The LRC Digital Atlas of the Archaeology of the Vale of Pickering (updated)

A screenshot showing the Atlas in use.

For more than 30 years the LRC has been engaged in archaeological research in the Vale of Pickering. Huge excavations and a very long programme of air-photography and geophysical survey have transformed our understanding of the scale, density and distribution of archaeology of all periods in one part of the Vale. Geophysical surveys concentrated on the southern side of the Vale, in the areas to the east and west of West Heslerton, combine to form the largest such survey in the world. Comparative surveys and air photographic survey elsewhere in the Vale, particularly in the areas of sand and gravel sub-soils that were perfectly suited to prehistoric and later settlement, indicates that the remarkable discoveries made in the Heslerton area are representative of activity elsewhere in the Vale of Pickering and probably the sand and gravel margins that follow the edges of most river valleys in lowland England.

The publication of the results of such research is a significant challenge in that we need to be able to see the results at any scale in a format that encapsulates the passage of time and permits interactive enquiry. Vast paper printouts up to 5 metres long showing the combined geophysical surveys have been presented to great effect at archaeological conferences and in museum displays but are ill suited to conventional publication.

The LRC Digital Atlas of the Archaeology of the Vale of Pickering is presented using the Google Earth plugin to display the interpreted results of decades of study draped upon a coloured 3D model of the Vale. It allows one to view and interrogate data at a landscape scale without the clutter of modern features normally visible in Google Earth. A key problem in any atlas devoted to archaeological evidence is the need to include the fourth dimension, time, in a way that is more dynamic than simply producing maps related to any particular static date. To enhance the usefulness of the Atlas, for looking at landscape change over time, each individually mapped feature is given three chronological attributes: a start date, an end date and a continuity date. These three dates, for the most part based on simple interpretations according to feature form and class, represent estimates of the date when a feature was created, the point at which it goes out of active use and the point after which it is unlikely to form an identifiable component in the landscape. An example might be a Late Neolithic burial mound or barrow which may have been built at c2500BC, continued in active use as a mortuary structure until c1800BC and then survived as an upstanding monument influencing the landscape until the 18th century when it is effectively removed as new field systems are formed. These date fields have been used to code each feature so that they can be viewed using the clock slider bar, which controls the display of time related data in Google Earth. The colour of the feature is determined by the estimated start date, if a continuity date is assigned the colour will change after the end of use date and the feature coloured grey until a point when its influence of the landscape is effectively lost. The Time Slider Bar in Google Earth allows you to display features at any particular date, or reflecting date span over time. In addition to using the slider bar to reveal the pattern of features at any particular time it can also be used to animate change over time. The speed of time based animation cannot currently be reduced to an ideal level.

The Atlas does not attempt to reveal all the archaeology of the Vale of Pickering, but the results of more than 30 years work by the LRC; as a result the area along the south eastern part of the Vale between the modern villages of Rillington and Potter Brompton has the most comprehensive data-set. Surveys elsewhere in the Vale suggest that those areas studied intensively are representative of the levels of activity throughout the Vale of Pickering. The creation of the Atlas and in particular the massive data collection and data interpretation exercise owes a tremendous amount to the work of James Lyall, who has managed or carried out the majority of the 1250Ha of geophysical surveys undertaken by the LRC, digitised  the thousands of features identified and classified the features according to their form, class and date range. We fully appreciate that some features may be miss-represented or given inappropriate date points; this is in the nature of remote sensing and the data set is maintained in a GIS database which is designed to absorb new interpretations and date information as new evidence comes to light.

The Atlas is based upon very large data-sets and may not run successfully on older computers running Windows XP or those having less than 4Gb of RAM. The performance is determined by the speed of internet connection and performance of the local computer. The performance can be sluggish even on relatively well specified computers, particularly when viewing a large area, but once zoomed in the density and complexity of the remarkable hidden landscape is exposed.

3D view showing the ribbon of Iron Age and Roman settlement on the southern side of the Vale of Pickering near West Heslerton

The underlying coloured digital elevation model shows the Vale of Pickering bounded on the south by the Yorkshire Wolds and the Howardian Hills and the North York Moors to the north. Data layers reflecting the distribution of sand and gravel soils, a preferred environment for settlement during the later prehistoric to medieval periods, features identified through airborne remote sensing, geomagnetic survey, natural features, particularly relating to drainage and areas of desiccated peat, upstanding earthwork monuments recorded in early maps and the open field systems that rewrote the shape of the landscape, perhaps as early as the ninth century. The airborne remote sensing data-set is not comprehensive and primarily includes data which compliments the evidence from ground based geophysics. An additional data layer shows the results of an intensive auger survey which shows the degree of protection given to the features buried beneath featureless flat fields by a layer of blown sand that gives the archaeology of this landscape a particular importance.

The Atlas delivers many megabytes of data, please be patient, it can for instance take up to 5 minutes to load the ground based geophysical survey results.


The Atlas has been updated to include an additional layer, rough sketch plots of crop-marks throughout the Vale derived from map overlays held by the NYCC Historic Environment Team. These plots, generated as vector plans from the scanned map overlays, give a basic picture of the extent of the crop-mark record throughout the Vale, they are not all-inclusive or necessarily up-to-date, and are not time coded or presented with any underlying interpretation. Despite these limitations the inclusion of this data layer gives a clear picture of those areas which are sensitive to crop-mark formation, and the scale of known activity beyond the core LRC research area. Within the core area the difference between the sketch plot evidence and that resulting from the long term remote sensing programme reflects more than a tenfold increase in identified activity. The evidence indicates that the complexity and level of activity identified in the area centered around West Heslerton is not unique but a reflection of the levels of past populations and activity throughout much of the Vale of Pickering. As such, it challenges established views of population density, land-use and continuity and also approaches to securing a sustainable strategy for managing the irreplaceable buried evidence of past peoples and societies, in the face of mineral extraction and increasingly industrialised farming.

To open the Atlas follow the link here, if you do not have the Google Earth Plugin this should install automatically.

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Death and Taxes in Anglo-Saxon Sherburn

Something strange is going on in Sherburn in the 7th century. Antiquarian observations during the nineteenth century and a crop-mark of a curious enclosure to the east of Sherburn is the subject of research into the archaeology of the village. The enclosure shown in the geophysical survey below is unusual, with a series of large rectangular features and very high magnetic anomalies following the perimeter of the enclosure just inside the boundary ditch. A field-walking exercise undertaken with students from Manchester in 2008 revealed large quantities of burnt daub over the enclosure; did this material indicate burnt down structures and if so burnt by whom? The evidence pointed to the possibility that this might be an early monastery, perhaps burnt down by the Vikings; the latter suggestion appears now to be untrue, however, the results of the excavation are no less exciting.

Geomagnetic survey over a D-shaped enclosure with very strongly magnetic (burnt ) features in the interior

Ten days of excavation with a team of enthusiastic volunteers uncovered evidence of huge Anglo-Saxon cavity-floor buildings, larger than any others discovered in England, and an industrial scale grain drier being used in the middle of the seventh century AD. These discoveries indicate that Sherburn was the setting either for an early monastery or a very early manorial complex, where tithes were processed. In Domesday Sherburn was a royal vill with two churches; perhaps Sherburn was already the setting for a high status centre by the mid 7th century. The location of the second church is not known although the discovery of a cemetery not far from the enclosure under investigation suggests that a church might be found nearby.

Rectified crop-mark image showing the enclosure and a rectangular building aligned east-west to the north.

The evidence from Sherburn when examined against the evidence from the excavated Early to Middle Saxon settlement at West Heslerton, where analysis of the vast animal bone assemblage indicates that market age cattle were seriously underrepresented and may have left the settlement as a tithe or payment of taxation, indicates that as early as the middle of the 7th century significant central places were emerging as centres of power. Sherburn sits within a densely settled Anglo-Saxon landscape, where it seems to represent a high status or political and economic centre gathering in and processing the tithes from surrounding settlements.

Click here to download the interim report on the excavations carried out in August 2011.

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Strange crop-mark near Star Carr

Archaeological air-photography, to record long lost features in the landscape, visible as a consequence of the effects of variable stress in crops growing over archaeological features which still, after thousands of years, modify the local growing environment, can be immensely exciting. With experience the majority of crop-marks are relatively easy to classify, interpret and assign to a broad date. In 2010, while photographing the Early Mesolithic site at Star Carr, I glimpsed what appeared to be a ditched enclosure on the top of a slightly elevated square platform, c.650 metres to the south of Star Carr, on the southern edge of the prehistoric Lake Flixton.

The crop-mark image once rectified to give it a vertical viewpoint appears to show a central ditched enclosure with multiple entrances and a second smaller feature a possible palisade around the outside. Such an enclosure, whilst some thousands of years later in date than the occupation at Star Carr, could provide important insights into our understanding of Neolithic or later activity on the edge of the Lake Flixton wetlands.

Rectified crop-mark image suggesting a ditched enclosure c.60m across and a smaller feature c.100m across

The crop-mark was poorly defined and taken at a very oblique angle; it was felt a geophysical survey could provide a better picture of what lay beneath the surface of the field. The results of the survey are shown below and although impressive defy simple interpretation. It is unclear as to whether what appear to be multiple concentric ditches with a series of radiating features, are of archaeological or geological origin. One suggestion is that this relates to some sort of elaborate Duck Decoy although we can find no parallel.

Geophysical survey by James Lyall for the LRC showing concentric and radiating features of unknown nature

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Crop-Mark in Poppies

About those poppies at the top of the page. During September 2011 I was alerted by the English Heritage Air Photo unit to the presence of a crop-mark in poppies in the Vale of Pickering. I recorded it from the air the next day and then visited the site on the ground to get the photograph above. You can just make out the denser strip of poppies growing over the line of a probably Iron Age or Roman ditch. Seen from the air the result is very impressive

The same area showing the archaeology in far more detail can be seen in LRC geophysical survey results as below.

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Boltby Scar Hillfort: 3D Model

The Landscape Research Centre has had a pioneering role in computer applications in archaeology for more than 25 years. We have been intensely aware of the need to find ways in which we can properly and powerfully articulate the three dimensional nature of the archaeological resource whether as part of the landscape or in excavation for some time. We have experimented with the use of 3D laser scanners over the past few years and found that extraordinary as the technology is, gathering clouds of precisely located 3D points that describe a surface, it is still relatively expensive and the processing of the data requires powerful computers and relatively complex software. New advances in computer software combined with the increased  resolution of  digital photography means that we can now quickly and easily create high quality 3D models of archaeological features from a bunch of ‘free’ photographs without photogrammetric cameras or control points. The image below shows a 3D image of Boltby Scar created from a group of air photographs, a 2D image of a 3d image with elegant lighting which exposes the three dimensional nature even of subtle features. You can download the 3D model and rotate and view it yourself by follow the link below. Please note it is an 18Mb file but worth the wait.

Boltby Scar 3D model

A 3D Model of Boltby Scar created from 24 air photographs using Agisoft Photoscan and edited in Meshlab

this 3D pdf was generated from a 3D object file using Simlab Composer

We are aware that there are many questions about precise precision of 3D models generated from ‘free’ photography. At present our objectives have not been to replace proper measurement and observation  with a quick solution but to enhance our record with something that is far easier to grasp visually; it must be remembered that when we excavate we destroy what we observe.

You can see the Leica scan of the barrow being excavated at Boltby Scar in 2011 and some other examples by going to:

To read a blow-by-blow blog in the 2011 excavations in progress and reports from York University undergraduates who spent three weeks at the site as part of their field training please view the Boltby Blog @

You can download the excavation interim report for 2011 by following the link below:

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West Heslerton Anglo-Saxon Settlement Archive in Google Earth

The West Heslerton Anglo-Saxon Settlement Digital Archive in Google Earth

The LRC has long been engaged in experiments in archaeological computing applications and the use of GIS systems for managing excavation data. The excavation of the Anglian or Early Anglo-Saxon Settlement at West Heslerton produced a digital archive of over 500Mb. We have been experimenting with Google Earth for the production of Digital Atlases. The excavation plans have all been exported to a GE suitable kmz file.

You can load this into Google Earth by entering the link below into the Google Earth Open File dialog. Click the link to download the file (55MB) to your local machine.

Please be aware that this is a 50mb file and it takes several minutes to load. Once loaded you can click on any feature and then follow the link to see the detailed archive web pages that link to each feature. In the image below the linked archive has been opened in a separate window.

West Heslerton Anglo-Saxon Settlement Archive with additional detail loaded from a Google Earth link.

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Welcome to the Landscape Research Centre Blog

This blog space is designed to supplement our primary web-site with up-to-date information on work in progress at The Landscape Research Centre (

This blog supplements the LRC website and provide links to some of the experimental research we are engaged in, in and around the Vale of Pickering, North Yorkshire. A lot of our research in archaeology, landscape studies and applied computing is concerned with novel approaches to the handling of large data-sets. Please be aware that some of the links and data demonstrations that appear on this blog involve very large files which take a while to load and may need relatively powerful computers to operate to best effect.

A lot of the work represented in this blog has been in progress for a number of years. this blog is intended to highlight some of the more innovative work we have been involved in.

Prof. Dominic Powlesland DUniv, FSA

on behalf of the Trustees of the LRC

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