Dalesman April 2014: Digging for History

For Dalesman this month, I had the pleasure of meeting two members of Swaledale and Arkengarthdale archaeology group.

 

 

Alan Mills and Peter Denison-Edson of Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Archaeology Group

Alan Mills and Peter Denison-Edson of Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Archaeology Group

It appears that Reeth is a hot-bed of volunteer activity to investigate the Dale’s past – possibly triggered by the presence of the Swaledale Museum, where the many events are well attended by locals.

 

It was at one such event that Peter Denison-Edson and Alan Mills casually mentioned that an archaeology group would be useful for discovering hard evidence of the distant past. The idea led to the founding of The Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Archaeology Group (SWWAG). Members are active, and Peter, now Chairman, comments drily, “It appears that there was an unmet need in the Dale for getting down on your knees in the mud, rain and wind.”

 

Archaeology, however, is about much more than digging holes, and Alan comments that their Honorary President, Tim Laurie, taught them how to recognise features in the landscape as they walk.

 

Swaledale’s prehistoric past holds particular fascination for Peter, who says: “Until we came along, the highlight of Swaledale’s history was the lead mining of the 18th and 19th centuries, with the population explosion, the rebuilding, and the money that came into the Dale. That’s well documented. But we do relatively less of that, we go back to the Mesolithic, about 9000 BC.”

 

He adds, “Rob White [archaeologist for the Yorkshire Dales National Park] has done lots to bring earlier periods to light. But up until the 1970s, it was thought that there was little in the Pennines before the 18th century – just a few poor but proud escapees. Now, we’re filling up those gaps.”

 

“At our last dig at Hagg Farm, Fremington, we found a site dating from the late 4th century, with lots of Roman stuff. We’re not saying that they were Roman. They were people living in round houses, so presumably Native British, but using Roman dining styles, with Roman pottery.”

 

Warming to his subject, Peter comments, “The whole history of human settlement in the Dales is from the top down, with the Mesolithic on the hill tops. They used the ridge ways as track routes, because everywhere was forested. As they cleared the forests, and as the post-glacial river valleys dried out – they were originally a swamp of tangled, marshy mires – people moved down the hills, but settlement only really reached the river bottoms with the Anglo-Saxons.”

 

Peter reckons the riverside areas of Swaledale were not populated until the Anglo-Saxon era

Peter reckons the riverside areas of Swaledale were not populated until the Anglo-Saxon era

Now, says Peter, “We have population clumps in the bottom of the dale. But if you look up, about half way up the hill, there’s a row of farms, all on a spring-line. They’ve probably been there since the Iron Age.”

 

This year, the Group has organised the Swaledale Big Dig, in which members of the public will be encouraged to dig many small pits throughout the main settlements of Reeth, Grinton and Fremington. While Reeth today is the larger settlement, they believe that at one time, it was eclipsed by Grinton, because Grinton has the Church. They have LIDAR images: aerial laser pictures from the Environment Agency that show the ground surface in great detail, free from buildings and trees. These show tantalising rectangles outside Grinton that the group believes are the foundations of houses, now long gone.

 

Most buildings in Reeth are believed to date from the 17th century or later

Most buildings in Reeth are believed to date from the 17th century or later

They hope that digging test pits in areas like these will turn up evidence showing what people were doing there in the past, and hopefully, when.

 

The group hopes to house their discoveries in the Swaledale Museum, (http://www.swaledalemuseum.org/index.html) where they will be available for anyone to view.

 

And in the meantime, their work is comprehensively reported on their website at http://www.swaag.org/ Visit to see some superb aerial photographs of the Dale, taken by the group’s Webmaster, Stephen Eastmead.

 

Read more about the Swaledale Big dig in Dalesman Magazine.

 

 

About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

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