Woodland Archaeology

Archaeology in Woodlands

Identification, significance and decision making in ancient woodlands

There is evidence of woodland management in Cumbria going back to Neolithic times where pollen records show widespread changes in species composition of woodlands in line with the production of Stone axes on a large scale.

The Romans were also known to have a significant presence in Cumbria and with that came further management of woodlands to provide them with food, timber and firewood and the middle ages saw continual management of woodlands for differing products including building materials, weapon making, tool manufacture, boat making and many more.

If you manage ancient woodlands, it's highly likely you will have archaeology in there.

Much of the recent archaeology visible in our ancient woodlands was driven by the demand for charcoal and potash. Woodlands were managed and coppiced to provide wood for making charcoal, which could be used for smelting or making gunpowder. The demand for Potash from the tanning industry meant kilns were built throughout the area. Those working in the woods needed to live there, so huts are found and easily identified throughout the woodlands that were being managed.

The woodlands of the South Lakes were a hive of activity during the industrial revolution. The combination of transport links, natural resources and investment from Furness Abbey meant this was a highly productive area.

Things to look out for in the woods

Peeler Huts-

Bark peeling was a crucial part of the tanning industry and peelers would live in these huts while working the woods. The stone foundation and hearth can be easily identified. the roof would have been supported by timbers and covered in turf.

Burner Huts-

These circular huts used by those burning charcoal are different from Peeler Huts as they have no hearth. Although there is no conclusion as to why this is, we can perhaps assume they had enough warmth from the burning process...

Potash Kilns-

These stone-built structures were used to burn bracken and other specific material to create potash which was mixed with fats or oils to make a soap used primarily for bleaching textiles. They tend to be built into banks and sometimes have a flue at the base.


These are flat areas used to burn wood for charcoal. They are more tricky to identify but are generally incongruous flat areas within a woodland up to about 8m in diameter. harvested wood would be laid up around a central 'Motty Peg' creating a conical structure then covered with fine material and bracken and grass. This would then be burned for 2 days and carefully monitored, adjusting the burn by adding water or shielding from the wind to ensure it didn't burn too quickly.

Coupe Stones-

These are rare but were used to mark out areas of coppice that, for whatever reason, did not need protection from browsing and were therefore not divided by fences. Coppice product is generally cut anywhere from 7 years to 15 depending on the speed of growth and is divided into small areas known as coups. These coups are cut on a rotational cycle meaning if you have 15 coups and harvest every 15 years you could get product from a coup once a year and thus have a steady income as a woodland worker.

Ancient Woodland Management

When it comes to archaeology in woodlands, the significance of the structure or influence is key. This could be measured by the owner of the land and the stories that it tells, or could be defined by legislation.

Knowing and understanding a woodland is crucial to its management, and archaeology is a part of that management.

In restoration, there could be evidence that can inform goals for restoration, whether that be a history of coppice rotation, or evidence of bark peeling indicating an oak woodland.

When it comes to preserving features, there are important considerations as to where new planting happens and how this needs to comply with legislation. Existing features may be vulnerable to vegetation growth within or around the structure and may need monitoring so that they are not damaged.

Having good mapping of the site, particularly if there is harvesting or planting occurring can help preserve any features.

Want to learn more about Ancient Woodland Restoration?

Learn about archaeology and more on our free online course

This video is a sample from Module 1 of our Ancient Woodland Restoration CPD course.

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