6. Summary Statement of Potential

The excavations carried out at West Heslerton since 1978 have been undertaken as part of a broader landscape project which is multi-period in nature (Powlesland et al. 1986, Powlesland and Haughton forthcoming). The present site has contributed to that broader picture, both through the examination of a broad tract of land, and the recovery of data that relate to its use from the later Prehistoric through to the medieval periods.

6.1 The Prehistoric Landscape

The level of prehistoric activity here, whilst clearly lower in intensity than in the area of the Anglian cemetery and the Cook's Quarry site further to the north, nevertheless contributes new and important data to our understanding of the prehistoric landscape. Features and assemblages relating to Late Neolithic and Early and Middle Bronze age activity reveal a fall-off in activity when moving from the lighter soils to the north to the heavier soils at the foot of the Yorkshire Wolds, but does include evidence of occupation in periods not encountered further to the north. The slight traces of a group of Middle Bronze Age round-houses in the northern part of the site play only a small part in the overall data-set but on their own would be considered worthy of detailed publication. Two small cremation cemeteries of prehistoric date once again are important in their own right but figure as minor groups in the overall data-set; although they are certainly prehistoric in date, exactly which date has yet to be established.

The extensive soils work undertaken by Richard Macphail, coupled with the stratigraphic and functional evidence, offers us an opportunity to examine landscape change through from the prehistoric to the Anglo-Saxon periods. We need to establish a better understanding of the role and evolution of each micro-landscape within the landscape at large in order to address more general issues concerning landscape function and operation from the Neolithic to post-Roman periods.

Although the lithic assemblage from this site is not particularly large, when viewed in association with the other material gathered from both the Anglian Cemetery and the Cook's Quarry site to the north, it provides an opportunity for establishing an overview of the whole lithic assemblage and its spatial distribution and context within a broad landscape zone stretching 2km to the north from the foot of the Wolds.

6.2 The Changing Roman Landscape

The impact on the landscape in the Roman period is reflected in the increased movement of soil in response to changing land-use and the increasing intensity of agricultural processes. For the Anglo-Saxon period, and to a lesser extent for the Roman period, the plant macrofossil evidence offers the opportunity for a broader understanding of landscape function in the immediate site hinterland, with preliminary examination indicating that cereal crops were grown on the light soils to the north of the settlement rather than on the chalk Wolds to the south.

6.3 A Late Roman Ritual Landscape

The identification of what appears to be a Roman ritual landscape with associated stone structures, interpreted as shrines, in the valley extending southwards from the main settlement zone, has changed our perspective on the evolution of the site. The data collected offer a remarkable potential for examining the interface between Roman and Saxon, and may indicate continuity of use of a ritual landscape defined, and in fact completely re-worked, by the middle of the 4th century AD at the latest, and apparently still in use until the middle of the 9th century, although this point can only be tested once the key analyses are complete. Clear questions arise concerning structural function and survival, landscape management, and the economic, social and cultural context of the activity, which included a major terracing event reshaping the entire valley floor during the late 4th century. The excavations in the 'ritual valley' which leads from the foot of the Wolds to the still active spring 200m to the north were restricted both by available resources and by the objectives of the project, which were to examine only the latest Roman and Anglo-Saxon phases. Earlier deposits have been preserved in situ, for the short term at least, through a careful backfilling programme. The analysis will to some extent reflect the lack of attention applied to earlier Roman and prehistoric features in this area; however, efforts to extract more data from these deposits would have fundamentally weakened our potential to complete the sampling of the Anglo-Saxon deposits, an unacceptable compromise. The high quality of the stratigraphic sequence in this area will allow us to address questions regarding functional and economic differences between the Late Roman and Saxon use of space in this area, as well as environmental and economic differences, which can likewise be compared and contrasted with other data-sets from both urban and rural deposits.

The structural assemblage relating to the Late Roman land-use includes major buildings, such as the double-apse structure, as well as evidence of food production and distribution associated with marginal structures along the valley sides. In addition to what appear to be service structures, craft activity included ceramics production and perhaps some metal-working. Although the frequency of Roman material is very high, evidence for housing during this period is negligible and it would appear that the site operated as some sort of sanctuary, supporting a large, but short term, visiting population. Whether this related to activity throughout the year or to short periods of intense activity cannot be determined although environmental evidence may be important in this context. The unusual nature of the site and the indications of continuity from Roman to Saxon make the careful and detailed examination of the Roman ceramics an important part of the analytical programme.

6.4 Continuity from Roman to Saxon

Amongst the most striking new evidence recovered in 1995 is that relating to continuity from Roman to Saxon. The evidence requires clarification through analysis and quantification. However, both the stratigraphic sequence and the ceramic evidence point towards continuity of use of parts of the Roman 'ritual landscape' and some degree of continuity of population. The identification very late Roman or sub-Roman ceramic series from the double-apsed 'shrine' and sherds of Anglo-Saxon vessels in Roman fabric offer pointers towards addressing this fundamentally important issue. The questions of cultural dynamics, social or economic continuity will require rigorous testing of the view that emerged during the excavation process, interpretation which will have to be tested against the full analytical data-set.

6.5 The Anglo-Saxon Landscape

6.5.1 Topography and landscape management

Considering the vast scale of the excavations at West Heslerton over nearly two decades it is remarkable how limited was the recognisable Early Anglo-Saxon impact on the broader landscape. Re-use of prehistoric complexes, as in the case of the cemetery, and re-cutting some of the major boundaries, such as the pit-alignment identified at Cook's Quarry, support a view of continuity and adaptation rather than massive change introduced by the Anglian component. The tremendous environmental resource recovered through both the flotation and thin-section programmes offer an unprecedented opportunity for landscape reconstruction beyond the confines of the settlement itself. Whilst the broader Anglo-Saxon landscape context has remained physically elusive, the evidence from the settlement is remarkable. The open nature of the northern half of the settlement contrasts with contemporary continental sites where neat enclosures defining individual properties are the norm; whilst the intensive and frequently re-defined enclosures in the southern half of the site indicate continuity and careful management of stock in a broad agricultural regime.

6.5.2 Anglo-Saxon settlement evolution and decline

The new evidence pointing towards continuity and the unusual nature of the Late Roman activity at the site raise a wealth of new questions. However, the core objectives concerned with the examination of the Anglian settlement have been fully addressed through the fieldwork programme. Clearly, considerable attention must be paid in the analytical phase to establishing an accurate sequence for the development of the settlement as a whole. The picture of shifting settlement offered in the interpretation of both West Stow and Mucking still does not seem to match the emerging picture from West Heslerton; rather the earliest phase seems to encompass the largest area with contraction to the southern core, already established as the primary activity zone during the Late Roman period, during the Middle Saxon period. The superimposition of a number of structures in the 'housing zone' may indicate differing life spans for different structures or dynamic variation within the overall scheme of the site's development.

The extraordinary difficulty in establishing the date range of the Anglo-Saxon features with the required precision is considerably reduced by the high quality of the stratigraphic record from some parts of the site, but requires the detailed assemblage and spatial analysis proposed in order to establish the sequence in those areas where good stratigraphic evidence did not survive. The recovery of key dating evidence in the form of coinage from a number of Middle Saxon features provides vital evidence in anchoring parts of the ceramic fabric sequence. Whilst the date for the desertion of the site can be identified through the Anglo-Saxon coin sequence as c. AD 850, the nature and processes by which the site was dismantled or abandoned will require careful examination of the soil thin-sections and associated samples, particularly with reference to what appears to have been a major burning event leaving extensive deposits of ash and burnt daub. Since no evidence of structures burnt in situ was encountered it may be that the ash and daub deposits derive from a cleaning-up operation. The variable nature of the preservation of the deposits across the site, with important zones protected from plough damage by either colluvium or later field headlands, give us a wonderful opportunity to examine site de-formation processes, fragmentation and survival, which should have a bearing extending far beyond our ability to interpret the evidence from this site alone.

6.5.3 Reconstructing the environment

The wealth of environmental evidence recovered through the flotation, thin-sectioning and faunal retrieval programmes provide the raw materials for the detailed reconstruction of micro-climates relating to individual deposits; in particular the Grubenhäuser, the open areas and enclosures within the settlement and the agrarian landscape beyond. Weed seeds accompanying the cereals recovered in the flotation programme testify to activity in the valley beyond, whilst the charcoal evidence points towards woodland management and the presence of orchards. The uniqueness of West Heslerton owes most to the fact that for the first time we have a comprehensive data-set on a large scale from a settlement site of this period.

6.5.4 Agriculture, economy, production and exchange

The faunal assemblage is amongst the largest recovered from any site in this country, representing a broad range of exotic and domestic species. Coupled with the plant macrofossil evidence, it offers a unique opportunity to examine the nature of early Anglo-Saxon agriculture, food production and consumption. The proposed identification of enclosures devoted to crop and animal processing needs to be tested through the more detailed analysis of both the plant macrofossil and soils evidence recovered through thin-sectioning and phosphate studies. Temporal and possibly social differences reflected in the faunal assemblage offer important avenues for research, whilst comparison with the large Roman and Post-Roman assemblages from York will allow this remarkable assemblage to contribute to a regional rather than a purely local picture. There is sufficient data to examine changes over time in both the plant macrofossil and faunal assemblages.

The role of craft and industry during the Early Anglo-Saxon period is not clearly understood; wool and cloth production were obviously important, but to what extent remains unclear. The series of letters between Offa and Charlemagne which document the importance of the cloth industry during the Middle Saxon period have encouraged a view of this industry that requires careful re-examination. The combined study of both the faunal material and the material evidence of cloth manufacture need to be carefully examined for the site as a whole in order to determine to what degree the production of a cloth or the material evidence reflects textile surplus. Once the phasing is complete this issue must be examined within the temporal framework. It is likely that the presence of large numbers of discarded loom-weights over-emphasise the importance of cloth production, since these weights were manufactured from locally available clays and, once dried, could not easily be reworked.

The identification of a malt kiln has been supported by a detailed examination of the cereal remains recovered; the report, part of an MA thesis prepared by a research student in Boston, USA, will shortly be available.

Pottery production on the site was a feature of Late Roman activity, with two kilns identified. Hard evidence of pottery production during the Anglo-Saxon period has been less forthcoming. The ceramic petrology programme recommended is intended in part to identify the relative quantity of material produced on site to that from elsewhere.

Furnaces and slag attest metal-working, which indicates domestic ironworking at least. This aspect deserves examination and comparison with other contemporary sites.

The concentration of metal-working evidence, the malt-kiln, and evidence of butchery in the north-western part of the site, where the structural evidence comprises Grubenhäuser alone, seems to indicate a specific craft/industry zone. The evidence for differential use of space in the settlement as a whole is remarkable and may have a bearing on our interpretation of Early Anglo-Saxon settlement evidence nationally. West Heslerton needs to be compared and contrasted with evidence from other sites nationally to determine whether the picture that has emerged is a function of the level of excavation and exposure undertaken, or relates to other aspects peculiar to the site itself.

Trade is represented both by high volume materials such as the many Niedermendig lava querns and by more exotic items such as a cowrie shell from the Red Sea. Alan Vince has provisionally identified at least one of the ceramic fabrics as an import from the Midlands whilst other sherds, including a small group of Middle to Late Saxon glazed sherds, demonstrate long-distance trade with continental Europe. The mechanisms of long distance trade and exchange during the Early Anglo-Saxon period are not well understood; by the Middle-Saxon period the activity at the many 'Wic' sites provides a context for this trade and exchange. The analytical programme will contribute new data for this area of debate, and perhaps through the examination of ceramics in particular give some indication of how the obviously imported material ultimately ends up at West Heslerton.

6.5.5 Housing, workshops and stores

With over 200 structures already identified, and others still to be extracted from the mass of post-holes excavated in some areas, the site offers rich potential for the study of Anglo-Saxon architecture. The assessment has already highlighted the remarkable uniformity within the post-hole structures and, to a degree, the considerable variation in the surviving evidence of the Grubenhäuser. The comparative analysis undertaken by Heather Clemence as part of an undergraduate thesis needs to be extended to include both examples from sites elsewhere and the full complement of structures from West Heslerton.

The Grubenhäuser remain both ubiquitous and little understood; the high quality and comprehensive nature of the evidence recovered from these structures will enable us to address issues such as construction technique, function and inter-structural relationships in a way that has not been possible before. The role of the Grubenhäuser as rubbish pits following their abandonment both documents the development of the site as a whole and gives us valuable evidence for understanding disposal practices and material survival.

The distinctive variation in function from one part of the site to another, referred to under craft and industry above, indicates a housing zone to the east of the relict stream channel, which ran through the northern half of the site. There is evidence to support the decline in the use of Grubenhäuser over time, with the introduction of post-hole structures covering a similar footprint. However, the picture requires clarification as a number of the larger examples were clearly in use until the very end of the life of the settlement. These structures appear to have performed many functions, one of which is likely to have been grain storage; perhaps later in the life of the settlement the range of uses became restricted as post-hole structures were used for a wider variety of functions.

6.5.6 Settlement morphology and planning

The scale of the settlement and the evidence for planned spatial differences point towards urban or proto-urbanism by the end of the 5th century. This contrasts with the established picture of Early Anglo-Saxon settlement; however, this may reflect the level of excavation undertaken at West Heslerton. This issue can only be fully addressed once the assemblage analysis and phasing are complete, and is certain to require a re-examination of the nature of other partially excavated sites in order to test to what extent West Heslerton can be used to build a nationally testable model for Early Anglo-Saxon settlement as a whole.

6.6 Social Reconstruction

The evidence from the Late Roman period and the issues of social continuity provide a context for the emerging Anglian settlement. The evidence indicates ritual rather than domestic activity and continuity of sacred space. This raises questions regarding the presence or otherwise of an elite religious class. The availability of both cemetery and settlement data from Anglo-Saxon West Heslerton offers a rare opportunity to address social reconstruction within a broad framework. Much work has been undertaken on the more abundant evidence from Anglo-Saxon burials, in general interpreted within a framework of a highly stratified society. Is this social hierarchy reflected in the evidence from the settlement?

The structural evidence from the settlement at present, prior to complete phasing, appears to indicate only a limited hierarchy; however this requires much more detailed examination. It is quite possible that, although structural variation is limited with similar 'large houses' found in all the areas supporting housing, social distinction is reflected in differential positioning of structures in the settlement with the high status core in the southern half of the site. One structure, excavated in 1995, is quite distinctive, positioned at the southern edge of the settlement where it is aligned east-west across the base of the valley extending south towards the Late Roman 'shrines'. This structure, together with major fences which extend up the sides of the valley, although not yet fully detailed in an area covered with hundreds of post-holes, appears to form a large and very deliberate separator between the settlement to the north and the ritual valley to the south.

The fully integrated examination of structural, economic, and environmental evidence with a view to testing theories of social reconstruction will remain a primary objective within the analytical programme.


© Internet Archaeology URL:
Last updated: Tue Dec 15 1998