Roads to the Past is a Heritage Lottery-funded community history and archaeology project exploring the landscape of the shrunken medieval village of Thornton le Street, near Thirsk in the Vale of Mowbray. The project was a partnership between Thornton le Street History Group and local archaeology company Solstice Heritage. The modern village of Thornton le Street is part of an incredibly rich archaeological and historical landscape. The group is very grateful to local landowners for generously allowing access to their land. The first time we got to ‘break ground’ during the project was a community test-pitting weekend in July 2017. Over the course of this weekend, and extending into the excavation week later in the summer, volunteers working with professional archaeologists opened a total of 12 test pits. Excitingly, we not only found a wealth of medieval and post-medieval pottery, but also a few tantalising glimpses of in situ cobbled surfaces in and around the earthwork remains of the medieval village. Running alongside the fieldwork programme, a large group of volunteers have begun delving into the archival records, which is helping us to understand how the medieval and post-medieval landscape has developed, placing all our discoveries into one overall story.
Into 2018, we continued our field walking and archive research, undertook more survey work, and mounted a two-week excavation in late May. We opened a series of trenches, and from the start we have wanted to investigate the causeway through the middle of the village. It has been claimed that the causeway was the line of a Roman road so we opened a large trench that excavated through the causeway in the hope of providing a definitive answer. After a lot of very hard digging by a dedicated team of volunteers, we were able to piece together the sequence of the causeway, showing that it was associated with the medieval and post-medieval occupation on the site, and no trace of a Roman road surface could be found.
Our excavations showed that it was initially constructed as a relatively narrow raised track with a metalled surface set into the top, and medieval pottery from the construction deposits dates it to contemporary with or later than the main phases of medieval occupation. Given that the material for the causeway appears to have been quarried from the edges of the hollow way, however, it seems more probable that it dates to a slightly later time, when domestic occupation was moving away from this end of the village.
In the summer of 2018 we dug within one of the well-preserved properties and excavated part of one building and although few structural remains survived, indicating this would have been a predominantly timber building. What was of particular interest was immediately behind the house, where we found a series of small ditches that had been cut and re-cut, suggesting a long period of occupancy on the site. All the ditch fills of varying ages contained broken medieval pottery, as well as a portion of animal bone and some smithing waste, painting a picture of small-scale industry and domestic rubbish.
In 2019 we targeted a linear earthwork which had been identified during additional survey as a possible line of the Roman road. The work demonstrated that, rather than a made track or path, this line was an earlier boundary marked by a small ditch containing medieval pottery. It probably marks a medieval field edge. What was most interesting, however, was that the ditch was filled with a concentrated deposit of flood-borne alluvium, upon which was built the bank that showed as an earthwork above ground. It seems that the problem of flooding from the high ridge to the west across the village to the Cod Beck was present in the medieval period, and the response that the villagers put in place was to erect a considerable bank as a break.
It is clear from the geophysical survey and examination of the surviving earthworks that the main form of domestic occupation in the village was in an arrangement known as ‘toft and croft’. The toft to the front is an enclosure containing the principal house and associated yards or surfaces, often fronting onto the adjacent road and the croft to the rear for keeping animals, small-scale crop or vegetable growing and presumably household-scale industrial activity.