Big skies. Steep chalk valleys. The towering monolith of Rudston, the largest standing stone in the UK, dwarfing its neighbouring church. The silhouette of dozens of round barrows on the skyline, once harbouring glinting treasures of the Early Bronze Age. The best preserved upstanding prehistoric linear earthworks in the country, carved over three thousand years ago. Hidden cemeteries of the Iron Age, harbouring chariots, swords and mirrors. Roman villas with mosaics that tell of links not just to Rome but North Africa. 

To visit the Yorkshire Wolds is to be in the presence of a past that feels especially close, knowing that a walk might kick up a piece of worked flint or sherd of Roman pottery. From these soils come Anglian and Anglo-Scandinavian craftwork that dazzles the eye in gold and garnet and stone, as pagan and Christian gods fought for the faithful. It is to dwell for a few hours in the abandoned earthworks of a Medieval village, trying on your tongue the place-names that tell of successive people coming to live here. Prehistoric, Roman, Anglian, Norman… finding new words to describe this land of sinuous deep dales and open slacks, hidden settlements and rushing streams. 

Yet the rolling fields of nodding barley and silvered oats, acid-yellow rape flowers and sun-worn pasture that we see today, are the trace of more recent historic events of enclosure and its rationalisation of field, road and hedgerow. Banks of shelter-belt woodland were planted to protect the High Wolds farm-houses from buffeting winds. Wandering past these sites, you can almost feel these barrow-builders, chariot-drivers and horselads at your shoulder. You are breathing in the past. 

The Yorkshire Wolds is more than an ancient landscape though. The inviting Wolds Way will take you past clear chalk streams and gushing springs. You may have to wait for the summer sea fret from the coast to burn off, but it will lift to reveal skylarks, wheeling high above and rare plants and insect life, nurtured by the chalk soils. The ‘wonder’ of the Wolds is this unique relationship between some of the most spectacular archaeology of the country and the peace and quiet of a still largely agricultural landscape, caring for and celebrating its unique ecology. There is nowhere quite like it. 

Food for Thought: co-designing a Research Strategy for the Yorkshire Wolds

The Yorkshire Wolds Research Strategy has tried to capture this distinctive landscape and its unique heritage through a rather different approach to other regions, led by Historic England and delivered through the Yorkshire Archaeological Trust. Instead of beginning with a detailed assessment of existing heritage assets and resources, it has focused on the meaning of the Wolds to present communities: not just professional archaeologists and community history groups but farmers, bakers, brewers and school-children, and their encounters with the past. The project was called ‘Food for Thought’ and used the theme of how people made a living in the past here, to open-up discussion about connections with life-ways in the present. 

What emerged from these events, workshops, conferences and festival stalls was a sense of the special value of a rural landscape relatively untouched by large-scale modern development. Participants spoke of how these places gave them the opportunities to both wander and wonder: enjoying the sense of generations of past peoples who have made it their home. Time and again, people mentioned not just the archaeology but the wildlife of the Wolds: the two were inseparable. For those that live here, the Wolds is a place of repeated visits to favoured and known locales but for many others, it is a ‘through-place’ experienced more fleetingly on the way to the coast. Day-trippers and holiday-makers have different interactions to those that work the land and deal with the challenges of all its seasons and topography. Whatever the nature of their engagement, it was the continued presence of these traces of past lives which enabled people to have a special kind of ‘deep time’ connection with the Wolds. Yet what also emerged from these conversations were the demands of the present – novel farming methods, pressure to build or convert historic buildings, and the need for new infrastructures to make a modern living here – which pose challenges to that heritage. 

The Yorkshire Wolds Wiki: structure and content

Our ‘Word Art’ infographic tries to capture some of this sense of place, and the meaning of the Wolds in the present, whilst the Comic and Public Booklet deliver accessible heritage resources to be used by those communities. Alongside these, the Period Summaries presents brief introductions to the distinctive features that characterise each era on the Wolds. We openly acknowledge that there is room here for much greater elaboration, compared with other Research Strategies, as this stage of the project did not have the rigorous research that underpins other Wikis, and has instead been culled from a mixture of academic advisor input and Historic Environment Data. We invite and encourage future additions to these pages and their bibliographies. 

Select Study Zone Narratives complement the Period Summaries in three important ways. They provide six contrastive landscapes which enable us to capture the rich variety of the Yorkshire Wolds. The ‘High Wolds’ of the north-west, with its steep scarp and springs, is captured in the Birdsall study zone: a landscape largely defined by its estate landscape and historic designed farmsteads, yet harbouring rich prehistoric round barrow cemeteries. The Londesborough study zone also provides an insight into a designed estate landscape and parkland, with later prehistoric earthworks, farmsteads and deserted and shrunken medieval villages, which can be accessed by modern cycle and walking routes. Two market towns – Pocklington to the east and Driffield to the west – enable us to showcase their farming origins in later prehistory and their different development as agricultural markets and fairs, over the early medieval period. Pocklington features as a site of early Christian conversion and evangelism whereas Driffield is the supposed burial site of a early medieval king. Both went on to become thriving sites of commerce, with fluctuating fortunes through the medieval and historic periods. The more rolling open landscape of the Garton study zone tells us of both exceptional prehistoric settlements and cemeteries, as well as innovations in farming methods that enabled these parishes to recover and grow following the impact of medieval endemics and changes to land holdings. Finally, we finish with the dramatic outcrop of the chalk at Flamborough Head: a study zone with a unique place in the earliest traces of inhabitation, wealth of raw materials from land and sea, and role as a fishing port. The identity of this study zone is also defined by its strategic position in the defence of East Yorkshire, from its Roman signal station to twentieth-century military archaeology. Each of these study zones presents the Yorkshire Wolds landscape as a palimpsest: layers of inhabitation, life, work and memory, which leave their imprint for successive generations. Whilst we could have chosen many others, we feel these give a more fulsome picture of the diversity of what is often seen as a homogenous ‘chalk’ landscape. 

The Research Questions and Strategies that emerge from these narratives provide anyone interested in the past (from commercial archaeology units to academic research projects, small-scale local studies to large-scale community projects) with a set of ideas and methods they might usefully adopt. We trust these too will be added to, through future research. To provide a framework for thinking across time, we have grouped these into a set of overarching themes:

  • People and the Land Who were the people of the Wolds and what can archaeology tell us about their origins, relationships and mobility during their lives? How did they live in this chalk landscape and what traces did they leave behind, in terms of settlements, earthworks and field systems, that allow us to explore their lifeways, as they moved from hunter-gatherer-fisher to farming communities?
  • Making a Living What were the particular constraints and affordances of this chalk landscape upon past lives, both in terms of different zones on the Wolds and its seasonal, generational and longer-term climate changes? How did people of different periods negotiate this through transformations in subsistence practice? How did farming methods change with new technologies, crop and stock species, sources of labour, and socio-political changes in land rites, over time?
  • Water The lack of large bodies of drinkable water for people and animals places one of the strongest constraints upon inhabitation in the Yorkshire Wolds – how did different groups negotiate their use of, and access to, water? What did water mean to prehistoric and early modern populations? What were the major period of change in naturally available water, and how did artificial water sources transform the possibilities of both farming and human habitation on the Wolds?
  • Crafting Ways of Life What was made locally, using raw materials from the Yorkshire Wolds, and what was imported and from where? What do these materials tell us about local senses of identity and community, and the wider social networks of which people were a part? How was this transformed in later periods by improvements in transport infrastructure, trade networks and markets? 
  • Belief What do changing ideological beliefs, ritual traditions and practices of the past tell us interactions with spiritual or supernatural entities, including their treatment of the dead and concepts of the afterlife? Where are the major spiritual sites on the Wolds and do they show long-term continuity in use between prehistory and the present or more interrupted periods of connection and abandonment? What was the impact of major new ethnic groups on belief systems (e.g. Roman, Anglian, Anglo-Scandinavian)? When and how did Christianity emerge in this landscape and what was the impact of major historic events (such as the Reformation) upon religious communities and their use of the Wolds? What was the impact of non-conformism and new global religions on this landscape? 
  • Transition Academic, period-based boundaries often oversimplify long-term transformations, relegating sites, features or populations to either/or categories – this theme is used to foreground the interstices of traditional ‘blocks’ of time and the research questions pertinent to eras of transition and change.

In all of these narratives, we have also tried to capture the unique heritage history of this region by drawing attention to the individuals and institutions, and their changing research methods, through which the archaeology of the Yorkshire Wolds takes centre-stage in regional and national museum collections.  
Finally, the Bibliography provides a starting point for key works related to each period, as well as studies that introduce the Yorkshire Wolds to wider audiences.

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