effectively marking the river’s source. Continue reading

Medieval Motte or Prehistoric Mound? How we selected our study sites

Castle mottes are large earth and stone mounds, often coupled with a bailey, and are a characteristic component of the British landscape. Ask most people and they will have a favourite castle. It may be a local landmark which forms a familiar part of daily life or a more distant memory of a cherished past experience.

The motte and restored shell keep of Arundel Castle, West Sussex

The motte and restored shell keep of Arundel Castle, West Sussex

There are around 900 mottes or motte and bailey castles recorded from across England. So how did the Round Mounds Project team narrow this down to just 20 mottes for detailed study? Perhaps not surprisingly the first stage involved a review of existing information. The aim of this work was to identify castle sites with the potential for prehistoric origin. Continue reading

Introducing: The Round Mounds Project

Extending Histories: from Medieval Mottes to Prehistoric Round Mounds (‘The Round Mounds Project’ for short) is a three-year research project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and carried out by a team of researchers from the University of Reading and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC).

The Project, led by Dr Jim Leary, seeks to unlock the history of monumental mounds in the English landscape. Neolithic round mounds, such as Silbury Hill – the largest prehistoric mound in Europe, are among the rarest and lest well understood monuments in Britain. Recent work by Jim Leary at the medieval Marlborough Castle motte, Wiltshire, has shown it to be a Neolithic round mound which was reused in the medieval period, and raises the possibility that other castle mottes may have prehistoric origins. This research project therefore seeks to uncover prehistoric mounds that were adapted for medieval defence or have been misidentified as later mottes – a previously unrecognized phenomenon that could re-write our understanding of both the Neolithic and Norman periods.

Castle Hill, Thetford.

Castle Hill, Thetford.

Continue reading