I have always loved upland landscapes. Perhaps that comes from growing up in Scotland and holidaying in the wild places of the West Highlands. As a student I did my first archaeological survey work on Exmoor with the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, and found myself tramping across the open moor surveying everything from prehistoric cists to a post-medieval gatepost factory. The experience I gained during that time shaped my future career. It also opened my eyes to the archaeology which surrounds us, and made me view landscape in a completely different way.
In 2006 I was fortunate enough to take charge of the English Heritage Mendip Hills project, a multi-disciplinary fieldwork project examining the archaeology and architecture of this remarkable corner of South-West England. The Mendip Hills are perhaps best known for the spectacular chasm of Cheddar Gorge which slices through the southern escarpment of this gently undulating Carboniferous Limestone ridge. Mendip is a region of great beauty and diversity. The small irregular fields which characterise the lower escarpment slopes give way to an ordered geometric grid of stone-walled enclosures on the plateau, with grass and heather moors capping the highest hills.
The archaeology and architecture of the region is equally as varied and remarkable. During three years of fieldwork I had the opportunity to survey a wide range of sites, including Neolithic long barrows, Later Prehistoric hillforts, Romano-British settlements, medieval castles, post-medieval village houses and abandoned farmsteads. And the list goes on! What is striking to me, however, is that the dominant story which has emerged from our work is one of adaptation and change. The landscape of Mendip has been fashioned over many generations and is a product of its past. The modern fields, for example, often follow the same pattern as abandoned terraces of medieval strip fields, which themselves can overly and incorporate elements of earlier field systems. Many village houses also reflect the footprint of much earlier structures, encapsulating the past in the present and creating a historic grain still visible today.
The Mendip Hills are a living place and the people who now occupy the farmhouses, village houses and cottages create their own history. There is a long and vibrant tradition of archaeological enquiry on Mendip, ranging from antiquarian investigation undertaken by the likes of the Revd John Skinner, to the work of independent groups and professionals in more recent times. A key aspect of the Mendip Hills project was to deliver a training programme for local community groups and individuals focused on practical techniques of archaeological and architectural fieldwork. By passing our expertise on to others, we hoped to equip local people with the range of skills required to enable this fieldwork tradition to continue on Mendip for many years to come.
Delivering training can be a hugely rewarding experience. You meet enthusiastic and interesting people who can often make you view even a familiar site in a new way. Over the lifetime of the project I was part of an experienced team who provided training in techniques of landscape investigation, including aerial photographic transcription, analytical earthwork survey, architectural investigation, geophysical survey and archaeological excavation. Beyond the structured training events, a number of local people and students also gave their time generously to help on site with survey work (often on cold, damp Mendip winter days!). The project benefitted hugely from their input as without fail they generously imparted their ideas, personal research and local knowledge. An added benefit to come from the training events was that they brought members of different local archaeological and historical societies together, giving them the opportunity to discuss their current research and fieldwork.
I am pleased to report that fieldwork on Mendip continues to this day. Hopefully the project has helped focus and stimulate research, and given local people the skills and confidence to undertake fieldwork of their own. Ultimately it will be the amazing archaeology and fascinating buildings of Mendip that will continue to drive people to undertake new and exciting fieldwork in the future.
About today’s blogger: Ms Elaine Jamieson
Areas of Interest:
- Inter-disciplinary approaches to landscape archaeology.
- Analytical earthwork survey and investigation.
- The archaeology of medieval and post-medieval monuments and landscapes.
Elaine Jamieson is a Research Assistant working on The Leverhulm Trust funded project Extending Histories: from Medieval Mottes to Prehistoric Round Mounds. Her work is mainly focussed on the assessment of monuments at a landscape scale and the more detailed analytical earthwork survey of sites and monuments, working as part of an inter-disciplinary research team.
Elaine worked as an Archaeological Investigator with English Heritage for over 14 years, specialising in analytical earthwork survey and landscape investigation, latterly managing a small team of archaeological and architectural investigators. Prior to English Heritage, she worked for the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland on their Historic Landuse Assessment project, aimed at characterising the Scottish landscape. During her time with English Heritage Elaine was involved in several large landscape projects, including on the Quantock Hills, Dartmoor and Stonehenge. She has also undertaken applied research on a wide variety of archaeological sites, ranging from the medieval settlement and post-medieval gardens at Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire, to the Neolithic henge of Priddy Circle 1, Somerset. Between 2006 and 2009 Elaine was responsible for the delivery of a major multi-disciplinary landscape project focused on the Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and has authored the monograph of this work. More recently she has undertaken fieldwork at the Pleasance, Kenilworth, and was the project manager for the English Heritage Fieldscapes of England project, before joining the Department of Archaeology in 2015.