Widecombe History Group Talk on the Exeter University Community Landscape Project


Illustrated talk on The Community Landscapes Project run by Exeter University

given by Sean Hawken.

This project, to understand and record archaeological features in the countryside, based at Exeter University, is financed by a lottery grant, Devon County Council and The University of Exeter. The team consists of five and has got off to a wonderful start, due mainly to the way that those partaking in it have approached the landowners and tenants of the land that they wished to survey, it is open for anyone to volunteer and participate in the activities. At first it was cautiously received but due to the way that those involved in the project visited and explained their ideas to the landowners, answered their queries and anxieties, cooperation was achieved. Due to the fact that Dartmoor and its antiquities are fairly well documented it was decided to look at the ground off the moors, the lowlands of Devon, that which has been the subject of agricultural use for the longest period and subjected to the most active cultivation. Often it is assumed that there is less archaeological activity left to be recorded in these areas but this is not so, it really means that due to farming practices there are less remains easily visable above ground. The current exploration is covering Hartland Moors, Roadford, Blackdown Hills, Clyst Valley, and the Bantham and Thurlestone area in the South Hams.

At first they looked at the Tithe Maps of the 19th century for the areas that they wished to explore, they are amazingly well drawn, the Tythe Apportionment Books associated with those maps, that list field numbers, names and uses, and ownership/occupiers of that time. Then by using aerial photographs they were able to ascertain what changes in the layout of the landscape had occured. A period of about 150 years. They also spent a great deal of time searching through documents in the D.R.Office.

Having superimposed one map on the other the alterations could be noted and the way that fields had been created from the open moorland of 2000 years ago and more could be evaluated. It can be seen that the early enclosures (infield enclosures) around farms and settlements were gradually extended (outfield enclosures) to bring more land under cultivation from the then open moors. Place names and field names help in this process.

Field names also help to decide the farming methods of the time, calving plots, arable fields and the early strip field system. Field names and place names can sometimes conflict in trying to calculate the dates of settlements and their uses.

In our area we know already that very few field shapes have been altered from the Tythe Map over the years.

The majority of their work is concerned with recording previously unknown features, mostly buildings and relic field boundaries which most likely are remains of clustered medieval and post medieval farms. Some of the strip fields have shown up remains of buildings, indicating early settlements where people lived while they worked for most of the time for the big landowners. Aerial photographs show up a tremendous variation in the growth of vegetation, this can be caused by the depth of soil sometimes caused by the presence under ground of deep infilled trenches that have a considerable depth of soil creating better vegetation or the remains of hedges grubbed out but leaving stoney or poor soil creating less growth. This type of archaeological surveying is "Non Destructive" as no digging takes place, recording the variation of slopes, mounds, hills, in other words all the undulations that could be surveyed including now filled in water courses. Particular mention was made of two large mounds, previously unrecorded on the Awliscombe and Buckrell Parish Boundaries. Plans were made of these two mounds about 400 yards apart. These are two ‘mott and bailey’ castles that at one time were quite likely beseiging each other, from adjoining parishes, possibly 12th century.

If this project can get further funding for a second phase and with it the chance to employ geo-physical equipment to survey the land, evidence of what lies below the surface can be evaluated, still without being intrusive.

The University of Exeter based Oral History Project, is a new development of landscape study, being managed by a Dr Mark Riley. This is using oral information in the context of landscape archaeology and the historic geography of the countryside. He is interested in the ‘plough-up’ campaign of WWII. Mark is currently hoping to interview farmers familiar with these events in the near future. As with all these schemes, funding is the problem, from where and how much can schemes of this type, hope to obtain so as to continue. In 2005 it is hoped to start a new scheme, and this could well include Dartmoor.

The work of volunteers, can not be over estimated, they have done much of the ground work, but always under the guidance of the team, this avoids local enthusiasts getting carried away, without skilled and knowledgable support.

Sample cores have been taken from small bogs and marshes for recording pollen and lichens, this too helps with deciding the plants of the time and the conditions when they were deposited. One example recorded back 7000 years, showed the years that trees were plentiful and other years when the trees were cleared for farming, the difference in the plants that were then being grown and prevelent.

All this information will be available to the 18 parishes that have already been covered, and the findings will be published on the website. If all goes well, for anyone that is researching a single field in those areas it will be possible to click onto the field name and the details will be there to see. It is hoped that this will be available by the end of 2004. The last part of this phase is now being completed by double checking the details and information gathered then, setting up these findings on the amended website.

Further information can be obtained from the Community Landscapes Project Newsletter.

Satelite groups can be formed in the hope that they will look at their particular areas.

A visit to the Sites and Monuments Record Office to view the Register for a particular area is one line of enquiry.

Examining the late 1940s RAF Aerial Photographs is another.

Contacts:- 01392 263851 or e-mail:- s.d.hawken@exeter.ac.uk

The Community Landscapes Project may be able to help or support groups that have similar ideas and aims after October.

If you are interested the best thing to do is to write a letter to express a desire to do something similar and ask for guidamce.

Start by looking at the Tythe Map and comparing that with todays mapping information.

This will encourage funding organisations to realise that this is what communities want.

Dartmoor is in a very unique situation and those living there are aware of much of their districts archaeology and The Dartmoor National Park may be interested in being involved with any such scheme. It all comes back to funding ultimately.

Experience has shown that with careful approach to farmers and landowners before any such work was undertaken, the strick notification to all those taking part in the scheme, that they must adhere to getting permission prior to any visits to private property, and the strict observance of legally involving proper protocol and behaviour, and the realisation that everything found or seen on the land is the property of the landowner, no incidents were encountered. This shows the sensitivity that those running this project have exercised. If the findings are ultimately recorded in publications, will this lead to mass trespass? This is a possibility but, the speaker felt that while much of this information is able to be sourced already from books and records, any ‘new find’, could however create a desire by some to view or visit the site, it is to be hoped that common courtesy will prevail. This project is a link between the professional archaeologists and the local enthusiasts. The office is an open office, where advice and support is available, and interpretation of finds and material is offered.

This work is time consuming but very rewarding. Once on computer, the information is available for all to look at.

Sean showed great interest in our "North Hall Site". If further visits to that site is desirable, fresh permission MUST be obtained first from the owner of the site.

Chairman thanked Sean Hawken for a detailed and informative address.

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