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Woodland Archaeology - what's it all about?

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This is the study of the historic features to be found in woodland, often as surviving earthworks, lumps, bumps, banks and hollows, that are the result of the past activity on the site.  

About the author
John Morris Dec 15 By Chris Smith

John Morris is Director of a local charity, the Chiltern Woodlands Project. John studied Biological Sciences at Exeter University. He has been giving advice and assistance on woodland management in the Chilterns for nearly 35 years. He is a longstanding member of the RFS and currently represents Oxon/ Bucks division on Council. John has been organizing volunteer workparties with the Chiltern Society in Hockeridge Wood since November 2014 and took on the role of woodland manager here in June 2017.


There are two main types of archaeological features – those that directly link to the past management of the wood, such as ancient tracks, boundary banks, sawpits and charcoal hearths and possibly including some old trees, such as pollards and stubs, which again indicate former activities.  However other earthworks and remains may also have survived under the stable woodland environment from previous land uses, such as field systems, building platforms, enclosures and hillforts etc.

These historic features help give each wood its unique identity, character and sense of place. They tell the story of the wood and its role in the locality. Many woodland owners and visitors enjoy these links to the past. They can be used to help work out which areas are less sensitive, in terms of ground flora and soil structure, to modern forestry operations by showing that they had previously been disturbed, and which areas should be conserved.

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'Pillow mound' from an old rabbit warren in Hockeridge Wood















Many ancient woods have not been visited or surveyed by archaeologists and, until recently, they could not be evaluated from aerial survey due to the tree cover, so there is still much to discover. A recent development, Lidar, using laser mapping from aircraft is changing this and can provide accurate mapping of changes in ground levels.

Woodland archaeological features help increase our understanding of the past uses of the site and historic influences on woodland composition and ground vegetation. Features found on the ground can often be linked to information on old maps and documents, helping locate exactly where activities took place.

Forestry operations, particularly the extraction of timber, may cause damage to archaeological remains such as internal banks, by causing deep ruts across sensitive surviving remnants. The key is careful identification of earthworks and other sensitive areas, and planning of suitable extraction routes.  A most important aspect is briefing and support from forestry contractors so that they go where they are meant to and don’t inadvertently cause harm. The impact of forestry work can be cumulative erosion, damage that could harm features that had survived for hundreds of years.


Woodland archaeology in Hockeridge and Pancake Woods

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Old wood bank within Hockeridge Wood 


In the RFS Hockeridge and Pancake Woods we have already found numerous old wood banks and ditches, some of these seem to tell a different story for this 74 hectare block of woodland than might be expected from its modern boundary and recent maps (and PAWS designation). The old Ordnance Survey drawing of 1812 shows the woods to be a different shape in places to today, with some areas of open ground or fields within it. An 1880’s map shows that two ponds still found in the woods existed then, so it is no surprise they are good for amphibians. There are at least 12 pillow mounds from rabbit warrening, which may date back to the late medieval period. Sawpits show where timber was cut on site, requiring timber trees rather than coppice. Ancient quarries indicate where material was dug out and old tracks show links to places. Some other holes are where tree spades in the 1990’s removed standard trees for sale!

The best time of year to visit woods to locate archaeological features is over the winter and in early spring, when broadleaved trees are not in leaf allowing more light on to the ground and before ground vegetation develops in summer, which can hide more subtle traces of the past.