How to Find Lost Sites

Every year there many lost and unrecorded ancient sites are discovered in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England.  And despite what you might think, a lot of these are found, not by professional archaeologists, but by people like you and me: studious researchers and explorers who, unconstrained by the terms and conditions of their employment, are unshackled and free to see what may be hidden in the landscape.

But how to find them?  Well, there are some basic ingredients that are very helpful if we’re looking for sites in our neighbourhood – unrecorded sites that is.  Although the pointers here in no way guarantees you’ll discover new sites, with persistence over time, some of you will get lucky.  And when you do start finding them, it’s one helluva buzz!  The following guidelines are helpful and have worked for me on countless occasions.

  1. Check Areas with Known Prehistoric Sites – Although this may seem unlikely, quite the opposite tends to be the case.  In countryside areas that are known to have numbers of prehistoric sites, archaeologists rarely locate them all.  They are constrained by time and money, whereby the dedicated antiquarian has no such restrictions.  A good example is petroglyphs, more commonly known as prehistoric rock art.  Where you find one, there are very probably others nearby.  Even in areas renowned for such carvings, beneath the heather and grasslands, you are likely to find unrecorded ones if you put the effort in.  The same has to be said for small and singular cairns.  Finding unrecorded stone circles is increasingly rare – but I’m sure there are some still awaiting rediscovery.  So never give up in your seekings, as there are always sites to be rediscovered!

  2. Place-name Studies – This is particularly invaluable for those seeking out holy or healing wells – of which there are countless examples throughout these islands.  Many are forgotten about.  But most of the counties in England, and increasingly in Scotland and Ireland, have in-depth regional texts of place-names,¹ and in their immense listings you will find numerous lost wells, as well as other sites that are of interest to antiquarians.  The field-name listings in the respective place-name volumes are utterly invaluable when it comes to isolating forgotten sites.  Check the local history department of your local libraries (sadly closing down due to Tory cut-backs) or on-line resources, mainly of antiquarian books; and in particular field-name references, tithe-award maps and any other local township or estate maps. Usually there are hidden or forgotten wells of some repute that have fallen out of the historical net and the occasional unrecorded standing stone pops out of the dusty archives.  Some of them will still exist—albeit in poor states; but if you contact your local history societies, they may help out and revive the status of the place.

  3. Talk to Local People – You’d be surprised how many places are known to local people – usually olde folk – that aren’t on any archaeological registers.  Scotland in particular, as well as northern England and Ireland, can prove quite fruitful on this score, as people who’ve been born and bred in the hills tend to have knowledge of many a thing that isn’t written down.  Sadly,  the further south you go – in southern England especially – people aren’t quite as friendly (Cornwall and Devon notwithstanding), and that Tory mantra of “gerrof ma land” and more obscene greetings are not uncommon daan there (not everywhere, obviously – but it’s sadly more common down there, that’s all).  To give you just a few examples: 1) when we were looking for some cup-and-ring carvings near Killin, a 78 year old lady told us about “the druid’s circle” close by.  When I mentioned the fact that no such place was recorded, she walked us straight to it!  On another occasion, a hotel owner near Callander told us about a cluster of prehistoric rock art in the woods nearby – not recorded.  And when Paul Hornby was looking for a lost site in Angus, a farmer showed him a prehistoric ring of stones not in any record books.  Another farmer told us about his tractor falling into a hole that appeared in one of his fields, which turned out to be an unrecorded souterrain.  There are many more. …But one word of advice: if/when you do ask local people, it’s not always a good idea to say that you belong with English Heritage, Royal Commission, etc.  I’m not joking either.  The 78 year old lady for example, told us “they were very rude and I’ll never help them again.”  It’s not an uncommon retort.  Simply tell people that you’re an independent antiquarian.  It always works for us!

  4. Folklore – A number of sites are referred to in folklore accounts. If you find olde tales of fairy legends, or so-called ‘devils’, or myths relating to the homes of great witches, giants and other seemingly supernatural agencies, check them out!   Some of these places relate to prehistoric sites that are off the archaeological radars.  Again, go through your old place- and field-name surveys and look out for old local dialect words for the supernatural creatures in your area.  But be quick about it – as many have already been looked at.

  5. Learn to Know Your Landscape – 
¹ The volumes of the English Place-Name Society are excellent resources to explore