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 Plymouth University, 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 Plymouth University, 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.

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.