3.6.4 Layout of the settlement, property boundaries and enclosures

The third major group of features comprises enclosure ditches, gullies and property boundaries. Together, these represent more than 2,600 contexts or 13% of the record. The layout of the West Heslerton settlement is quite different to anything previous ly identified in Early Anglo-Saxon England. Evidence is now emerging from sites like Abingdon (Dr Ellen MacAdam pers. comm.), and even Sutton Courtney, where air photographic evidence may indicate that this site, one of the earliest examined, was both lar ger than originally envisaged and had areas of post-hole structures which were separate from the areas of Grubenhäuser examined by Leeds. This suggests that the situation at West Heslerton is far from unique. The distinctive layout of West Heslerton, which includes elements of deliberate functional zoning which may be interpreted as a 'proto-urban' attribute, necessitates a radical re-assessment of Early Anglo-Saxon settlements as a site class.

Fig. 3.18 Multiphase enclosure systems

The settlement comprises a number of distinct zones in which the evidence points to localised function as the controlling factor. To the east of the stream channel, which bisected the settlement, post-hole structures were the dominant feature. This are a is interpreted as a housing zone. The large number of post-hole structures identified represents only partial recovery, with two areas of the site having been destroyed within the last 250 years as a result of quarrying, and a third severely truncated b y plough damage, probably over the last 50 years. Whilst loss of evidence due to plough damage is certain in some areas, in others, particularly close to the stream channel, the natural depression here and the influx of aeolian deposits and hill-wash has minimised recent damage, preserving deposits to a far greater degree than is normally encountered. It is striking that there is virtually no evidence of fences or property boundaries of any sort within the housing zone in the northern part of the site. Th is contrasts with the evidence from the major continental sites, where groups of structures are both enclosed by property boundaries and follow a planned layout fronting onto roadways within the settlements.

There is only limited evidence for internal trackways within the settlement at West Heslerton. A number of patches of worn pebbles to the west of the stream channel indicate the presence of both a small path and a larger track-way running south to nort h through the northern part of the settlement. In at least one case, the major track-way, defined by a series of worn wheel ruts in Area 2DA/2DB, had determined the alignment of a large Grubenhaüs which, unusually, was aligned north-south rather than east-west which was the norm. In the southern part of the site in Area 12AD more than 25 patches of worn chalk surface were identified, where frequent use had contributed to the formation of fine pebble surfaces, some of which were clearly pathways. It i s clear, however, that a number of these surfaces relate primarily to Roman activity. In one area, just to the south of the spring, an exceptional surface survived, protected from damage beneath a now removed hedge boundary. A pair of Middle Saxon linked pins recovered from the surface demonstrate its use until the end of the life of the settlement.

There appears to be a definite relationship between the small number of Grubenhäuser and the post-hole structures in the northern part of the housing zone, where groups of Grubenhäuser lie in rows beyond the area of post-hole structures, exte nding out into the lighter soils around the chalk knoll that was the focus of the post-hole structures.

In contrast to the occupation in the north-eastern part of the settlement, on the opposite bank of the stream a quite different picture emerged. More than 60 Grubenhäuser were widely distributed across a gently sloping sandy area beyond the west b ank of the stream. Despite very careful examination of more than 2 hectares of ground, not a single convincing post-hole structure could be identified in this part of the site. Even allowing for the exceptional stratigraphic conditions arising from the pr esence of the medieval headland over this part of the site, the frequency of finds was generally far greater than in the housing zone opposite. The extensive midden deposits from this area deserve careful attention and comparison with the material derived from the Grubenhäuser fills if we are to attempt to study fragmentation and site formation processes. This area has been interpreted as a craft/industrial zone. Only along its eastern edge do we find any evidence of boundary features, a pair of gull ies running out of the stream channel to the north perhaps representing irrigation gullies. Any suggestion that irrigation was employed in the Early Anglo-Saxon period is sure to raise questions; however, the levels of iron panning found in these gullies more than 50m to the north of the stream channel show that at some time at least they carried water away from the stream towards the very sandy areas to the north. It is possible that these features could be of Late Roman date; what is clear is that they existed as open gullies during the Early Anglo-Saxon period when large quantities of animal bone in particular accumulated within them. The evidence from the craft/industrial zone, which includes two metal-working furnaces and a malt-kiln, looks not unlik e that derived from Early Anglo-Saxon sites elsewhere in Britain, and must be compared with these sites if we are to appreciate fully the implications of planning raised by the results from West Heslerton.

Planning the seasonal excavations was made particularly difficult on account of the tremendous differences in the evidence identified in each area examined; only in the last two seasons were we able to assess the potential prior to excavation using the excellent geophysical surveys provided by the AML. The evidence from the southern half of the excavated area was quite unlike that from the housing and craft/industrial zones to the north. Extensive areas of enclosures were identified on both sides of th e stream and particularly to either side of the spring; this remains active at the centre of the settlement, although the water had since been diverted through a land drain, following a line used since the medieval period. Our attempt to understand the en closure sequence is complicated by the fact that there is continuity of occupation into the Middle Saxon period in the southern half of the settlement, in contrast to the evidence from the northern part of the settlement which appears to have been almost exclusively Early Saxon in date.

The network of enclosures at the southern end of the site is clearly Roman in origin and evidence from both coinage and the pottery indicates a late 4th century date. The importance of the relationship between the Late Roman and possibly earlier ritual site and the emergence of the Early Anglo-Saxon settlement from the same core location cannot be overstated. The study of the transitional period from Roman to Saxon is one of the key topics flagged as of national importance in Exploring our Past (English Heritage, 1991a), and with the results of the work undertaken in 1995 is a question we are well placed to discuss in some detail.

To the west of the stream the development sequence begins with the construction of a series of sub-rectangular enclosures in the Late Roman period; these are defined both by ditches and a series of narrow slots presumed to have carried timber fencing. A small timber gateway located in Area 11CE is paralleled in a 5th century context at South Cadbury (Alcock 1972). Within the gated enclosure, the stone footings of a Roman roundhouse had been cut away by an Early Anglo -Saxon Grubenhaüs, a later post-hole building and by a Middle Saxon timber slot. A second enclosure to the south adjacent to the spring head was larger and contained a number of pebble spreads which may have formed post-pads for further, possibly rec tangular, structures. To the north, a much larger enclosure defined by a somewhat insubstantial triple ditch to the north and west enclosed an area of 3,600m2 on the western bank of the stream; this was apparently open and remained so until the Middle Saxon period when a post-in-trench and some smaller post-hole structures were constructed in the north-west and south-west corners of the enclosure. The absence of structures in this area during the Early Saxon period is of considerable interest, especially in the light of Wendy Carruthers' assessment of the plant macrofossil material which gives some support to the theory that this enclosure may have been used for crop and animal processing (see also 4.1 Plant Macrofossil s, 4.10 Anglian Pottery Petrological Assessment).

During the Early Saxon period the Roman ditches appear to have been maintained, but by the Middle Saxon period a number of new enclosures, fences and boundaries were constructed, including a fenced enclosure adjacent to the spring with a funnel entranc e, paralleled by the principal enclosure at Catholme (Loscoe-Bradley 1974). The degree to which the enclosure layout was redefined during the Early Anglo-Saxon period can only be determined through more detailed analysi s of the assemblages derived from the various ditches and fence slots. It seems most likely that the enclosures which are found on either side of the upper course of the stream must in part have served to restrict access by stock to the clean water source at the spring. A number of Grubenhäuser, post-hole buildings and hearths indicate that this area, lying immediately to the west of the spring, was intensively utilised throughout the Anglo-Saxon phase of occupation in what is interpreted as a multi- function zone.

To the east of the spring, a second group of enclosures again seems to develop through a sequence starting in the Late Roman period and running on until the end of the life of the settlement. A series of frequently re-set fence lines marked the eastern boundary of the settlement, curving round towards the stream channel and enclosing a roughly rectangular area. Not far outside this enclosure, to the north a band of natural clay contained almost no archaeological features and may have supported a belt o f trees in antiquity; where features run up to this deposit they stopped abruptly at the interface between the chalk and clay. Within the main enclosure a number of smaller slots and gullies had defined a number of sub-enclosures; many of these were cut i nto hill-wash deposits that sealed a prehistoric land surface. These deposits were initially examined in detail in three sample areas. Richard Macphail has undertaken a detailed soil micro-morphological study of these, producing evidence of farm-yard depo sits which he has suggested may relate to the management of stock, in particular sheep. One small enclosure, contained within the main eastern enclosure, contained four Grubenhäuser. Should the further analysis of the plant macrofossil evidence confi rm the suggestion that many of the Grubenhäuser were grain stores, then this feature group may have formed something like a manorial grain store associated with the high status property to the south. The disentangling of the Early and Middle Saxon se quence in this area requires detailed examination of the ceramics assemblage, since it is clear from West Heslerton, Wharram Percy, and other sites that the crude hand-made ceramics characteristic of the Early Saxon period continue to be made during the M iddle Saxon period.

The landscape to the south of the spring was dominated by a series of enclosures which encompassed both the chalk knolls which lie between two dry valleys emerging from the foot of the Wolds and enclosed the dry valleys themselves. The major dry valley which was the setting for the major Late Roman ritual landscape continues to remain the most important zone until the desertion of the settlement.

A series of massive fence slots and ditches, clearly related to a series of large post-hole buildings constructed across the valley floor, mark the limit of the Anglo-Saxon secular activity, creating a complete barrier across the valley and perhaps def ining a separation between secular and religious space in the Early Saxon period. This would appear to be the most likely explanation since this arrangement effectively excludes much of the broad flat platform created in the bottom of the valley during th e Late Roman period which would otherwise have been an ideal area for housing. The enclosure sequence here offers the best potential for identification of the full sequence and the derived assemblages will assist in the definition of the difficult to iden tify Middle Saxon component in the ceramics.

One distinctive fabric emerges in the Middle Saxon period; this was not identified as such until towards the end of the project and it is certain that once detailed analysis of the ceramics has been undertaken the quantity of material that can be linke d to the Middle Saxon phase will increase. A number of copper alloy and silver pins, tweezers and other metalwork recovered in the southern half of the settlement reveal more Middle Saxon activity than the preliminary dating of the ceramics in the field c an demonstrate.

A number of questions emerge from the evidence of the enclosures. Quite clearly, the development of the settlement during the Early Saxon period was planned or controlled carefully, and yet internal planning and the development of internal property bou ndaries during this period seems to have been restricted to the maintenance of the Late Roman enclosure system. Only in the Middle Saxon period, when the scale of the occupation seems to have become considerably reduced, do we see renewed efforts to defin e and contain space. It would appear that the development sequence starts with the development of a ritual landscape comprising the zone from the spring up the dry valley to the south, with a network of small enclosures on either side created or developed during the latter half of the 4th century and then, following large-scale planned expansion during the Early Saxon period, contracts to about the same scale as the original settlement during the Middle Saxon period, perhaps as an early manor. Does West H eslerton indicate an Early Anglo-Saxon attempt to establish sites of a more urban character which failed and, if so, was this part of a national trend towards an Early Anglo-Saxon town that could not be sustained? This question cannot be answered from the analysis of West Heslerton alone and a reappraisal of the evidence recovered from other contemporary sites must be a vital component of the analysis programme. The analytical programme will provide an opportunity to examine the question of 'proto-urban a ttributes' in detail. Once the initial phasing is complete and we are in a position to demonstrate the development sequence more clearly this key question can be addressed for Heslerton, and the distinctive components isolated for comparison with other ex cavated sites.


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Last updated: Tue Dec 15 1998