The concept of reading the landscape and deciphering clues to previous human activity, we owe largely to the 1955 work of Hoskins, who, although he seems to have wilfully disregarded any possible contribution by the prehistoric period to the landscape he was studying (Fleming 2007 : 2), outlined an approach for landscape history (Hoskins 2005) . Aston and Rowley ( 1974) took this further, and the discipline of Landscape Archaeology was ‘born’ in the seminal textbook ‘Interpreting the Landscape’ (Aston 1985).

Aston’s focus, however, was on the medieval landscapes in which he specialised, and the question of whether the same documentary and observational approach can be applied to a pre-literate and undocumented era will now be considered in the form of case studies of two landscape archaeology projects. These particular case studies were selected as they were both ‘blank areas’ on the map surrounded by sites of archaeological interest. Using the ‘three pillars’ set out in Aston’s work:  Field Survey (surface collection), Maps and Aerial Photography (Aston 1985 :17), we will show how the techniques of Landscape History have been used to investigate prehistoric landscapes.

We will be limited to the study of later prehistoric landscapes i.e. from the Neolithic period onwards, as prior to the changes wrought on the landscape by the earliest monument-builders, the evidence for anthropogenic remains in the landscape is scarce. It may be that this evidence is buried under the North Sea, as the lowland plain that existed prior to the inundation of that land may have been more attractive to hunter-gatherers in the Mesolithic and earlier (Fitch 2011 : 3). Added to this is the non-localised nature of remains that are produced by such a mobile people, making the determination of ‘sites’ problematic (Barker 2009 : 77).

The Vale of the White Horse

Tingle, in his investigation of a transect of the Vale of the White Horse (1991), combined surface collection with other techniques to recover information about the Vale. His aim was partly to see if the absence of known prehistoric activity was a genuine absence or an absence of thorough archaeological investigation. His other aim was to see if the evidence of activity in the Vale altered with the shift in geology across the transect (Tingle 1991: 10).

Figure 1 Some of the study area, showing the area around Badbury (Crown Copyright)

With the change of geology comes a change in soil, and the Vale is predominantly clay, which in its modern state proves difficult for agriculture. He points out, however that conditions we would consider unacceptable of our modern purposes may have been quite appropriate for other uses, such as flood plain being currently unused, but water meadows being of vital importance in the past (Tingle 1991: 10). Work that has been done elsewhere demonstrates that clay soils of the past may have had an upper layer of humic material that meant they were eminently suitable for agriculture as they had not yet been subject to centuries of soil structure degradation (Clay 2007 : 72). Environmental evidence gleaned during the 1930s showed that the Vale was mostly wooded, with the ridges being open downland, and the best soils available on the Corallian ridge near Badbury (Tingle 1991 : 10).

Richard Bradley had already looked at the air photographic evidence for the area, but the combination of land use and the underlying soils meant that they showed not much. It is likely that more ephemeral prehistoric traces have been obliterated by the obvious mediaeval and post-mediaeval evidence (Tingle 1991 : 15).

Tingle’s previous work in the area, at Maddle Farm, had concentrated on land use on the downs, so part of the work to be done here was to see how evidence gathered via surface collection varied with distance from the open downland and see if landuse bore a relationship to the shifting geology (Tingle 1991 : 12). The collection strategy involved collection of artefacts from all periods, so to not exclude evidence of later activity that could have a bearing on the preservation of the prehistoric material (Tingle 1991 : 116) . This collection strategy helped to show that, as it retrieved Mesolithic evidence, if there were more to find it would have been found by the survey process, thereby demonstrating a genuine absence rather than an absence of fieldwork (Tingle 1991 : 117).

The earliest evidence for activity up on the downs seems to have been a possible causewayed enclosure near Badbury. This was shown by surface collection combined with transcription of soilmarks that show on aerial photography, and the correlation between these indicates that the lithic scatters and the soilmarks are related (Tingle 1991 :27).

Figure 2 Soilmarks and surface survey results from Badbury Hill, zone D (after Tingle 1991 Figure 2.7)


Although prehistory, by definition, is without written documents of a contemporary nature, later documents can give a picture of an older landscape and the objects within in. For example, Tingle refers to a potential missing Bronze Age round barrow from his study area (Tingle 1991 :16), referred to by Grinsell as being listed in a land charter of the 9th Century, but Grinsell does clearly say that the two mounds mentioned in the charter may have been put their to mark the boundary, rather than be prehistoric barrows (Grinsell 1938 : 105).

The availability of 9th Century charters that mentioned landmarks in the region was useful, however, as a kind of truthing for the evidence that was found in the field walking. Tingle felt that it enabled him to estimate the accuracy of the interpretation of the finds compared to the documentary evidence, and could project this accuracy back to the non-documented land uses (Tingle 1991 : 15). It is not certain, without inspecting the data, how successful this is as a test, as both sets of evidence are of a partial nature, and it is by no means certain that the parts overlap in a useful manner. He accepts though, that the use of unstratified finds to recreate past land use is problematic and subject to many caveats and conditions (Tingle 1991 : 21).

The Vale of Pewsey

Figure 3 The Location of the Vale of Pewsey, between the World Heritage Sites of Avebury, to the North, and Stonehenge, to the South (Crown Copyright)


Maps play an important part in understanding prehistoric remains. Not only do the Ordnance Survey include many (but not all) visible above-ground archaeological remains on their maps, but also show field boundaries and footpaths, some of which may have early origins.

This has been shown by Tubb (2011 :280) with the Stanton St Bernard parish boundary preserving, in its kinks and doglegs, the edge of a prehistoric field system. That it was a field system and not another obstruction such as a barn, was shown by the use of aerial photography that showed the prehistoric fields (Tubb 2011 :280).









Figure 4 The Site of McCulloch’s fields 32 & 33 (after Tubb 2009 : 414 Figure 1.13)

Fields 32 & 23 may correspond with fieldnames that include ‘black’, shown on a 1784 map of the manor of Stanton St Bernard (Corfield 1925) although it was difficult to establish with any certainty owing to the unfamiliar perspective of the map. The placename ‘black’ is said to relate to ancient sites (Shone et al. 2009 : 7), presumably due to the colour of the earth when it contains rich humic material.










Figure 5 Aerial photograph showing the same parish boundary (Source: Langlands n.d.)

Further evidence for prehistoric activity, was obtained by examining material collected by McCulloch, representing activity from the Late Bronze Age to Roman periods (Tubb 2011 :218).

Further East in Milton Lilbourne, Tubb has shown that not only are prehistoric fields still discernable in their effects on modern boundaries, but that a relict set of co-axial fields is still being worked. Land in adjacent parishes shows an entirely different arrangement (Tubb 2011 : 237).

Of course, field systems are unlikely to exist in isolation, neither in space, nor in the larger context of society (Fleming 1990), and so these examples are just part of the work done to establish the nature of prehistoric activity in the Vale. Overall the project put together evidence based on field-walking, earthwork survey, geophysics and a sense of topography and geography, to make sense of the landscape as a whole.


Some general conclusions can be drawn here: as with any investigation, in any discipline you care to choose, it is important to consider any previous work that has been done in the area; it is vital that all avenues of interrogation are considered from the outset even if project constraints deny their application; and a careful synthesis is required to make sense of any project findings. It is evident that a single technique, in isolation, does not provide enough evidence upon which to base an interpretation; it is the bringing together of various pieces of evidence that is the strength of Landscape Archaeology.

With respect to the investigations of later prehistoric landscapes, it is clear that with careful application, the traditional approaches usually associated with historic landscape analysis can be applied, not least to ‘subtract’ the more recent layers from the palimpsest. Hoskins was therefore wrong to downplay the role that prehistoric lifeways had in shaping our modern landscape, and the evidence is there, if one cares to look.



Aston, M., 1985. Interpreting the Landscape: Landscape, Archaeology and Local History 1st ed., London: Routledge.

Aston, M. & Rowley, T., 1974. Landscape Archaeology: An Introduction to Fieldwork Techniques on Post-Roman Landscapes, Vancouver, BC Canada: Douglas David & Charles Limited.

Barker, G., 2009. The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why Did Foragers Become Farmers?, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clay, P., 2007. Claylands Revisted: The Prehistory of W. G. Hoskins’s Midlands Plain. In A. Fleming & R. Hingley, eds. Prehistoric and Roman Landscapes. Windgather Press, pp. 70-82.

Corfield, W., 1925. Plan of the Manor of Staunton St Bernard, in the County of Wilts, belonging to the Right Honourable The Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery Surveyed by Mr Corfield, Salisbury, 1784 Scale of 3 chains to an inch.

Fitch, S., 2011. The Mesolithic Landscape of the Southern North Sea. Unpublished PhD Thesis. University of Birmingham. Available at:

Fleming, A., 2007. 1955 and All That: Prehistoric Landscapes in The Making. In A. Fleming & R. Hingley, eds. Prehistoric and Roman Landscapes. Macclesfield: Windgather Press, pp. 1-15.

Fleming, A., 1990. Landscape Archaeology, Prehistory, and Rural Studies. Rural History, 1(1), pp.5–15. Available at: [Accessed October 21, 2011].

Grinsell, L.V., 1938. Berkshire Barrows Part III. Evidence from Anglo-Saxon Charters. Berkshire Archaeological Journal, 42, pp.102-116. Available at:

Hoskins, W.G., 2005. Making of the English Landscape New editio., Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.

Langlands, A., The Vale of Pewsey: A 10th Century Landscape. Mapping Anglo-Saxon Charters. Available at: [Accessed January 12, 2011].

Shone, A., Smart, D. & Wiltshire, M., 2009. A ridge-way route between Wirksworth and Little Chester , Derby : a Roman road and its constructional features . Second Edi., Derby: Wirksworth Roman Project. Available at: Ridge-way.pdf.

Tingle, M., 1991. The Vale of the White Horse Survey, Oxford: British Archaeological Reports (British Series 218).

Tubb, P.C., 2009. The Bronze Age-Iron Age Transition in the Vale of Pewsey, Wiltshire. Volume 2. Unpublished PhD Thesis. University of Bristol.

Tubb, P.C., 2011. The LBA/EIA Transition in the Vale of Pewsey, Wiltshire, Oxford: British Archaeological Reports (British Series 543).

Written on January 13th, 2012 , Essays

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Notes from a field