Reconstructing the 'Wildscape'

A five year (2016-2021), HLF funded project ‘Reconstructing the ‘Wildscape’; Thorne and Hatfield Moors Hidden Landscapes’ is being led by Dr Nicki Whitehouse at the University of Plymouth, in collaboration with researchers at the University College Cork, Republic of Ireland (Dr Ben Gearey), the University of Birmingham (Dr Henry Chapman) and the Thorne and Hatfield Moors Conservation Forum.

The Wildscape HHLP is an innovative project building working links between local communities and organisations (Thorne and Hatfield Moors Conservation Forum, THMCF) and academic institutions (Universities of Plymouth, Cork and Birmingham), in the Isle of Axholme and Hatfield Moors area, Humberhead Levels region, UK. 

Developed by the University of Plymouth, this is one of several landscape scale projects being delivered by the Isle of Axholme and Hatfield Chase Landscape Partnership, developed by the Humberhead Levels Partnership in 2013. 

The Landscape Partnership straddles the historic boundary between Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire and is financed by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Dr Nicki Whitehouse (PI), Plymouth University
Nicki is a current Associate Professor (Reader) in Physical Geography. She specialises in the analysis of fossil beetles from a variety of palaeoenvironmental settings, including archaeological sites. Much recent work has been concerned with examining early Holocene landscapes in response to natural and human-induced change and especially the transition to agriculture in the Neolithic, effects on the landscape and the extent to which such activities impacted the development of the cultural landscape.


Ms Nika Shilobod, Plymouth University
Nika is a current PhD student at Plymouth in Physical Geography. She started in October 2017 and is being supervised by Dr Nicki Whitehouse, Dr Ben Gearey and Professor Ralph Fyfe, working on the ‘Reconstructing the Wildscape’ project. After receiving her MSc in Archaeology of the North in 2014, she has been working in aerial imaging and geomatics in the United States.

Dr Kimberley Davies, Plymouth University
Kim is a post-doctoral researcher on the 'Reconstructing the Wildscape' project.
She specialises in understanding palaeoenvironments using proxies such as insects
and geochemical markers. Her recent work has focused understanding Iron Age lake
settlements and their impact in the environment.

Dr Ben Gearey (Co-I), University College, Cork, Republic of Ireland
Ben lectures in Environmental Archaeology with a broad range of research interests
in environmental archaeology with a particular focus on the archaeological and
palaeoenvironmental records of peatland landscapes.

Dr Henry Chapman (Co-I), University of Birmingham
Reader in archaeology and digital humanities, Henry specialises in later prehistory, wetland archaeology and the application of digital technologies to the study of past landscapes.

Dr Jane Bunting, University of Hull
M. Jane Bunting went to university intending to be a physicist and got distracted. She has a degree and PhD from the University of Cambridge, then worked as a post-doctoral researcher in Waterloo, Ontario and at the University of Stirling before starting at the University of Hull as a lecturer in 1997, where she is now a Reader. Her research interests revolve around the understanding of the long term dynamics of cultural landscapes, mostly from pollen records, and the translation of pollen diagrams into other formats such as maps which are far more helpful for talking to archaeologists, ecologists and conservation scientists about past landscapes. She has worked on modelling pollen dispersal and deposition as a member of various international working groups, including PolLandCal, Landclim and currently PAGES Landcover6k.

Thorne and Hatfield Moors Conservation Forum
Formed in 1989, the Thorne and Hatfield Moors Conservation Forum acts as an umbrella for a wide range of like-minded organisations. Its extensive network is drawn from voluntary organisations and natural history societies, and has observers from statutory agencies and local authorities.



Case study region

The Humberhead Levels consist of the remnants of what was once an extensive complex of raised mires, meres, heathlands and wetlands, which developed within this area of Yorkshire. The landscape has formed as the result of natural and anthropogenic processes over the last 10,000 years, in particular, the last 5,000 years. The raised mires of Thorne and Hatfield Moors, (NGR SE 7006), although degraded, are the remnants of this landscape, together forming the two largest surviving examples of ombrotrophic lowland raised mire in eastern England. Both mires are closely associated with the floodplains of the rivers Torne, Idle, Don and Went, many being important foci for prehistoric and Roman activity. Prior to drainage in the 17th century, these rivers weaved frequently changing courses north-eastwards towards the lower Trent and Ouse, supporting vast expanses of wetlands. At a landscape scale, the hydrological systems of the raised mires, floodplains and associated wetlands, including meres, were closely connected for much of the Holocene. Today, the region consists of the remnants of this landscape, whilst much of the featureless landscape today is largely the result of historical processes of drainage and reclamation and more recently, peat cutting.

Deep peat deposits are associated with the river floodplains, holding detailed Holocene records, some of which have been previously investigated, whilst the mires of Thorne and Hatfield Moors have been the subject of extensive archaeological and palaeoenvironmental investigations, which this project will build upon, summarise and reconsider, alongside targeted new research.

Project background

The project is based around an investigation of the wild ‘hidden landscapes’ of Thorne and Hatfield Moors and its surrounding areas, especially its nearby floodplains and meres. 

These ‘hidden landscapes’ are the prehistoric, historic and post-medieval landscapes of the Humberhead Levels, which are preserved and concealed by the peat and alluvial deposits that cover much of this environment. 

This landscape in the past was famed for its wildness – a remnant of what was once an extensive complex of wetlands. 

Antiquarians provide a glimpse into this landscape, such as John Leland, who visited the area in the 16th century; his descriptions provide a “window onto what must have been a truly fabulous “everglades-like” landscape..”, as described by local historian Colin Howes.

Previous work has shown that peat and other organic deposits on and around Thorne and Hatfield Moors and their floodplains represent a unique resource for reconstructing how the local environment and its cultural landscape looked like, and why they look the way they do today and how they could be restored as fully functioning ecosystems.

Using long-term ecological approaches (e.g. via pollen analysis), we can study how these ‘wildscapes’ have developed since prehistory, the formation of their various ecological communities, how human beings used and moved through these wetland landscapes and gain improved understanding of the roles of climate and sea level change, human activities on their development through time. 

These historical perspectives are critical for understanding and managing this dynamic landscape, its heritage and associated ecosystems, hydrological systems and also for planning for the future. 

Changes in relative sea level, increasing precipitation and run-off due to climate change are likely to have major impacts in the Humberhead levels.

There is a long tradition of archaeological scientists studying this landscape, with a rich repository of existing information and knowledge, (e.g. such as votive and ritual objects that have been deposited within the wetland areas), but which has not been fully capitalised and synthesised to gain improved understanding some of the above issues. 

Neither has this information been fully brought to the public’s attention in a way that will allow an understanding of the challenges that face low-lying landscapes such as the Humberhead Levels in the near future, their important heritage value and enable communities to contribute towards debates and solutions towards their future.

This project is intended to bring these two issues together by collating much of the existing archaeological and palaeoenvironmental data and re-analysing these using state of the art methodologies to provide a coherent synthesis of environmental, biological and archaeological change for the region and the links between them. 

We also aim to make this information available to the wider public in a digestible format, via museum exhibits, publications, film and other social media. 

The project team will undertake targeted new fieldwork, data collection and analyses from the Moors and surrounding meres/floodplains to address periods and locations of limited knowledge, working within the project team and with local ‘citizen science’ volunteers. 

The intention, then, is that local citizens are not just receivers of information but also co-producers. Throughout this process, volunteers will be engaged with some of the scientific and social debates that emerge from studying this ‘wildscape’.

This project will allow these wider audiences to engage with their own heritage and thus enrich their own social identity through an improved sense of place. 

The ‘hidden’ nature of these landscapes means that they can be inaccessible to everyone (able-bodied and otherwise), but reconstruction of the landscape through fieldwork and environmental approaches that can be done in workshops and their presentation via a variety of media will allow them to be accessible to all.