The Great Asby Scar is a wide expanse of moorland in the Westmorland Dales characterised by swathes of limestone pavement that crop out in bands along its contours. The Westmorland Dales Landscape Partnership commissioned NAA, with the help of local volunteers, to perform a landscape survey of the scar. The survey has so far been extremely successful; during the 2019 field season alone we found 312 sites. These were evenly distributed across the six survey zones we completed, showing a long history of human activity.
The area still to be surveyed is on the north and west sides of the Scar. A quick look at the Yorkshire Dales Historic Environment Record tells us that there should be plenty of archaeological sites there. We know of at least one Romano-British settlement in the area, a copper mine, several round cairns, quarries and standing stones and, no doubt, there will be much more evidence of human activity to find.
As with the 2019 season, the survey will start in Orton in Cumbria. From there we will drive to the north side of the Scar and park close to the survey area. We’ll then spend the next few hours walking survey transects across the zone, looking for new sites. Our professional archaeologists will always be on hand to help you recognise what’s what. Once we find a site, we record its dimensions on paper, use a GPS to record its location, and take some photographs. Results from season 1 show that this method is very effective in locating a variety of sites across a wide area. The first week of surveying will start on Monday 6th March with, hopefully, sunny weather – but do dress for the winter just in case! As anyone who has been up there in inclement weather knows, it can be very cold and exposed.
Last autumn, over the course of three weeks, we found seven different habitation sites on the Scar. These included shielings (seasonal dwellings used during the summer grazing season), hut circles, and one very prominent Romano-British settlement which was already marked on the Yorkshire Dales Historic Environment Record. These settlements are visible today only as slight earthworks or geometric lines of stone, yet they provide valuable evidence of how the people of Great Asby lived in the past.
Considerable evidence of stock management was also found across the upland. Bields and sheepfolds dot the landscape, some now only earthworks. Walls divide the scar into fields accessed through gates or stiles. A number of hogg holes were also recorded. These low, square openings at the base of a wall were constructed to allow young sheep (hoggs) to pass through from one field to another while limiting larger stock.
A series of trackways and access routes were identified. Modern tracks often lead to the extant gates, but there was also evidence of older tracks criss-crossing the Scar. These were used not only to travel across the upland, but also for transporting material across the area. This was usually quarried stone, although a mine has been identified on the east side of the scar. Numerous quarries were recorded during the 2019 season. Many were concentrated along the course of the walls, and were used to provide material for construction. These were sometimes little more than a hollowed scoop appearing as part of a series pits.
One problem we encountered was how to tell a man-made quarry from the naturally occurring shakeholes. These are created by the water erosion of limestone, as it is more soluble than other surrounding rocks and more easily dissolves in flowing water. The only way generally to differentiate between quarries and shakeholes is by their shape; shakeholes are conical, having collapsed inward all at once, whereas quarries are worked gradually over time and more stone may be removed from various focus areas, creating an asymmetrical shape. Limestone was sometimes transported to a limekiln to create quicklime, used primarily to help neutralise acidic soils. However, stone for lime production was often sourced as close to the kiln as possible and would probably not have been transported any considerable distance across the Scar. Evidence of this was clearly visible at the large limekiln in the north-east corner of the survey area which was surrounded by a number of large quarries.
As most of the volunteers know, the scar can be very exposed and, when foggy, difficult to navigate. A number of small marker cairns were recorded that would have been used by people to find their way across the uplands in treacherous conditions. Today, most of the cairns were small and covered in grass or moss and are nearly invisible. A number of boundary stones were also identified, used to demark land divisions, although some of these may be isolated standing stones of unknown purpose.
Several slabs of limestone pavement were found placed on end within a grike (crevice in limestone pavement). Some of these had even been propped up by several stones placed beside them. It is unknown what purpose these served, but they may have been waymarkers or boundaries of some form. Although previous on-site discussions suggested that these might be targets associated with the military base at Warcop, we have subsequently found out that similar stones have been recorded in various areas across the Dales and in Ireland. There is no way of knowing for certain what purpose they served. Further investigation during the second season may provide more information, but their distribution across the Scar has not yielded any answers yet.
After the completion of Season 1, we compiled the paper records in a spreadsheet and used QGIS (geographic information software) to plot it. This allowed us to map their location and distribution. Using a program like QGIS facilitates the sorting of this information by site type to see what kind of site was located where. Of course, all record forms are also kept as part of the permanent archive.
Oskar, NAA’s drone pilot and surveyor, has compiled some more of the drone survey data to provide high-resolution imagery. This information helps corroborate the location and extent of the features we found and increases accuracy of the survey.
Oskar will be out before the next season starts to perform more drone surveys. He may also be out early some mornings before fieldwork starts to continue gathering more imagery. Collecting this information can point out possible features like quarries, settlements, mines, and large cairns, before we get to the site.