E-monograph Series. No. 5

The West Heslerton Assessment

Edited by Dominic Powlesland* with contributions from the West Heslerton Team

Cite this as: Powlesland, D. (ed) 1998 The West Heslerton Assessment, Internet Archaeology 5. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.5.4


The excavation of the Early Anglo-Saxon or Anglian Settlement at West Heslerton, North Yorkshire, between 1986 and 1995, represents one of the largest excavations conducted in Britain in the last two decades. The project, funded by English Heritage, combined the fundamental needs of rescue and research archaeology. The excavation has produced a wealth of new evidence which is forcing us to re-evaluate much that has been said about the formative period of the English nation.

Background to the project

In response to the discovery in 1977 an Anglian cemetery was discovered at Cooks Quarry, West Heslerton, rescue excavations funded by English Heritage were undertaken ahead of mineral extraction between 1977 and 1984. This site, Heslerton Site 1, included multi-period and multi-function features extending over c7.5 Ha. including a small part of the Anglian cemetery. In 1980 the Heslerton Parish Project was established, to provide a research framework for these rescue excavations. Attention was focused towards the almost total excavation of the remainder of the cemetery, which was completed in 1986. The full publication is due in April 1999 (Haughton, C.A., Powlesland, D.J. et al. 1999: initial publication: Powlesland, D.J., Haughton, C.A. and Hanson, J.H. 1986)

In 1984 an associated settlement was discovered, just over 300 metres to the south-west of the cemetery. Evaluation showed that the archaeological deposits were being badly damaged by modern agricultural practices over a wide area. This led to the decision to examine the settlement in its entirety. The need to explore such a large area was also supported by the need to explore the spatial and chronological development of such sites, something that had been constrained by the hitherto limited opportunities to examine large areas of settlement sites of this period.

In addition, the project provided an important test-bed for the development of field techniques and the application of computers in archaeology. Some of the results of this work can be seen in a previous paper in Internet Archaeology (Powlesland, Lyall and Donoghue 1997).

Structure and purpose of report

The West Heslerton Assessment document was produced in 1996 as part of the formal process of project management required by the project's main sponsor, English Heritage. The document conforms to the standards laid down in The Management of Archaeological Projects (MAP2, English Heritage 1991). The precise structure and purpose of the assessment can be best seen in the light of the relevant sections of MAP2.

The document was subject to peer review once submitted and the current version incorporates comments from the English Heritage referees. However, in order to navigate through this long and complex report (which amounted to over 200 A4 pages) a new overview section has been prepared, by Alan Vince, and the whole document has been subjected to the usual rigorous copy editing by Internet Archaeology staff. There may well therefore be minor differences in content between the printed and web-published papers.

Details of the work programme, its costing and arrangements for its management were included in the Assessment Document but are omitted from this Internet publication. For consistency, Section 8, which has been omitted, is left as an empty document and the section numbering jumps from Section 7 to Section 9. Information on the total grant can be found in the annual English Heritage publication Archaeology Review.

This document provides the research framework for, and details of, the programme of analysis and publication of the settlement site. This is currently in progress and will culminate in the publication of the results in both digital and paper form in the spring of 2001.

The publication of this document in Internet Archaeology serves two primary functions:

Readers may also wish to examine the West Heslerton WEB-CD, which discusses the methodology being used in creating the digital archive for this project.


The West Heslerton project was a pioneer in the development of field archaeological methodology, both in the recording and manipulation of data and in the development of research methods.

Over 300,000 artefacts and ecofacts were three-dimensionally recorded. These data were recorded in a computer database, the structure of which is described here.

The soil studies undertaken by Richard Macphail and colleagues formed a major area of research development carried out as part of the project.

Prehistoric activity

The West Heslerton excavations have produced extensive evidence for prehistoric land-use, including settlement and burials. Studies of the lithic material and ceramics are planned. This material ranges in date from the Mesolithic period to the later Bronze Age. Little evidence was found for Iron Age or early Roman activity.

Romano-British activity

In the 1995 excavation season, a cult site dating to the late Roman period was discovered at the southern end of the excavated area and extending beyond the excavation. The establishment of this probable religious focus entailed substantial alteration of the natural topography, in the form of terracing of a dry valley. There is little doubt that the main period of activity dates to the later 4th century, but the extent to which the site continued in use into the 5th century, or overlapped with the earliest Anglo-Saxon use of the site is one of the objectives of the post-excavation analysis and research described in this document.

Anglo-Saxon activity

The major period of use of the West Heslerton site dates to the early and mid Anglo-Saxon periods. Each excavation season revealed evidence of Anglo-Saxon land-use of strikingly different character. It is clear that the Anglo-Saxon settlement was split into functional zones, divided in part by a natural stream. The late Roman cult site seems to have been deliberately left open, whilst clearly forming a focus for the later settlement.

The site has produced abundant evidence for timber buildings, of both post-hole and grubenhaus type, and provides an opportunity to study the structural details of these buildings and, in the case of the grubenhäuser, the possibility to study in detail the history of the buildings subsequent to their disuse.

Studies of plant macrofossils are planned which will establish the agricultural practices carried out in the settlement, whilst the study of the vast animal bone assemblage will examine both animal husbandry and butchery practices.

Artefact studies are planned which will include a very large ceramic assemblage (the assessment has shown that some of this was brought into the settlement, mostly from local sources), as well as artefacts of metal, stone and bone. Other organic finds (such as leather or textiles) did not survive, although the presence of abundant loom weights shows that textile production was an important activity.

The settlement was abandoned during the 9th century, at about the time of the Scandinavian take-over of the kingdom of Northumbria. It was therefore occupied for 400-500 years and another objective of the post-excavation analysis is to look for evidence of changing function or layout during this period.

Later activity

At some point after the mid 9th century, to be established during the post-excavation analysis, the site of the West Heslerton Anglo-Saxon settlement was incorporated into the open fields of the village of West Heslerton. These fields remained in use until they were enclosed in the early modern period.

Environmental archaeology

The establishment of the nature of the local environment through time, and the study of the interaction of man and environment, is one of the aims of the wider Heslerton Parish Project and consequently considerable effort has been spent on establishing what indicators of the past environment survive and how they might be utilised.

Studies of the potential of pollen analysis, mollusca, coprolites, animal bones and plant macrofossils have been carried out. Between these studies and the soil analyses it is hoped to establish in detail how and why the landscape around the West Heslerton site developed.

Artefact studies

The large and various collection of artefacts from the site will be studied by a team of specialists to provide, first, a chronology for the site and subsequently a means of studying site function and economy.

Much of the assemblage relates to domestic activities and agriculture but in addition there is evidence for metalworking and in the late Roman period there is the possibility that some of the artefacts are associated with catering for the needs of visitors to the cult site.

The way in which the successive settlements at West Heslerton were integrated into a wider society and economy will be studied by establishing how the settlement was provisioned, the use and loss of coins and a consideration.


As in any large research project, this project draws upon the dedicated and coordinated work of a broad team of more than twenty specialists working as a team. What is less clear to the reader, are the thousands of hours of hard work put in by the excavation staff and more than a thousand volunteers over nearly a decade of fieldwork; without their efforts, and the tolerance and interest shown by the local community, none of this work would have been possible. West Heslerton has for nearly two decades provided a field training ground for thousands of undergraduates and other dedicated volunteers: we trust that the remarkable results discussed here provide a suitable testament to their contribution.

Dominic Powlesland
On behalf of The Team

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Editor's Note

English Heritage have authorised the publication of what would otherwise have been an internal document partly because it helps to explain the approach taken to the analysis and publication of the West Heslerton Project and partly to stimulate wider discussion about that approach and about the interpretations proposed here for the archaeological remains.

Readers are therefore urged to comment upon this report, both through the Internet Archaeology mailing list and directly with the project team.



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Last updated: Tue March 23 1999