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Revealing Past Landscapes in Cumbria and Lancashire

A deepened understanding of a previously under-recorded landscape.

Deploying a range of techniques

In order to explore how different survey techniques can be combined to assess the historic environment across large areas of the landscape, Historic England has run three National Archaeological Identification Survey (NAIS) projects in contrasting parts of the country.

Typically, these projects analyse the landscape by producing  large-area mapping from air photographs and airborne laser scanning (lidar) surveys. Target sites are then identified at which a variety of ground-based techniques can be deployed. The aim is to more effectively deploy the resources needed to examine the landscape at this scale, while providing data that can be used to support heritage protection.

Such information can underpin planning and management at a local and national level, and be relevant to everything from land management to the scheduling of nationally significant sites.

A view eastwards across the project site, with the Lune Valley in the middle distance and the Yorkshire Dales beyond.
A view eastwards across the project site, with the Lune Valley in the middle distance and the Yorkshire Dales beyond. © Historic England, 28366/42

This article, and another on West Wiltshire outline the results of the first two of the three projects. Here, the Upland Pilot project, which examined an area of south-west Cumbria and northern Lancashire stretching from the relative lowlands of the Lyth Valley into the Pennine fringe, is discussed.

The area was chosen because it was felt to be relatively poorly understood. The other article covers the Lowland Pilot project, which covered a part of west Wiltshire in which significant potential change was anticipated in urban and rural areas alike.

The third project, now underway in Cambridgeshire, is assessing the potential for large-area mapping to provide a context for the results emerging from commercial excavations.

Map of the project area.
The project area, with the results of aerial mapping. © Historic England

Air photographs and lidar

Previous  work in parts of the Upland Pilot project area demonstrated that significant archaeological remains survived as earthworks, but that there was considerable scope for the identification of new sites and a better understanding of known ones.

The first stage of the project, then, systematically examined nearly 4,000 air photographs, many taken as far back as the 1940s.

In addition to these, lidar data, recently captured for the Environment Agency, proved invaluable for recording archaeological earthworks. The mapping from air photographs and lidar increased the number of monuments recorded in the national record for the project area by over three-quarters.

Lidar plot showing medieval and post-medieval field patterns around Beetham.
Lidar showing medieval and post-medieval field patterns around Beetham. © Historic England; source Environment Agency

In the west, between Warton and Kendal, the influence of medieval and post-medieval land use was clear. Field systems and traces of ridge and furrow ploughing were common. These were sometimes associated with the abandoned remains of settlements, such as at Helsington and Yealand Storrs. Reminders of our more recent past included Second World War sites, such as a large munitions dump on Beetham Fell.

In contrast, the results from the eastern parts of the project area revealed extensive remains of later prehistoric and Roman land use.

Numerous settlements, probably originating in the Iron Age, were mapped; some were previously unknown. One of the most impressive was at Gillsmere where a settlement enclosure, complete with hut circles, remained unnoticed until 2012. It was identified in advance of the project by Historic England’s aerial reconnaissance programme.

Aerial photograph of settlement earthworks at Gillsmere, Lancashire.
An Iron Age/Roman settlement at Gillsmere, Lancashire, not identified until 2012.

Ground visits

Mapping from air photographs and lidar was used to select areas for rapid field assessment and 130 sites were then visited on the ground. The mapping was taken into the field on a handheld global navigation satellite system device so that a given site’s location, morphology and interpretation could be more closely examined. In some instances subtleties of phasing and character not clearly seen from the air were identified and the record was enhanced accordingly.

Ground visits also provided up-to-date assessments of the condition of a monument. Within the project area the land is almost exclusively under pasture, and it is tempting to assume that agriculture has thus had little impact on archaeological remains. However, a visit to one prehistoric settlement found the grassland had been improved through ploughing and reseeding, resulting in significant damage to the earthworks. Neither the farmer nor any archaeologist had been aware of the site at the time these works were carried out, demonstrating how identification is the vital first step to protection.

A Historic England Investigator undertaking field survey of a Bronze Age stone circle at Casterton, Cumbria
A Historic England Investigator undertaking field survey of a Bronze Age stone circle at Casterton, Cumbria

An ancient landscape in the Lune Valley emerges

It has long been known that the Lune Valley contains extensive remains dating from the later prehistoric  period onwards. On the fringes of the uplands, a lack of medieval and later ploughing has resulted in strikingly good survival of archaeology.

The mapping done by the project built upon previous work (Higham 1979, Jecock 1998) and pieced together fragments of a large swathe of evidence for settlement and land division. An ancient landscape, divided by long parallel field boundaries interspersed with settlements and stock enclosures, gradually began to emerge.

Image of Lune valley with results of surveys mapped onto it.
The multi-phase landscapes of the Lune valley. © Historic England

Geophysical survey gives insights at Millbeck

Down in the valley bottom, geophysical survey gave us further insights into what can lie hidden beneath the modern fields.

At Millbeck, faint traces of a D-shaped enclosure were photographed from the air in 2006, showing as a dark green mark in pasture. This was a good opportunity to see how geophysical survey could provide additional detail. The results showed the enclosure with greater clarity and located it within the boundaries of a probable Iron Age or Roman coaxial field system. This indicated that the land divisions visible as earthworks on the side of the valley must once have continued into the valley bottom.

Geophysical survey thus demonstrated the potential for the discovery of further buried remains in a landscape where evidence is often difficult to detect from the air.

Plot of Magnetometry survey at the Iron Age/Roman enclosure at Millbeck, Cumbria
Magnetometry of the Iron Age/Roman enclosure at Millbeck

Kitridding targeted for earthwork survey and excavation

At Kitridding Farm, a settlement was selected for analytical earthwork survey and targeted excavation.

Aerial and earthwork survey had revealed a scooped enclosure, roughly oval and about 45m across, and set into the hillside. Internal features included at least one hut circle. In Cumbria, sites of this form are usually interpreted as Late Iron Age or Romano-British, but very few have produced good dating evidence.

Two narrow trenches were excavated across the outer bank and the wall of the hut circle. The bank had an earth base, overlain by a rubble wall with a stone revetment on its outer side. A stone-packed post hole may have been part of an earlier phase, and a circular hearth or oven with a charcoal-rich fill lay outside the enclosure. Two courses of the pitched stone footings survived from the roundhouse wall, and an interior post hole may have been part of a ring supporting its roof.

A key aim was to find suitable stratified material for dating. Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) and radiocarbon dating methods were applied to material sampled from in and under the bank and house wall, as well as from the hearth. We intend to compare the results for the OSL with the radiocarbon dates when both are available, and then evaluate the use of OSL dating for similar sites in the area.

Very few artefacts were found. A flint scraper of Neolithic/Early Bronze Age date (identified by Antony Dickson of Oxford Archaeology North) was probably already old when deposited, and seems to have deliberately been placed under the stone wall of the roundhouse. A small stone token or counter (identified by Chris Howard-Davis of the same unit) was also recovered.

The settlement is adjacent to Kitridding Mire, an area of open water surrounded by marsh, containing waterlogged organic deposits. Two cores through the marsh were taken in order to investigate the potential of the pollen and other plant remains recovered for the reconstruction of past activities, environments and landscapes.

Excavation trench with settlement remains at Kitridding, Cumbria
Excavation of the settlement at Kitridding, Cumbria © Historic England

Training opportunity

The project provided an excellent training opportunity for professional placements in non-invasive survey, providing practical experience of mapping from air photographs and lidar as well as of analytical earthwork and geophysical survey. These were organised in collaboration with the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists.

Practical results

Results from the project are already being used to better manage and protect monuments. This includes areas in the east of the project area which will shortly become part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. It is hoped that the results will also provide a stimulus for further work in the region.

Matthew Oakey


Matthew Oakey, MPhil, is a Senior Investigator, Aerial Investigation and Mapping, for Historic England. He joined English Heritage in 2006, having previously worked as an air photograph interpreter for West Yorkshire Archaeology Service. He was project manager for the NAIS Upland Pilot.

Zoe Hazell


Zoe Hazell is a Senior Palaeoecologist with Historic England. She has a geography background, with research experience in the reconstruction of past environments and landscapes. Her multidisciplinary interests mean that she has worked on diverse projects, from the use of peatlands to reconstruct past climatic conditions to the study of wood use through the identification of archaeological wood/charcoal remains.

Vicky Crosby


Vicky Crosby is an archaeologist with Historic England's Excavation and Analysis Team. She specialises in later prehistoric and Romano-British rural settlement and landscape, and is currently working on the assessment of the Iron Age and Romano British settlement at Stanwick, Northants (part of the Raunds Project). She also supports and develops the team’s site recording and survey methods.

Further Reading

In addition to the reports below, available through 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.

Hardwick, I 2014 NAIS: Upland Pilot, Burton-in-Kendal and Dalton, Cumbria and Lancashire: An Archaeological Landscape Investigation. Historic England Research Report Series 10-2014

Higham, N J 1979 ‘An aerial survey of the upper Lune Valley’, 47–50 in Higham, N J (ed) The Changing Past: Some Recent Work in the Archaeology of Northern England. Manchester: University of Manchester

Jecock, M 1998 High Park, Lancashire and Cow Close, Cumbria, an Archaeological Survey Report. Swindon: Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England

Linford, N, Linford, P and Payne, A 2013 Lakes and Dales NAIS, Millbeck Farm, Middleton, Cumbria: Report on Geophysical Survey, July 2013. Historic England Research Report Series 55-2013

Linford, N, Linford, P and Payne, A 2013 Lakes and Dales NAIS, Gowrey Farm, High Casterton, Cumbria: report on Geophysical Survey, August 2013. Historic England Research Report Series 57-2013

Linford, N, Linford, P and Payne, A 2013 Lakes and Dales NAIS, Howerigg Settlement, Barbon, Cumbria: Report on Geophysical Survey, August 2013. Historic England Research Report Series 58-2013

Linford, N, Linford, P, Payne, A and Hardwick, I 2013 Lakes and Dales NAIS, Kitridding Hill, Lupton, Cumbria: Report on Geophysical Survey, July 2013. Historic England Research Report Series 56-2013

Oakey, M, Jecock, M, Hazell, Z, Linford, P, Linford, N and Payne, A 2015 National Archaeological Identification Survey: Upland Pilot Project Report. Historic England Research Report Series 55-2013

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