Woodland Archaeology

A Very Short History of Woodland

From carved Bronze Age cup and ring stones, relict field systems, old trackways, Romano-British settlement sites, Medieval veteran trees,  woodland boundaries, post-medieval cottage and mill sites, to First World War practice trenches, woodlands across the South Pennines preserve a palimpsest of human history.

The physical form of woodlands across the region and indeed nationally have altered significantly since woodland first established itself after the last glacial period some 12,000 years ago.  ‘Wildwood’ consisting predominately of Hazel and Oak, dominated the South Pennines when humans first arrived in the area during the Mesolithic.  Though termed ’Wildwood’, it was not a continual blanket of woodland, but instead a  patchwork, supporting extensive tracts of grassland with open-grown solitary trees.  These natural clearings served to support large herbivores such as deer and wild oxen that no doubt attracted the early hunter-gatherer communities to the area.

As human society adopted agriculture and populations increased through the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman Period and into the Medieval era, so the extent of woodland declined and its resource became intensively managed.  By the 19th century traditional forms of woodland management such as coppicing and pollarding in the face of increased industrialisation decreased.  Woodlands were altered to favour timber plantations, the process of which often witnessed the removal of the oak and hazel woodlands in favour of conifer, beech and sycamore.

Archaeological Survey

Students recording a water trough located near the settlement site of Park Top, Park Wood. It was fed from a spring to the south.

As part of the project, teams of volunteers led by the Pennine Prospects’ Woodland Heritage Officer have taken to woods to record previously unidentified archaeological features relating to the historic development of the woodland and its use.  Between January and march 2017, 19 woodlands were investigated, resulting in the identification of over 700 archaeological features of interest.

Within areas recognised as ‘Ancient Woodland’ such as Hardcastle Crags, Hebden Bridge; Middleton Woods, Illkley; Knotts Wood, Todmorden; North Dean Wood, Halifax and Hirst Wood, Shipley features relating to the charcoal industry survive in the form of circular platforms.  The woodlands also preserve features relating to mineral extraction and settlement, even the old roads and tracks survive.  In addition evidence relating to woodland managment survives in the form of long neglected (at least 140 years) coppiced oak, beech and ash trees.

Volunteers excavating one of many Charcoal Burning Platforms discovered during the project

A charcoal platform (right) identified, recorded and excavated as part of the project in Hardcastle Crags near Hebden Bridge.

In addition, old woodland compartment boundaries and in some cases potentially early field boundaries were recorded in all of the woodlands.  In the plantation woodland at Ogden Water near Mixenden and at Castle Clough near Burnley, evidence for medieval agricultural activity was identified in the form of ridge and furrow and relict earth-bank boundaries.  All of this survey data will be compiled into a series of archaeological site reports, all of which will be made available to landowners and the public.  The reports will also be housed in the regional Historic Environment Records.

Pattern of field enclosure survives in the woodlands at Lower Laithe Reservoir

Historic Map Regression

1894 1:2500 First County Series Survey depicting the location of industrial units and water management features in Redisher Woods, Ramsbottom

An important part of the woodland investigations is the use of historic maps.  Historic maps offer a glimpse into how the landscape was arranged in the past, and how it has changed over time.  Historic maps obtained from record offices have been georeferenced using a Geographical Information System (GIS) onto modern Ordnance Survey maps.  This method provides the opportunity to overlap each historic map with accuracy, and therefore note how the wooded landscape has altered over time.

Additional information to be obtained from the use of maps is place names.  Place names can indicate how a woodland was managed or used in the past.  As part of the project each surveyed woodland has had a series of digital historic maps produced for it.  The maps (such as the series produced for Lower Laithe Reservoir below) serve as a record, depicting land use and landscape change through the years.

Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR)

Image depicting the method of how LiDAR data is collected. Copyright Historic England

As part of the Celebrating Our Woodland Heritage project we have been using LiDAR as part of our archaeological woodland surveys.

Using a pulsed laser beam (it measures between 20,000 to 100,000 points per second) fired from a plane, LiDAR is a technique that measures to a very high resolution and accuracy the height of the ground surface. The technique produces highly detailed and accurate models of the land surface (even through the tree canopy).

Digital Terrain Model of an area of woodland at Ogden Water, Calderdale has helped map an area of potential medieval field enclosure and ridge and furrow

This provides us with the capability to recognise and record features of archaeological interest such as historic trackways, quarries, hut platforms, relict woodland or field boundaries and charcoal burning  platforms.

The LiDAR digital terrain models below depict at different resolutions (from left to right: 2m, 1m, 50cm, 25cm) the  location of a charcoal burning platform (lighter circle) and an encompassing track (lighter line) in Callis Wood, Hebden Bridge.  These features would otherwise be invisible from the air due to the tree canopy.

If you are interested in attending any of the future archaeological investigations contact  Chris Atkinson, Woodland Heritage Officer at Chris.Atkinson@pennineprospects.co.uk