A series of significant archaeological excavations has unearthed evidence of farming dating back to before the Romano-British period in Nidderdale, identifying previously unrecorded features.
The Heritage Lottery funded Upper Nidderdale Landscape Partnership’s Our Farm Heritage project, is led by volunteers from a local archaeology group, Iron-Age (Nidderdale), working with experts from Solstice Heritage to undertake surveying and excavation work on farm holdings.
Recognised for centuries as the dwellings and fields of our ancestors, the farm holdings in Nidderdale have attracted the interests of antiquarians, archaeologists and idle passers-by, but until now have been poorly understood.
Alongside field surveying using GPS units across 15 farms, four excavations were spread across three separate sites – Blayshaw Gill, Knott’s Gill and Colt Plain. The earliest site was around 2000 years old. Evidence recovered from hearths and storage pits included different forms of wheat and barley, natural resources such as hazelnuts, and the remains of coppiced wood.
Bob Barker, Secretary of Iron-Age (Nidderdale), said: “People have looked at lumps and bumps and noted prehistoric things, but no-one before has excavated and dated them. The findings show there might be a continuity of farming at sites in Nidderdale that lasted for hundreds of years.”
“It’s a very important discovery. It puts something concrete into that black hole of history – what happened in Nidderdale during the Roman period – what was it like? It helps fill in that history.”
Louise Brown, Scheme Manager of the Upper Nidderdale Landscape Partnership, said: “These excavations have cast significant new light on our understanding of how people lived and farmed in Nidderdale. The exciting results of these investigations are also testament to the growing body of volunteer-led archaeological projects that are making genuine and meaningful contributions to our knowledge.”
Bob Barker said: “The houses were important to them, they were paved and kept clean, it wasn’t a hovel existence. It starts to raise all sorts of questions of what was this community, what really happened in this period”.
The variety of paved floors and walls he says suggests a ‘Nidderdale way of living’. “The paving is almost certainly to make sure you didn’t track things into the house, it’s a sense of pride, a sense of belonging, a sense of permanency. It was a substantial way of life. To me the finds of paved areas, set up over beautiful views, facing south-east for the morning sunrise, these are exciting, finding out how people looked after the places they lived.”
The team also found new pieces of Rock Art - some of the earliest forms of art - carved into rocks near the settlements, and two pieces of Romano-British pottery.
Jim Brightman, a Partner at Solstice Heritage LLP, said: “The project has resulted in a lot of new information about the Later Iron Age and Romano-British periods in Nidderdale, an area for which our understanding of these periods falls woefully short. More widely, we hope that what we have learned from this project will contribute to our understanding of similar sites across the Pennines and the North. There’s a vibrant debate about the form, dating and use of prehistoric and Romano-British sites and their landscapes, and the work of the volunteers here should now place Nidderdale front-and-centre in that discussion.”
Volunteers included a diverse range of ages and professions from across Nidderdale, from schoolchildren and post-graduates interested in hands-on experience to amateur enthusiasts. The project team said the findings were thanks to the support of farmers who allowed access to private working land.
Bob Barker added: “The farmers are stewards of the land, and they have been instrumental in helping us preserve and gain access to sites, because they’re so interested in the history of the land. It’s part of their identity as they continue the story. What we’ve shown is there’s tremendous potential of telling a really exciting story.”
It is hoped that this project will inform future heritage conservation and assist land managers in understanding and protecting the heritage features on their land.