Accessibility statement

Alastair Oswald


‘Patches of the endless forest’. Monuments, landscape and remote perception in the Early Neolithic of southern Britain.

Archaeologists have long noted that Early Neolithic long barrows tend to occupy topographic settings that afford distant views over the landscape, at the same time making them conspicuous from particular areas. When Early Neolithic causewayed enclosures were eventually recognized in the 1920s, similar expectations were mapped onto them. From the 1970s, archaeologists increasingly interpreted the visual ‘orientation’ of a given monument as an indicator of its associated territory. More recently, GIS-based viewshed analysis has facilitated demonstrations of the areas with which monuments were potentially intervisible. But this technical advance has impeded more sensitive thinking about the specificities of individual monuments and their settings. This thesis starts from the premise that there is much more to be said about the character and extent of Neolithic forest, the nature of clearings, about how contemporary lifeways shaped remote perception and, crucially, about how circumstances changed through time. In so doing, it offers a more nuanced, holistic and dynamic exploration of remote visual perception. 


I argue that the placement of monuments was intimately linked to short-range transhumance – the practice of distancing livestock from arable and hay crops throughout the summer months – in this case, in and around the clearings containing monuments. Many of these monuments would only become visible on entering the clearings, though heralded by distinctive sounds and smells. From further away, it was the clearing itself, represented in the case of upland monuments by a notch on the skyline, which was the real landmark. Even this would seldom be visible, but corridors of lower vegetation flanking watercourses, along which herders would drive their livestock, might afford distant views. In low-lying regions, navigable watercourses would be more important to remote perception. In short, though monuments were conceivably visually linked to specific communities, these links operated in more varied and complex ways than generally acknowledged, and changed through time.





I was educated at Sevenoaks School, Kent (1979 – 1986) and Churchill College, Cambridge (1987 – 1991), where I completed a BA Joint Honours Degree in Classics / Archaeology & Anthropology, gaining a Scholarship in 1989 and an overall Class 2:1 degree. Although I was part of the ‘Archaeology of the First Millennium’ cohort, my relatively well-developed knowledge of Rome's western empire gave me the opportunity to slip unnoticed into the ‘Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age’ classes as well. My undergraduate dissertation, a consideration of potential functional and symbolic concerns in the orientation of Iron Age roundhouses in the British Isles, was awarded Class 1. Having enjoyed the dubious distinction of being the UK’s most frequently-referenced unpublished dissertation for several years, it was eventually published (Oswald 1997) and has subsequently been both attacked and supported by post-graduate research. After nearly 25 years’ employment with conservation-oriented research bodies, I am currently working part-time towards a PhD at the University of York

Archaeological experience as a volunteer

From 1984 onwards, I excavated on a voluntary basis, initially with Canterbury Archaeological Trust and later on the Danebury project, as well as on Barry Cunliffe’s European Expeditionary Excavations in Brittany and southern Spain, at the well-known sites of Le Danebury and El Danebury. In the course of my degree, under Henry Hurst, I supervised two seasons of excavations on the site of Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome’s Forum and, under Dr Greg Woolf, two seasons of field-walking in the Somme Valley. I exploited the 4 weeks of fieldwork required by my degree to undertake survey and excavation on three Classic Mayan sites in the jungle of Belize, working with fellow undergraduate Thom Addyman.  Another ‘small practical project’ required by my degree involved geophysical survey on the site of the so-called ‘Durrington Egg’ enclosure and brought me into contact with the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, which had just plotted parchmarks of an Anglo-Saxon inhumation cemetery overlying the ‘egg’. In the summer of that year, I worked enthusiastically as a volunteer for the RCHME, surveying numerous prehistoric and Roman sites on Salisbury Plain. While still an undergraduate, I began paid work at weekends for the Cambridge Archaeological Unit on various small urban sites and large rural ones (mostly in advance of aggregate extraction). Immediately after graduating, a spell of full-time paid digging with the CAU, notably on the Iron Age enclosure at Coveney in the Cambridgeshire Fens, was brutally curtailed by winter temperatures of  minus-15 degrees, coupled with spraying of pulverized chicken excrement in the adjacent field. I eventually assisted the Unit’s Director, Chris Evans, on a month-long excavation on what might be called a ‘deserted medieval village’, ancestral home to the Gurung tribe, at around 3,800m above sea level in the foothills of the Annapurna Range, Nepal. Temperatures were more severe than even the Cambridgeshire Fens and our resident shamans insisted on spraying goat-blood in the adjacent woods. After that, I directed my foreign research towards prospecting for rock art deep in the Libyan Sahara, where, in 2006, it was cold and rainy for the first time in living memory.

A career in analytical field survey with the RCHME and English Heritage.

In 1992, I was recruited to the newly-established Cambridge Office of the RCHME, where I worked until 1998, surveying a wide range of sites and landscapes in the South-East, including Regent’s Park, Nonsuch Palace and numerous hillforts. In 1997, I took responsibility for the synthesis and publication of the RCHME’s national project examining causewayed enclosures (Oswald et al 2001; Palmer and Oswald 2008). In 1999, I moved to RCHME’s York Office, just in time for the organisation’s incorporation into English Heritage’s Research Department. There, I led the field team that undertook a fresh analytical survey of the world’s favourite deserted medieval village, Wharram Percy (Oswald 2006; 2012), and coordinated English Heritage’s contributions to Northumberland National Park’s Discovering our Hillfort Heritage project (Oswald 2004; Oswald and Pearson 2005; Oswald et al 2006; 2008) and the Northumberland and Durham Rock Art Project (Oswald and Ainsworth 2010).

In 2006, I was promoted to Senior Investigator and Head of Team for the North of England. In that role, I was responsible for conceiving, planning, managing and contributing to English Heritage multidisciplinary research projects and developing partnerships with other research and conservation bodies. I also initiated, supported and monitored research by other individuals and organisations in northern England and spent a mercifully brief spell as the organisation’s primary intercessor with Channel 4’s Time Team. From 2009 onwards, I acted as Project Executive for English Heritage’s multidisciplinary Miner – Farmer Landscapes of the North Pennines AONB project (Oswald and Oakey 2011; Ainsworth, Oswald and Went 2013; Oswald et al in prep). I took voluntary redundancy in 2012.

Training and Outreach

Delivering training and teaching

Throughout my career, I have been involved in delivering practical training in analytical field survey to community groups and amateur volunteers. Training has been a key plank of several projects in which I have been involved, including the Northumberland and Durham Rock Art Project (Oswald and Ainsworth 2010) and the South Downs National Park project, for which I produced a series of short web-based films to inform local communities about heritage conservation issues within the ‘protected landscape’ and to inspire them to engage with conservation oriented research. I have recently been engaged by the National Trust to train volunteers prospecting in the extensive parkland at Knole, Kent, and I am also involved with delivering training to a local group in support of the Department’s research excavations at Breary Banks, which served as the training encampment for the ‘Leeds Pals’ Battalion during the First World War.

While working at English Heritage’s North of England ‘hub’ in York, I managed and delivered three 12-month placements as part of the Institute for Archaeology’s EPPIC training scheme, as well as several less formal short-term placements. All these individuals currently have permanent and well-paid positions within the heritage sector (apart from one, who is now PA to Nick Clegg). I am on the Committee of the national Landscape Survey Group, one of whose key objectives is to promote the skills and techniques of field survey. I contributed to English Heritage’s (2007) standards and guidance publication Understanding the Archaeology of Landscapes: A Guide to Good Recording Practice.

In the early 2000s, I helped to set up and deliver a module on ‘Landscape and Economy’ at King’s Manor, which received excellent student feedback. Since starting my PhD here in 2012, I have been heavily involved in teaching techniques of landscape analysis and field survey at both undergraduate and post-graduate level, notably with Helen Goodchild at Old Malton Priory. The environs of the surviving priory church includes medieval remains surviving as earthworks and structural fragments, but the wider context of the monastic complex requires an appreciation of the modification of the natural landscape through Roman military activity and early stone quarrying, as well as its more recent transformation through post-medieval industrial exploitation and the creation of estate landscapes.


Having written two site guidebooks (Oswald and Ashbee 2007; Oswald 2013), I continue to give guided tours for English Heritage Members and other groups. I regularly give public talks on a range of topics.



Selected publications

Most of my RCHME and English Heritage ‘grey literature’ reports on individual sites and landscapes have been omitted from the following list, although I have included a few relating to Yorkshire and a few others that illustrate my breadth of interest; they are available through the National Monuments Record and the relevant Historic Environment Records.

Martin, E. and Oswald, A. (1996). ‘The house and gardens of Combs Hall, near Stowmarket’. Proc Suffolk Inst Arch Hist 38.4, 409-27.

Oswald, A. (1997). ‘A doorway on the past: practical and mystic concerns in the orientation of roundhouse doorways’. In A. Gwilt and C. Haselgrove (eds) Reconstructing Iron Age Societies, 87-95.

Oswald, A. (1999). ‘A hillfort on Ring Hill, Littlebury, Essex’. In P. Pattison, D. Field and S. Ainsworth (eds) Patterns of the Past: Essays in Landscape Archaeology for Christopher Taylor, 23-28.

Oswald, A., Barber, M. and Dyer, C. (2001). The Creation of Monuments: Neolithic causewayed enclosures in the British Isles. Swindon:English Heritage.

Oswald, A., McOmish, D. and Ainsworth, S. (2001). Greenburn Copper Mine, Cumbria (EH Research Department Report).

Oswald, A. and Pearson, T. (2001). An Iron Age promontory fort at Roulston Scar, North Yorkshire. (EH Research Department Report).

Horne, P., Macleod, D. and Oswald, A. (2002). The seventieth causewayed enclosure in the British Isles? In G. Varndell and P. Topping (eds) Enclosures in Neolithic Europe, 115-20.

Oswald, A. (2002). ‘Earthwork survey’ in C. J. Evans ‘A Great Circle: Investigations at Arbury Camp, Cambridge’. Proc Cambs Ants Soc 91, 5-14.

Pattison, P. and Oswald, A. (2004). Various contributions to C. French et al ‘Survey and excavation at Wandlebury ringwork, Cambs, 1994-7’. Proc Cambs Ant Soc 93, 15-66.

Oswald, A. (2004). ‘An Iron Age hillfort in an evolving landscape: analytical field survey on West Hill, Kirknewton’. In P. Frodsham (ed) Archaeology in Northumberland National Park, 202-12.

Oswald, A. and Pearson, T. (2005). ‘Yeavering Bell hillfort’ in P. Frodsham and C. O’Brien (eds) Yeavering: People, Power and Place, 98-126.

Oswald, A., Hunt, A., Thomas R. J. and Stone, J. (2005). Analytical field survey of prehistoric and post-medieval remains on Fylingdales Moor, North Yorkshire. (EH Research Department Report).

Oswald, A. (2005). Archaeological investigations on Cawood Castle Garth, Cawood, North Yorkshire. (EH Research Department Report).

Oswald, A. (2006). ‘The Field Evidence’. In C. Treen and M. Atkin (eds) Wharram: A Study of Settlement on the Yorkshire Wolds Volume X: Water Resources and their Management, 9-19. York University Archaeological Publications 12. York: Wharram Research Project and University of York.

Oswald, A., Ainsworth, S. and Pearson, T. (2006). Hillforts: prehistoric strongholds of Northumberland National Park. Swindon: English Heritage.

Oswald, A. and Ashbee, J. (2007). English Heritage Guidebook to Dunstanburgh Castle.

Oswald, A. (2007). Various contributions to I. Rotherham et al (eds) The Woodland Heritage Manual: a volunteer’s guide to recording the archaeology and ecology of Britain’s semi-ancient woodlands. Sheffield University: Sheffield University Press.

Palmer, R. and Oswald, A. (2008). ‘The field survey’. In R. Mercer and F. Healy (eds) Hambledon Hill, Dorset: a Neolithic complex of the 4th Millennium BC, Volume 1, 15-39. London: English Heritage.

Oswald, A., Ainsworth, S. and Pearson, T. (2008). Iron Age Hillforts in their Landscape Contexts: a Fresh Look at the Field Evidence in the Northumberland Cheviots. Arch Aeliana (5th Series) 37, 1-45.

Oswald, A. and Ainsworth, S. (2010). The Northumberland and Durham Rock Art Project: some observations on the landscape context and ‘taphonomy’ of rock art, and recommendations for future projects. In T. Barnett and K. Sharpe (eds) Carving a Future for British Rock Art. New directions for research, management and presentation, 37-56.

Oswald, A. and Oakey, M. (2011). Putting the prehistory of the North Pennines on the Map. English Heritage Research News 16, 18-21.

Oswald, A. (2012). A new earthwork survey of Wharram Percy. In S. Wrathmell (ed) Wharram: A Study of Settlement on the Yorkshire Wolds Volume XIII: A History of Wharram and its Neighbours, 23-44. York University Archaeological Publications 15. York: Wharram Research Project and University of York.

 Oswald, A. and Pollington, M. (2012). Commonplace Activities: Walmgate Stray, an Urban Common in York. Landscapes 13.2, 45-74.

Ainsworth, S., Oswald, A. and Went, D. (2013). Remotely acquired, not remotely sensed: using lidar as a field survey tool. In R. Opitz and D. Cowley (eds) Interpreting Archaeological Topography. 3D Data, Visualisation and Observation, 206-22.

Oswald, A. (2013). Various contributions to L. Jessop, M. Whitfield and A. Davison Alston Moor, Cumbria. Buildings in a North Pennines Landscape. London: English Heritage.

Oswald, A. (2013). English Heritage Guidebook to Wharram Percy deserted medieval village.

Ainsworth, S., Gates, T. and Oswald, A. (forthcoming). Swaledale's 'Grinton-Fremington Dykes' Revisited. Landscapes 14.1.

Oswald, A., Ainsworth, S. and Went, D. (in prep). Putting the prehistory of the North Pennines on the Map. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society.

Oswald, A. (in prep). Garden history and garden archaeology: a case study of the late Medieval and later gardens at Knole, Kent. Garden History.

Oswald, A. (in prep). Non-invasive archaeological survey in the South-East. In M. Allen (ed) The South-East to AD 1000.


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Contact details

Alastair Oswald
Department of Archaeology,
University of York
Kings Manor, Exhibition Square

Tel: 07749 308 952