Archaeological Survey of Great Asby Scar

By Hannah Kingsbury, Community Heritage Officer

17 volunteers have recently completed three weeks of archaeological survey on Great Asby Scar. This was a level one landscape survey led by Northern Archaeological Associates. During the survey they recorded around 300 potential new sites.

So why are we surveying Great Asby Scar? We knew there was great archaeological potential in this upland landscape. Detailed surveys on neighbouring Little Asby common had revealed that much of the area’s heritage had been overlooked and certainly unrecorded compared to the rest of the National Park. This project aims to start to correct this imbalance. Previously to the survey there were 59 known sites in the 11km² area that makes up Great Asby Scar.

At the end of the project all the information recorded in the field will be used to enhance the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority’s Historic Environment Record. The results will contribute to a greater understanding of the area’s historic development. While uncovering a lot of the “hidden” heritage of the area, the volunteers also learnt surveying skills. They were trained in how to ‘read the landscape’ and identify evidence of past human activity across the Scar, as well as learning how to set up a field survey and the methods used to record sites.

We started season one with an Introductory Day which gave an opportunity to find out more about the project and the Westmorland Dales Landscape Partnership scheme. NAA gave a talk about the methodology and the results from taster days held in 2017/18 as part of the development phase.

They then led a taster session in the afternoon which enabled attendees to have a go at surveying for themselves, and they had the opportunity of recording a large area of quarrying.

Volunteers have surveyed such a range of sites during season one, these include:

  • a number of shieling sites (these were used in the summer months while the cattle/sheep were out to pasture – they consist of a “hut” and attached enclosures, however often only the footings remain)
  • a possible Romano-British settlement which consisted of several enclosures set around smaller stone cell-like structures which were probably dwellings
  • several cairns – a mound of stone built as a landmark on prominent ground
  • lots of quarries (quarries would have provided stone for the surrounding dry stone walls, the construction of limekilns and a source of material for lime burning) and tracks (some were quite substantial, with an aggregate surface and/or banks)
  • some evidence of mining activity, for instance an area of bell pits (surviving as doughnut-shaped earthworks, they occur when mineral that lies near the surface is extracted), these were likely associated with early copper mining in the area
  • bields (shelter walls for sheep), dry stone walls, and wall “features” including sheep smoots (a small opening in the wall which allows sheep to move from one field to another) and gates
  • “standing stones” – several slabs of limestone were set vertically into the grykes (which are the fissures separating blocks or clints of limestone), they are likely to be features of the former Warcop Training Area used by the army in the early 20th century, and appear to have been placed there as targets for shooting practice.

The features being surveyed date from the prehistoric period to much more recent times. It is really interesting when you can link features together on the Scar. This provides more evidence of how people moved around the landscape and some of the processes that took place there. It also suggests how the landscape has been used – principally farming, but also resource extraction (quarries and mining), and even as a training location for the army.

Not only were we surveying an area rich in cultural heritage, it is also an important area for natural heritage with lots of outcrops of limestone pavement, as well as designations including as a National Nature Reserve and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Not to mention the stunning views of the surrounding Westmorland Dales, especially towards the Howgill Fells.

The natural landscape provided challenges for those surveying. There were many debates on site about whether a feature was man-made or natural, as sometime it is very tricky to tell. Especially when the feature is greatly eroded, or “man” has taken advantage of a predominantly naturally occurring feature. Limestone areas are also known for their sinkholes or shakeholes, which are usually found in groups and can often be mistaken for a quarry. However, they are formed when water filters through the limestone (through cracks and fissures) dissolving the rock.

We wanted to say thank you to all our volunteers and to NAA for carrying out the survey. We are looking forward to the second season, as there are lots more new sites to be recorded – this will likely be held in March 2020, but we are yet to confirm dates. If you are interested in this project or have any further questions about it please get in touch with Hannah Kingsbury – [email protected]         


The Northern Archaeological Associates have written several blogs if you want to find out more about the survey - https://www.northernarchaeologicalassociates.co.uk/blog