1.1 Project summary

The VASLE project sought to use the wealth of new data now available for early medieval coins and portable antiquities to investigate Viking and Anglo-Saxon landscape and economy, AD 700-1000. This has been a neglected period, with few settlement excavations. Until recently knowledge of settlement density was based largely upon place-name evidence. Scandinavian colonisation, in particular, was difficult to observe archaeologically. Regional differences were poorly understood. Ironically, settlements of the period were better known by so-called 'treasure hunters' than archaeologists. With the advent of large scale metal-detecting there is now a wealth of information available from analysis of the finds logged by the Corpus of Early Medieval Coins (EMC) and by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). The project aimed to combine these sources in order to gain a better understanding of settlement evolution, social change, and economic development.

The project had three specific objectives:

  1. To map national distributions of metal artefacts and coinage c. AD 700-1000 and to compare these distributions with landscape factors, in order to understand the visibility, recovery and archaeological distribution of early medieval 'productive sites'.
  2. To characterise the finds assemblages of individual known sites, graphing percentages of coins and other object types in order to examine change through time and to derive 'fingerprints' that will help define a hierarchy of settlement types.
  3. To use targeted and controlled metal-detecting of specific sites in the north of England to study their development and morphology from finds distributions.

In order to achieve Objective One, data were downloaded from the PAS and EMC databases to create a VASLE 'National dataset'. In the case of the PAS data it was necessary to undertake some data cleaning, validation and enhancement.

From the outputs of Objective One, supplemented by personal contacts and visits to Historic Environment Records (HERs), a list of specific 'productive sites' with good metalwork and coin assemblages was collated. To achieve Objective Two further data collection was undertaken for these sites in order to create a VASLE 'Sites dataset'. A number of excavated sites were also included in this phase, to provide further comparative data. This has provided the basis for graphical and statistical analysis of the relative proportion of artefacts and coins at a number of sites. It was hoped that comparison of the resultant graphs would allow identification of different site types, and provisional explanations as to whether differences between sites should be explained in chronological, cultural, or functional terms.

Simultaneously, a selected number of 'productive sites' were targeted for detailed study, including fieldwork and controlled detecting, in order to fulfil Objective Three. Work at an Anglian and Anglo-Scandinavian 'productive site' at Cottam had shown that most finds are recovered from the ploughsoil, and sites are being destroyed by modern agricultural practices. Work at Cottam also demonstrated the potential of locational information for studying the morphology and horizontal development of sites, particularly movement through time (Richards 1999b; 2001). Under the auspices of the VASLE project, and with the support of the University of York, the work at Cottam was extended to an adjacent Anglian site at Cowlam, which was also subject to metal-detecting. During the course of the project we became aware of ongoing activity by illegal nighthawks at a third Anglian site, Burdale, neighbouring the intensively examined site at Wharram Percy. Two seasons of excavation were therefore undertaken at Burdale, alongside fieldwalking, geophysics and metal-detector survey. This work has complemented the broader scale desk-based analysis undertaken for Objectives One and Two with a more detailed understanding of the problems of defining and examining 'productive sites' on the ground.

This report provides the primary publication for Objectives One and Two of the VASLE project. Post-excavation analysis of Cowlam and Burdale is ongoing and this work, associated with Objective Three of the VASLE project, will be published later in forthcoming site-based studies.


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Last updated: Tues Apr 21 2009