3.2 Data distribution: some broad patterns

Fundamental to the overall distribution is the greater density of encounters in the eastern half of the region (Figure 3). An awareness of this basic pattern is important in every period to evaluate the likely representativity and significance of what we have. Sometimes, this east–west split seems to be a product of genuine social processes in the past. Thus, for the high medieval period, there is a dearth of sites concerned with non-agrarian production, storage/exchange, elite construction and military activity in the west of the region in general, and in the Dales in particular. The contrast with the concentrations of features such as barns, country houses and castles further east must surely be significant (for example medieval elite habitation, Figure 4 – see further discussion).

Elsewhere, however, patterning had much more mundane explanations. Thus 'possibly Palaeolithic' data distribution, when first viewed was dominated by what turned out to be spurious entries. These had been designated by the project as perhaps of that date because an all-embracing 'prehistoric' label was originally attached, whereas consideration of the associated functional category makes this impossible (e.g. a 'prehistoric' field system should be no earlier than the Neolithic period). Once such entries are weeded out, the accurate 'possible' distribution (Figure 5a) is far sparser, and relates closely to the 'provably Palaeolithic' distribution (Figure 5b).

Variations across county boundaries are largely a result of different approaches to classification. Thus concentrations of land enclosure along the Magnesian Limestone west of the Vale of York may be recorded in the north of the region as being of 'Iron Age' date, but as broadly 'late-prehistoric' in another SMR further south (Figures 6a and 6b). The difference is a matter of how each organisation has decided to catalogue morphologically defined site types seen in aerial photography, set beside the background and research interests of the individuals concerned.

In other places, the distributions serve to point up the inadequacy of present museum holdings. For example, Spikins (1999) has drawn on her work in one part of the Dales to put forward a model of Mesolithic social development. This comprises initial, seasonal movement of communities from coastal lowlands into Pennine uplands along river corridors, followed by activity concentrated in more restricted upland zones towards the end of the period. She links this change, not to simple population expansion, rather to the altered character of tree cover, and thus game resources, across the lowland zone. Laurie has suggested (2003, 225) that there is some support for it in his study area. However, little of Yorkshire's data beyond this presently has the chronological resolution to test or elaborate Spikins' model further.

We can make some progress here by considering transitions between periods. Thus 'possible' (Figure 7a) and 'provable' (Figure 7b) Neolithic find spots discussed previously have clearly different distributions', as do their Mesolithic counterparts to a lesser extent. Yet, in each period, the 'possible' maps include a significant proportion of flint artefacts which must belong to one or the other. This floating data has a distribution of its own. The typical reason for such imprecision derives from the small size of the assemblage concerned: only when a group of material is large enough is it likely to include diagnostic finds which tie it to one period or another (either Mesolithic microliths or leaf-shaped arrow heads etc. of the Neolithic). It may be that the geographical distribution of the 'possible' material relates to geological contexts where exposures are likely to allow only limited access to relevant deposits. For example material exposed through limited erosion on footpaths, as opposed to large-scale fieldwalking, would generate only small groups of artefacts.

Further detailed analysis of the chronology of existing material, in particular of assemblages held in key museums, would help to take interpretation forward. In some localised areas, for example within the Pennines and on the North York Moors, the distinction between early and late Mesolithic material is relatively straightforward and thus it should be fairly easy to obtain greater dating resolution. Elsewhere, we first require larger assemblages with a more balanced distribution. This might involve searching for material in seemingly blank upland areas such as the Wolds or, more critically, by endeavouring to investigate the low-lying Vale of York in relation to the margins of Lake Humber.

Much of the above will be familiar to anyone who has carried out archaeological research, as will the issues of differential site visibility and its influence over past data collection. Hence, Bronze Age entries are greater in number than those of any other period of prehistory and are dominated by round barrows. These features were visible as upstanding monuments, and thus focused on by early antiquarian research, and can often still be seen clearly in the crop marks and soil marks recognised by aerial photography. As the barrows are readily and unambiguously identified, at least for the most part, there is a close correspondence between the distributions of possible (Figure 8a) and proven (Figure 8b) Bronze Age funerary evidence across the region.

By the same token, concentrations of provably Mesolithic material in the uplands of the North York Moors and the east-central Pennines are mostly a product of accessible exposures here (Figure 9). Conversely, the distribution of Mesolithic finds in West Yorkshire demonstrate a clear 'doughnut' effect, the gap in the centre corresponding with the position of the Leeds–Bradford conglomeration, which has obliterated all traces of sites which might have yielded such artefacts (Figure 10). The data comprising the edge of this doughnut raise another issue concerned with sub-regional research traditions. These concentrations contrast markedly with the seeming absence of material in South Yorkshire (Figure 11). Some of this difference relates to the increasing absence of exposures of peat margins to the south, although the distinction is very marked either side of the modern boundary. This suggests that collection and curation processes have also varied historically between the two counties, the former aspect being influenced by the impact of a long and complex history of extraction on the coal measures.

Finally, activities of particular groups can have a significant impact in quite local areas. Thus the concentration of Neolithic material around modern Bridlington is almost entirely the result of the fieldwork groups operating in that district (Figure 12). Equally, the proliferation of Bronze Age records on the hills overlooking Ilkley (Figure 13) is a product of specific endeavour, most obviously on Rombald's Moor (though perhaps augmented in this case by general leisure activities associated with the spa town). The latter may also explain the concentration here of data related to medieval landscape activity (Figure 14) – once investigators engage with the landscape to find remains of one period, they then cannot help but augment records for epochs beyond their primary interest (although the difference to north and south of the modern town does not correspond with the Bronze Age observations, and could be either an authentic aspect of medieval activity in the landscape, or related to differential visibility, or a result of differences between the archiving in West and North Yorkshire).

Taking these examples together, by noting gaps in coverage and suggesting how they might be filled, the project will provide a valuable correction to a widespread misapprehension about the material remains of the past: that they are confined to particular landscapes and to locations such as ancient monuments or historic cities. Our maps suggest that archaeological evidence is all but ubiquitous across the region – it is just more obvious, and has received more attention, in some parts than in others. By simply pointing out the degree to which this is the case, we might hope to encourage people to investigate supposedly blank zones.


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Last updated: Mon Nov 26 2007