In search of the ‘Wildscape’

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The Humberhead Levels holds few parallels for its extent of ecological and archaeological work. Today, it largely appears as a flat agricultural land with long drainage ditches crisscrossing the landscape and its small villages.


The view north-east across the Levels from Grinley on the Hill. Photo Credit: Kim Davies

Once this place looked truly wild, a marshland teeming with wildlife and plants, described by the local historian Colin Howes as akin to the Florida Everglades (see the comparison in the pictures below). Its former wetlands have since diminished greatly in size due to drainage activities to facilitate peat extraction and agricultural intensification.

Remnants of the area’s lost mosaic of raised mires, heathlands and wetlands can be seen on Thorne and Hatfield Moors. This area is now protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) by Natural England and efforts for restoration are well underway. Surrounding the Moors are extensive areas of former floodplain wetlands and old river channels, many of which were diverted or canalized during drainage and reclamation works in the 17th century, although some may date as far back as the Roman period. While there is great evidence for human activity and passage through the former wetlands, the archaeology remains still curiously unclear regarding the extent and nature of human activity prior to the area’s drainage.

The “Reconstructing the ‘Wildscape’; Thorne and Hatfield Moors Hidden Landscapes Project” synthesises the existing environmental records with the known archaeological records to provide an important environmental context demonstrating the landscape’s evolution and development, allowing the archaeological datasets to be investigated at a regional scale over time. The project examines the relationships and influences between the humans and the environment in order to understand how the landscape came to be as it is today.

We are working closely with with the Thorne and Hatfield Moors Conservation forum who have a long-standing history of highly beneficial work in this area.


The project is part of a wider partnership known as the Isle of Axholme & Hatfield Chase Partnership  which aims to make a difference to how people perceive, appreciate and care for the distinctive landscape in the Humberhead Levels.

Isle of Axholme and Hatfield Chase Landscape Partnership

A large component of our work means we are examining aerial imagery, LiDAR based digital elevation models, and geology maps in order to trace the past courses of the rivers that flow through the Humberhead Levels. These maps have also been compared with archaeological finds across the region.


A historical map on top of the modern OS map of the region. This is a good starting point for finding the old river channels in the modern landscape.

After the initial historical and geospatial data research, we target specific areas in need of review and further investigation and compare trends of human activity against the larger study area. This project focuses on the floodplains of the rivers Don, Idle, and Torne and associated meres, the areas immediately surrounding the Isle of Axholme, and margins of Thorne and Hatfield Moors.

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