The shadows that reveal our heritage

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WE’VE been looking at shadows, at mysterious lines in fields, which may seem an odd way of studying Lincolnshire’s heritage.

However, when it comes to searching for signs of life from hundreds or even thousands of years ago, the shadows thrown by lumps and bumps in the ground, most visible from the air in early morning or late evening light, are one of the biggest clues archaeologists can have to lost villages, burial sites and other signs of life from the past.

I joined a small group of people at South Holland Centre in Spalding for an Introduction to Lincolnshire’s Heritage, a free, afternoon taster session given by the Heritage Trust of Lincolnshire as part of the county council’s provision of short, informal adult learning courses managed by the Lifelong Learning Service.

Our tutor was Dave Start, director of the Heritage Trust and an archaeologist, and my fellow ‘students’ were a mix of people with a casual interest in Lincolnshire’s past and one person who was keen to take her studies further. Interestingly, one or two of the participants had connections to farming, and some of them had clues to the past within their own fields, such as lines of ridge and furrow.

Dave admitted that the problem with the south of the county is that the archaeology is “well protected under a good layer of silt” so is much harder to see and read. However, we in the south of the county have our share of markers to the past, but they tend to be of a more three-dimensional nature, such as The Elloe Stone, put up in Anglo Saxon times to indicate the meeting point for the Elloe courts near Moulton.

However, there are more subtle clues to signs of life from our ancesters, such as crop marks – not to be mistaken for crop circles. According to Dave, if anything has ever disturbed the subsoil it subtly changes the micro drainage and nutrients of the land. He said: “Even though there is no sign of it, stuff growing over it has more moisture; it stays green when the rest of the field is going yellow.”

In compacted land containing rubble, the opposite occurs, because there is a limited amount of moisture and nutrients so crops becomes parched and yellow earlier than the rest of the field.

He added: “Even an old water course or channel that’s been infilled will have an effect on the crop. It might be no more than a wet area, but it might be due to habitation and rubbish.”

The crop marks are most easily visible four weeks before harvest, or earlier in a drought year. If you see ridge and furrow you are close to a lost village because these field systems are always close to settlement. In poor lands further north it’s also possible to see bumps indicating burial mounds, or barrows – one was also unearthed at Deeping St Nicholas.

The south has its share of history to explore though, with the Guthlac Cross pointing to the establishment of what was an important monastry at Crowland; the wonderful Romanesque (12th century) church at Whaplode; Deeping Cross, which started as a religious, processional monument but became the centre for local trade; and the evidence that Folkingham Castle once existed. Then there are the signs of medieval saltmaking found at Bicker, which was once a port, and more recently at Willow Tree Fen nature reserve between Spalding and Bourne.

l If you would like to find our more about Lincolnshire’s heritage, contact the Heritage Trust on 01529 461499 or email