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The Changing Historical Landscape of West Wiltshire

An archaeological landscape impacted by development and agriculture.

Why we chose to study west Wiltshire

The West Wiltshire National Archaeological Identification Survey (NAIS) Lowland Pilot project forms a companion to the NAIS Upland Pilot also covered by an article in Latest Research, which explains the general rationale for the NAIS projects.

  • The landscape of west Wiltshire was selected for study because it is undergoing significant change.
  • There is considerable development pressure around the major towns, and on the surrounding farmland arable is increasingly replacing pasture.
  • In addition, there is a need for deeper understanding of the long-term development of a region sandwiched between the better-known landscapes of the Cotswolds and the Wiltshire downs.

View of the greensand hills from Lacock in the Avon vale.
View of the greensand hills from Lacock in the Avon vale. © Jonathan Last

Wiltshire's 'chalk and cheese' landscape

The project was centred on the valley of the river Avon, between Chippenham and Bradford-on-Avon, with a southerly extension to Trowbridge and an eastern arm taking in the Roman small town of Verlucio (Sandy Lane). This is primarily a clay landscape, historically used for dairy farming – the β€˜cheese’ part of Wiltshire's famous division between 'chalk and cheese'. The clay vale is flanked to the west by the Jurassic limestone of the southern Cotswolds and to the east by a low ridge of Corallian limestone and an area of greensand hills.

Map showing the distribution of mapped ridge  and  furrow in the project area of West Wiltshire.
The distribution of mapped ridge and furrow in the project area. © Historic England

Using air photographs and lidar

As with the Lowland Pilot, work began with a programme of archaeological mapping derived from the analysis of air photographs and lidar imagery.

This revealed a patchy distribution of cropmarks, with particular concentrations around Chippenham and Sandy Lane, as well as on areas of Cornbrash limestone near Bradford-on-Avon and Trowbridge. The buried landscape revealed by the cropmarks mainly comprises the enclosures marking later prehistoric and Roman settlements, in some places accompanied by field systems.

A significant number of earthworks, principally of medieval and post-medieval date, were also mapped; there are two large concentrations of ridge and furrow, suggesting widespread medieval arable agriculture in areas that were later given over to dairying.

Map plotting cropmarks of enclosures to the west of Chippenham, Wiltshire.
Cropmarks on the lime-rich soils west of Chippenham show a series of regularly spaced enclosures. © Historic England

Work on the ground

The ground-based work principally comprised analytical earthwork survey, geophysical survey and excavation.

The selection of sites was driven by research questions arising both from the mapping and from the South West Archaeological Research Framework (Grove and Croft 2012), modified by practical issues such as site access and the limited available resources. This meant, for example, that detailed investigation of the busy archaeological landscape around Verlucio was deferred to a separate project.

Fieldwork therefore focussed on two main themes: the enclosures revealed as cropmarks, and the earthwork remains of deserted or shrunken settlement.

An Aerial photograph showing cropmarks near Chippenham, including an early Roman enclosure.
Aerial photograph of an early Roman enclosure near Chippenham. © Historic England, 27734/028

Four enclosures were investigated by geophysical survey, three of which were also partially excavated, the trenches targeting particular features or areas revealed by remote sensing.

One site to the east of Trowbridge is a curvilinear enclosure about 120m in diameter, which excavation showed to be Early Iron Age in date. This is contemporary with a number of hillforts in the wider region, as well as the midden sites of the Vale of Pewsey, and offers the first insight into other forms of settlement present in the area at this time.

Greyscale plot showing results of magnetometer survey of Roman enclosure with 'driveway'.
Greyscale plot showing results of magnetometer survey of Roman enclosure with 'driveway'. © Historic England

The other enclosures investigated on the ground were all rectilinear and provisionally interpreted as Late Iron Age or Roman.

Excavation proved one of these, north-east of Chippenham, to be a short-lived site of the 2nd century AD, with no evidence of permanent buildings in the excavated area. The other excavated site, not far from the curvilinear enclosure, had more substantial settlement remains, spanning the Late Iron Age to the late 2nd century AD.

Together they hint at a significant reorganisation of the landscape in the later Roman period and, along with a third rectilinear enclosure that was investigated by geophysical (magnetometer) survey only, a diversity of function within a superficially similar group of sites. The latter enclosure, in Atworth parish, has an impressively straight 'driveway' some 160m long connecting it to a wider system of fields and trackways which were also revealed as cropmarks.

The Roman landscape had some influence on the structure of the medieval countryside, with the line of the road between Bath and Verlucio forming a hundred boundary that also seems to have influenced the distribution of ridge and furrow. Some of this fieldscape was investigated on the ground but detailed survey focussed on two areas of medieval or post-medieval settlement earthworks.

Plan of earthworks of medieval farmsteads at Lower Paxcroft, Wiltshire.
Earthworks of medieval farmsteads at Lower Paxcroft. © Historic England

At Lower Paxcroft, near Trowbridge, a number of 'toft and croft' earthworks were aligned on a couple of hollow-ways. Situated at the boundary between arable and common land, the hamlet was well-placed in the medieval period but lost this advantageous location once the commons were enclosed. It appears to have suffered a staged decline during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The work at Catridge, near Lacock, combined earthwork survey with other techniques to reveal the changing status of the site over the centuries. Today Catridge is a farmstead with a listed house and barn, but earthwork remains in the adjacent paddocks show that the settlement was once considerably larger. Survey here revealed a number of building platforms arranged along a series of tracks running off a substantial hollow-way. One platform was chosen for excavation, which revealed not the expected medieval occupation, but a dump of material dating to the late 17th century, overlying stone foundations.

Archaeologists excavating a building platform at Catridge, Wiltshire with the 16th-century farmhouse in the background.
Excavation of a building platform at Catridge, with the 16th-century farmhouse in the background. © Historic England

Volunteers aided survey of farmstead

The discovery at Catridge prompted a detailed study of the farmstead's buildings with members of the Wiltshire Buildings Record and geophysical survey to see if further stone foundations could be detected.

The buildings survey showed that an ostentatious dairy with a (rare) cheese room was added to the farmhouse in the early 17th century and would have been very prominent to anyone approaching from Lacock. It provides a nice correlation with the presence of pancheons, shallow bowls used in milk production, in the ceramic assemblage from the excavation. Following the abandonment of the settlement and hollow-way, over which the barn was extended, the farmhouse became a more private space, overlooking its own garden within a remodelled farmstead.

Using developer-led archaeology results

The stories emerging from the project demonstrate the value of combining investigative techniques in a co-ordinated fashion. But Historic England's ground-based teams can only investigate a small fraction of the sites identified by aerial mapping: for example 50ha of geophysical survey represents just 0.25 per cent of the project area.

The results of development-led archaeology therefore form a crucial complement to our own fieldwork. In west Wiltshire this amounted to nearly 1000ha of magnetometer survey and trial-trench evaluation, material which offers considerable insight into the representativeness of the archaeological record identified from the air and the dating of different types of site.

While much of this work is localised around the outskirts of the major towns (where new housing allocations are concentrated) changes in rural land use, such as the increased number of planning applications for solar farms, are providing more opportunities to investigate other areas.

Better protection and stewardship

Ultimately the main value of the project will be the improved protection of the historic environment at a time of change. Better knowledge of the archaeological resource allows planners to make more informed decisions and facilitates environmental stewardship, but also goes beyond local authority plans and statutory processes.

Protection depends on people and communities caring about their archaeological heritage, and that is why the stories we tell about long-term human activity and endeavour in the landscape are so important.

Jonathon Last


Dr Jonathan Last is an archaeologist specialising in prehistory. He has worked in various roles for English Heritage and Historic England since 2001. He is currently Landscape Strategy Manager in the Remote Sensing team.

Further reading

In addition to the reports below, available on the Historic England website, all the monument records produced by the project can be accessed on the PastScape website and archaeological mapping is available on request from the Historic England Archive. The final project report is in preparation.

Grove, J and Croft, B (eds) 2012 The Archaeology of South West England: South West Archaeological Research Framework Research Strategy 2012–2017. Taunton: Somerset County Council.

Caswell, E 2015 Lower Paxcroft Farm, Hilperton, Wiltshire: Analytical Earthwork Survey. Historic England Research Report Series 89-2015.

Jamieson, E 2015 Catridge Farm, Lacock, Wiltshire: the Remains of a Shrunken Settlement. Historic England Research Report Series 90-2015.

Linford, N, Linford, P and Payne, A 2014 Little Chalfield, Atworth, Wiltshire: Report on Geophysical Survey, August 2014. English Heritage Research Report Series 78-2014

Linford, N, Linford, P, Payne, A and Edwards, Z 2015a Paxcroft, Hilperton, Wiltshire: Report on Geophysical Surveys, May and September 2014. English Heritage Research Report Series 9-2015

Linford, N, Linford, P, Payne, A and Edwards, Z 2015b Kellaways Farm, Langley Burrell Without, Wiltshire: Report on Geophysical Survey, May 2014. Historic England Research Report Series 79-2015.

Linford, N, Linford, P, Payne, A and Caswell, E 2016 Catridge Farm, Gastard, Lacock, Wiltshire: Report on Geophysical Survey, October 2014. Historic England Research Report Series 4-2016.

Smith, N 2015 Watgrove, Great Chalfield, Wiltshire: Report on Earthwork Survey. Historic England Research Report Series 91-2015.

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