Methods of Analysing the Landscape, Maps, Place Names

To understand the history of our landscape, we must combine several types of evidence. The historian of the landscape, Oliver Rackham, has warned against the dangers of relying on a single type of source, which can only give us part of the story.

“Many historians,” he says, “confine themselves to the written record” and “are reluctant to put on their boots and see what the land itself, and the things that grow on it, have to say.”

This is a problem because often the people writing these sources were not agricultural workers or others who are especially close to the land.

Analysing the Landscape

Factors such as ecology, climate, and the work of people who left no records can be forgotten if we only pay attention to the official historical record.


For example, Rackham points to the drainage of the Fens in Roman times, a feat which we only know about through archaeological investigation and would never have understood from written sources alone.

Archaeology is the only way to understand the landscape until the early Anglo-Saxon period, and after that, it helps us understand gaps in the written record.

Read More: Roman Aqueducts and Where to Find Them in the UK

For example, written records can be very useful in establishing precise dates but, until accurate maps were produced, they can be shaky about locations. Fieldwork can address this lack. Combining types of evidence gives us the clearest view of historic landscapes.

Analysing the Landscape With Pollen Analysis

Plant debris can give us evidence about historic plant life, which, in turn, can tell us how the land was used and lived in.

Pollen Analysis is a key tool in fields such as archaeology, geology, and paleontology for reconstructing past environmental, climatic, and human activities.

This debris can include objects as large as tree trunks and as small as bud scales or grains of pollen. Pollen is by far the most common since it has been preserved in lake mud, peat bogs, and acidic soils.

These are laid down in strata, and the period they belong to can, therefore, be pinpointed. These pollens can be analyzed and identified under a microscope.

Pollen analysis gives us a picture of the plant life that flourished in an area during the period when the layer of mud or peat was building up.

Our knowledge of the prehistoric landscape known as the wildwood is entirely derived from this type of evidence.

Read More: What is Medieval Ridge and Furrow?

By looking at changing patterns of plant life, revealed through the pollen they left behind, we can see what impacts humans had in this prehistoric landscape.

This makes it an invaluable and unique tool for understanding the history of the landscape before other evidence, written or archaeological, is available.

However, pollen analysis has limitations and is not infallible. Not all plants produce identifiably distinct pollen.

For example, it is not possible to differentiate between types of oak tree. Other plants produce pollen that can be confused across species, such as hazel and bog-myrtle.

Grasses are difficult to differentiate and can generally only be separated into broad categories, such as cereals and reeds.

Moreover, not all plants shed pollen in the same way or to the same extent, so they might not be detected at all. Some others disperse their pollen very widely. For these reasons, the picture painted by pollen analysis can be vague and even misleading.

Archaeological Evidence and Field Walking

Archaeology in the context of landscape history refers to the study of landscape features. This does not necessarily require excavation because these features are often visible on the surface.

ancient woodbank
The left-hand side (red arrow) of this bank was once a field and is now woodland, and that is why this bank seems out of place. Does that make sense? Image Credit: Simon Carey

This evidence might include observing variations in ground level, woodbanks, hedgebanks, ridge and furrow, soil marks, and crop marks.

This way of studying the archaeology of the landscape includes field walking and searching for potsherds, broken pieces of ceramic material that might indicate former uses of the land.

Read More: What are Cross Dykes?

In combination with detailed surveys and archaeological excavations on the sites of major building projects in the countryside –  for example, the building of motorways – it has helped to reveal centuries of landscape history that had otherwise been lost to the record.

Place Names

The names of landscape features such as settlements—towns, villages, hamlets—farms, rivers, woodland, roads, and fields can tell us a lot about their histories.

Many predate the Norman Conquest and reveal clues about what the landscape was like. These names can be in a range of languages.

Literally means “farmstead/town on the stream used as an open sewer”. The hamlet of Shitterton here in Dorset is at least 1000 years old.

For example, Anglo-Saxon or Old English, Cornish, and Old Norse. The language they draw on can indicate the date when they were named.

For example, an Old Norse place name tells us that it was named by the Vikings. To an extent, then, place names reveal the dates associated with landscape history.

Read More: King Alfred, Fortified Wareham Against Viking Raids

They frequently indicate particular features, suggesting, for example, that a particular type of plant was abundant in an area when it was named.

This evidence has limitations as well, however. For example, place names are often derived from dead languages.

Even linguistic experts might not have a perfect understanding of all their nuances or usages. For example, there are two Anglo-Saxon words for elm, but we don’t know how or why these were used. Additionally, some words sound like others that have developed from another root.

“Hather,” as in Hatherleigh, sounds like “heather,” but it means “hawthorn.” It would be easy to jump to a false conclusion from this evidence or to read too much into a flimsy clue.

They can be corrupted through long use, and the corruption can then be misunderstood. A place name alone, therefore, is seldom sufficient proof and is useful only when combined with other evidence.

Anglo-Saxon Charters

Anglo-Saxon Charters predate the Domesday Book, giving us one of the only glimpses we have of what England was like before the Norman Conquest in 1066.

Anglo-Saxon charter
The oldest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, issued by King Hlothhere of Kent in 679

They tell us a great deal about how land was owned, used, and transferred and by whom. An Anglo-Saxon charter is a formal document, typically in Latin but not always, recording a king’s grant of land or rights.

It could be bestowed on a religious house or on a layman. The earliest surviving charters date from the 670s, and they continued to be used extensively until the Norman Conquest when they became less common but continued to be used for some purposes.

Read More: Roman Forts Still Litter Our Countryside

As the historian of the English countryside Rackham puts it, “In England, as probably nowhere else at so early a date, we have a large set of documents which clothe the archaeological record with vivid detail and tell us what specific pieces of the country looked like.”

Charters are an unrivaled source of knowledge about Anglo-Saxon England and its lands—who owned them, who worked them, and what they looked like. They represent a remarkable treasure trove of historical insight and information.

The charters that are today recognized as formal legal documents describing land use, land ownership, and land rights number around 1,600 texts.

It is believed that these numbers represent only a small proportion—some historians have estimated it at around one-tenth—of the total number of charters produced in the Anglo-Saxon period.

Of the surviving charters, only 300 are preserved in their original form. This is a useful resource but what survives is only a partial record.

Analysing the Landscape With the Domesday Book

Domesday Book recorded William the Conqueror’s survey of 1086. It was commissioned to create a record of land tenure so that the new monarch could grasp the extent of his own rights and possessions.

He wanted a clear picture of who owned what in his new kingdom. The survey covers much of England and part of Wales. The historian H.C. Darby has described the usefulness of the resulting document in the following glowing terms:

Domesday book
A page of from the Domesday Book for Warwickshire

“[we] can have nothing but admiration for what is the oldest ‘public record’ in England and probably the most remarkable statistical document in the history of Europe.

The continent has no document to compare with this detailed description covering so great a stretch of territory.

And the geographer, as he turns over the folios, with their details of population and of arable, woodland, meadow, and other resources, cannot but be excited at the vast amount of information that passes before his eyes.”

Read More: Uncovering the Secrets of Prehistoric Henges

This, then, is a key source of information for a historian of the landscape, telling us how the land was used in 1086, recording landscape features as well as land uses and legal rights.

It also sought to record changes that had occurred since the Conquest and contains information about how things were arranged “in the time of King Edward.”

After the Domesday Book, there was a falling off of record-keeping resulting in a dark age that persisted into the mid-thirteenth century.

Record-keeping revived in the fourteenth century before fading out again around 1450. Historical records, then, are useful where they exist but can be very patchy and leave many blanks.


Before around 1580, maps were seldom accurate or detailed, but around this time breakthroughs in surveying techniques and incentives to better measure estates (in order to maximize income) led to a flurry of highly detailed estate plans.

strip lynchets on an OS map
OS maps are a wealth of knowledge

Parliamentary Enclosure in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries produced detailed maps of at least half the parishes in England, with each act requiring documentation accompanied by a map. These were accurate but not typically highly detailed.

Read More: What are Woodbanks and Why Do They Matter?

“The beautiful maps of the 1860s and 1870s,” Rackham writes, “which attempt to record every hedgerow tree and the details of every building, are the zenith of rural map making in Britain and perhaps the world.” Here again, we find that map making is a useful source of information, but not consistent in all contexts.

Understanding a Complex Landscape in History

These varied methods – maps, place names, field walking, pollen analysis, archaeological evidence, Anglo-Saxon charters, Domesday Book, and maps and boundaries – provide valuable insights into the history of the rural landscape.

Other methods like aerial photography, traditional and customary knowledge, and records of parish boundaries can also contribute to our understanding. However, it is important to recognize that none of these methods is complete on its own.

The most effective approach to analysing the landscape’s history should be multifaceted, combining multiple sources of evidence to paint a more complete and accurate picture.

By employing different types of evidence in combination, researchers can overcome the limitations of each, address gaps in the historical record, and gain a comprehensive understanding of the rural landscape’s past.