Methods of Investigation: Fieldwork

Fieldwork provides an important aspect of Aim 3, using targeted and controlled metal detecting on a number of sites in the north of England in order to study their development and morphology. The choice of sites has been made through a combination of discussions with other researchers, including the metal-detecting community, and some good fortune.

Metal-detecting and archaeological excavation in Lincolnshire. Photo courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme
A metal-detectorist and a team of archaeologists working together on an excavation in Lincolnshire. Photo courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme

Field survey methods

The focus of VASLE's fieldwork is the accurate metal-detection of a range of sites, whereby any finds are plotted using a portable GPS (global positioning system) machine to provide as accurate a picture as possible of the distribution of finds within the ploughsoil. Where possible, the sites will also be surveyed through fieldwalking, where non-metal objects can be systematically collected, and geophysics to build a picture of the likely site morphology. Excavation is being used on our main site, Yorkshire Wolds I, to both provide a ground truthing exercise for the metal-detection, and to gain a accurate an archaeological understanding of the site as possible. The results from each method will be combined and analysed using GIS and database tools in order to build a picture if the landscape history of these sites. Such analyses will aid in the more general interpretation of 'productive sites' across England, and may provide evidence for later ninth and tenth-century changes which occurred throughout the Danlelaw. In each case the site will be fully published in either local or national journals, depending upon the results obtained, and where possible this will include previous finds.

Yorkshire Wolds 1 (YW1)

Our main site is located on the Yorkshire Wolds and was found through aerial photography by English Heriage. Its name and location are being withheld at this point to protect the site whilst fieldwork is ongoing. It was and remains under threat from looters detecting illegally on the site, an activity known as night-hawking, and so we were given the opportunity to undertake fieldwork. This not only enables us to try to save as many objects as possible from entering the trade in stolen antiquities but the available evidence suggested a large settlement of some complexity.

YW1 is a valley bottom site running from east to west. Evidence from aerial photogrpahy showing the crop-marks, and substantiated through geophysical survey, shows a range of features. At the eastern end of site, the regular, squared enclosure ditches are typical of Romano-British occupation and this has been supported by the pottery found during fieldwalking. Moving east, in the centre of the field and at its eastern end, two sets of enclosures can be seen. These are different to the Romano-British ones, being more curvilinear and irregular. They are known as 'Butterwick-type' enclosures after the place where they were first seen. Excavation of these elsewhere has suggested they probably mostly belong to the early medieval period, and certainly fall within VASLE's period of interest. The geophysics undertaken on the site has also indicated patches of high resistance within the enclosures which was interpreted as areas where metalworking may have taken place. Some of these 'Butterwick-type' enclosures and the internal features were chosen for excavation in May 2006, our first season of excavation at the site.

The excavations uncovered an area c.Xm2 in the central set of features. This area was chosen for two reasons. First, as the area most at danger from night-hawks it was important to examine this area as soon as possible, and second, the area also provided a large range of inter-cutting features. Knowing how these enclosures related to each other is significant as it would help to produce a relative chronlogy for that areas of the site, i.e. we would know the order in which the enclosures were laid out or if they were entirely contemporary and we hoped to find out if the possible metal-working features seen in the geophysics were used at the same time as the enclosures. Alongside this, a team of metal-detectorists worked with us over the entire period of excavation, checking features for metalwork which could then be dug as a priority (in case we were raided overnight) and also checking all of the spoil dug out. This meant that our finds recovery of metal objects was optimised.

Our first season at YW1 turned out to be very successful. The excavations unexpectedly produced very large amounts of animal bone, rare on the Wolds due to the nature of the soils, which gives us an opportunity to examine animal husbandry and craft production. There were a significant number of bone combs found which may have been produced on-site. Alongside this evdience for metalworking was also apparent. The metal-detecting was a very useful exercise although relatively little was found. In part this was likely due to the fact the site has been looted but it may also be to do with the chronology of the site. All of the indications suggest that this part of the site belonged to the eighth century when we would probably expect fewer finds to appear than on later sites. The datable finds included the bone combs, a Middle Anglo-Saxon pin of seventh to ninth century date, and a small early eighth-century silver coin known as a sceat which was minted in the Rhineland. No coins of a later date were found which indicates little ninth-century activity on this part of the site as coins from this period are found in large numbers on the Yorkshire Wolds.

It is anticipated that there will be further season of excavation of another area of the site during 2007 and the full results will be reported in due course.

Other sites

Alongside YW1, several other sites will contribute to Aim 3. Fieldwork on these is not as exhaustive as at YW1 with no excavation taking place during the life of the project. However, targeted metal-detection, some fieldwalking and geophysics and desk-based studies are taking place. In two cases this involves bringing older excavations to publication.


An eighth-ninth century settlement at Cowlam was investigated in 2003. A combination of geophysical survey, auger survey and excavation was undertaken, alongside an ongoing metal-detector survey.

Cottam A

Traces of eighth and ninth century activity were discovered during excavation of a Roamno-British ladder settlement at Cottam A. Field-walking, geophysical survey and excavation were undertaken and the results are currently being brought to publication. Excavations at Cottam B have been fully published and will also be utilised by VASLE. To see the Cottam B archive please click here


Desk-based assessment of the metal finds from Torksey has been undertaken as part of a postgraduate dissertation and a full finds catalogue has been produced.

This page was last updated by John Naylor on 20/12/2006

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