West Heslerton Seminar

By Rahtz, Philip | Antiquity, June 2001 | Go to article overview

West Heslerton Seminar


Rahtz, Philip, Antiquity


Introduction.

A seminar was held in the Village Hall in Yedingham on 24 January 2001; it was hosted by English Heritage, Dominic Powlesland and the staff of The Landscape Research Centre, and attended by nearly 50 well-known archaeologists. The purpose was to present the results of the analysis of the Anglo-Saxon settlement excavation at West Heslerton and gather opinions about interpretation resulting from the post-excavation programme. The format of the seminar comprised a series of papers by 13 specialists involved in the West Heslerton project, and discussion from the floor.

The site

West Heslerton (WH) is situated below the northern edge of the Wolds of East Yorkshire, on the southern margin of the Vale of Pickering: a location which afforded a variety of resources, from the chalk tops through the fertile slopes down to the wet Carrs and the River Derwent. Excavation began here in the 1970s following the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in a sand-quarry and subsequent work led to the discovery in 1984 of the associated settlement. This was being eroded by ploughing and was put forward for excavation as part of the national rescue archaeology programme. Dominic Powlesland (DP) has been directing the work since 1986, with the very generous backing of English Heritage.

Between 1986 and 1995 excavation of the whole settlement was undertaken on a seasonal basis, uncovering more than 12 [multiplied by] 5 ha of Early and Middle Saxon settlement activity. West Heslerton remains the only site of this class to be extensively excavated in the North of England, and the only example in Britain to have been excavated with its cemetery, recently published in two volumes, using modern archaeological techniques (Haughton & Powlesland 1999). Analysis of the work has resulted in a database which can be interrogated because of the highly sophisticated computer techniques used by DP both in the field recording and subsequent analysis. The data are on a scale large enough to enable archaeologists and historians to pose questions about Anglo-Saxon settlement that have not been asked before.

Activity at the site begins with a rather odd `double-apsidal' Roman building associated with a large well and spring. This is interpreted not as a villa or settlement, but as part of a shrine complex, possibly used seasonally. There may be Iron Age antecedents to this complex, but this building was erected and dismantled within the second half of the 4th century. This Roman complex became a core for subsequent Anglo-Saxon settlement, preserved as ritual space through the ensuing four centuries. The Anglo-Saxon settlement had its origins in the 5th century. The associated cemetery was used until the 7th century, but the settlement continued until the mid 9th century: the burial place of the later 7th-9th centuries has not been located.

The seminar

The seminar began with a general survey by DP, who demonstrated that this settlement was one of a number around the south edge of the Vale of Pickering -- part of a landscape south of the River Derwent which he has mapped by field survey, electronic survey and air photography. Each settlement, DP suggests, consisted of c. 10-15 family or kin groups, living in a well-organized, sophisticated, relatively egalitarian community; WH, in DP's view, is no different in character from other well-known Anglo-Saxon settlements, such as Mucking, West Stow and Bishopstone -- only excavated more extensively. Over 200 structures were excavated, including sunken-featured buildings (SFBs), post-hole and other buildings, pits, wells, ovens and other features. The distribution of these features indicates that the settlement, if not planned, was well organized with different areas serving different functions.

Barbara Precious and Maggie Darling discussed the Roman ceramics, comprising a large assemblage of more than 30,000 sherds. Most of these were of the late Roman period, with a high proportion (c. …

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