Excavating the CA archive: Wharram Percy

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Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 7 June. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI340, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

Joe Flatman
Joe Flatman is Head of Listing Programmes at Historic England and the former County Archaeologist of Surrey. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman

For this month’s contribution to the ‘great excavations’ mini-series, I turn to perhaps the greatest project in medieval archaeology: Wharram Percy. This archaeological site used to be as close to a household name as any in England, its importance drummed into generations of children by their history O- and A-levels. Nowadays, it is less well known, medieval archaeology being, alas, about as unfashionable as a subject can be in 2018 (moans this frustrated medieval archaeologist). Nevertheless, it remains an undeniably great excavation of a great site by a great team that was led by some of the greatest of our profession, notably Maurice Beresford, John Hurst, and other members of the Deserted Medieval Village Research Group (DMVRG) and subsequently the Wharram Research Project. Work at this site wins the triple crown of being influential on the wider practices of archaeological excavation; on the formation (especially via training) of archaeology as a profession; and on our understanding of the past.

What of CA’s explorations of this site down the years? Modern research into Wharram began with a visit by the economic historian Maurice Beresford in June 1948. Excavations then took place every summer from the 1950s until 1990. By the time CA was launched in March 1967, therefore, work on the site was well established, as was the legendary community spirit experienced there, including the warm – albeit mildly eccentric – welcome given to visitors. As a consequence, Wharram first appears in CA 4 (September 1967), and from then onwards was regularly featured, including recent mentions in CA 333 (December 2017) – itself surely a record for a site’s longevity in being reported in the magazine. That first article in CA 4 also sets the scene nicely, giving a real sense of the long-term, landscape-based approaches applied on the site. These approaches were, frankly, ahead of their time and arguably insufficiently recognised by many contemporaries. CA returned to Wharram in 1974 and 1975, first in CA 45 (July 1974), which gives a brief update on fieldwork undertaken in the summer of 1974, and again in CA 49 (March 1975). The former year marked the 25th continuous season on-site, so, while the July report was a short summary of just that season’s work, the March issue covered the full quarter-century in synthesis. Here, Wharram rightly starred on the front cover.

The first of Wharram Percy’s many appearances in CA came early, in issue 4 (1967).

CA 49 neatly summarises one of the underlying reasons for Wharram’s greatness: leadership. As the magazine recounts: ‘The story of Wharram Percy is the story of two very different personalities. On the one hand there is the extrovert character of Maurice Beresford, Professor of Economic History at the University of Leeds, the historian of the lost villages and the organiser of the excavation camp, never happier than when supervising the day’s washing-up rota. And on the other hand there is John Hurst, Principal Inspector of Ancient Monuments, Treasurer of the Medieval Society, using Wharram Percy as the testing ground for methods to be applied to rescue excavations throughout the country. As a result of this happy combination, the excavation which takes place for three weeks every July, has become known as one of the most enjoyable (and hard-working) fixtures in the archaeological calendar’.

Another reason for Wharram’s claim to greatness comes in the regularity with which it was mentioned down the years, be it in CA or more widely across the profession. A generation of archaeologists who went on to be influential in their own right cut their teeth at this site. An example comes in CA 66 (April 1979), when the relatively unknown Gustav Milne (though no longer so – see p.44) cropped up in the pages of CA writing about work in medieval London, but with the biographical footnote that ‘Gustav… has been a site supervisor at Wharram Percy in the summer since 1975’. He is merely one of many distinguished archaeological ‘names’ to have worked on this site, many of whom remain in contact to this day, decades after the end of the fieldwork. This speaks volumes for the camaraderie built up on the site and the informal network of professionals that it helped create. And it is notable that, much as the collaboration of an academic historian and a government archaeologist in leading the work was unusual, so too have the pathways of those trained at Wharram varied, encompassing individuals who went on to play leading roles across the profession of archaeology, not just within academia.

The roofless church at Wharram Percy graced the cover of CA 49.

In 1981, the Selkirks returned to visit the summer excavations, reporting back in CA 80 (December 1981). Here, the scale of work, and crucially the extent of innovation and experimentation encouraged on-site, shines through: a team from the University of York, led by Philip Rahtz, exploring the northern edge of the manor site; John Hurst trying to prove continuity of Saxon settlement from the early Roman farming establishment within whose boundary ditches the medieval village lies; and a third team concluding a decade-long project on the medieval mill pond, including complete excavation with the aid of pumps in order to take copious radiocarbon-dating samples – surely as close to ‘underwater archaeology’ as the Yorkshire Wolds have ever got.


Wharram was next back in CA 117 (November 1989) in order to celebrate the happy conclusion of a long-running ‘conspiracy’ at the site: the publication of a volume of essays on medieval rural settlements in honour of Maurice Beresford and John Hurst. That book, Rural Settlements of Medieval England, was edited by Mick Aston, David Austin, and Christopher Dyer (three more of those famous names associated with the site), and was a cornerstone of my own medieval education as an undergraduate student – do search it out if you’re not familiar with it. CA 121 (September/ October 1990) then noted perhaps rather bittersweet events at Wharram – the conclusion, after 41 years in a row, of fieldwork on-site. As the magazine recounts ‘this was first celebrated in fine style over the weekend of 21 July, when all the excavators were invited back, and then on 28 July we had our Current Archaeology picnic. So many came that we lost count, though the guides estimated that at least 250 extra visitors must have been due to Current Archaeology, with at least three coach parties, one of which had come from the north of Wales’. Coach parties and high teas at beloved archaeological sites? Perhaps this is a tradition that the current editor of CA ought to revive…?

Simon Mays’ analysis of the Wharram Percy skeletons (CA 193) sheds light on infant nutrition in a medieval village.

The end of the excavation was, inevitably, not the end of the site. The ongoing analyses of different finds, and the writing up of the full series of site reports, ensured continuing mentions down the years in the pages of CA. For example, CA 152 (April 1997) mentions the analysis by Simon Mays of the burials from Wharram, comparing them with burials already published from St Helen-on-the-Wall in York – that is, comparing a country cemetery with a town cemetery. CA 193 (August/September 2004) followed up on this story in greater detail. In particular, the sizeable sample of infant burials (around 15% of the total) gave Mays the chance to investigate the nutrition of the very young in a medieval village.

In more recent years, the number of CA reports from Wharram has understandably declined. The celebratory 200th (November/December 2005) and 300th (March 2015) issues, however, each gave updates, both happy and sad. In particular, CA 200 mentioned John Hurst’s untimely death in 2003, a personal loss to his many friends and a professional loss for the project, which at that time had yet to complete its run of publications. The final words on Wharram can come from this update, a finer summary than I can manage: ‘Professor Chris Dyer once described Wharram as “an on-going seminar”, and it is only at this stage that the story is beginning to come together. No doubt there will be further revelations as the final volume is written, a volume that will allow an overview and pulling together of the results of more than 50 years’ work by a large and devoted team inspired and led by two remarkable men’.


Wharram Percy is open to visitors (with no admission fee) at any reasonable time – although do note that it is a steep and often muddy ¾-mile walk via an uneven track from the car park, so wear stout boots: see www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/wharram-percy-deserted-medieval-village/. The archives of the Deserted Medieval Village Research Group (DMVRG) can also be viewed online in the Historic England Archive – visit http://archive.historicengland.org.uk and search for archive MVG01.

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Read articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. A selection of articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 7 June. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI340’

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