Project methods

The project is developing new ways of mapping medieval urban landscapes. Our aim is to use spatial technologies to help visualise urban landscapes as well as analyse their built forms. In particular we are marrying GPS-based field-survey of the towns with GIS spatial analyses. This involves bringing in other spatial data, from historic maps and aerial photographs, as well as archaeological and historical data. The flowchart diagram on the right summarises this process.

GPS allows us to to fix the position of features of the medieval town, such as street patterns and town walls, with a high degree of precision. Such a technique is quite innovative. GPS can however struggle in urban environments where buildings cause a barrier to satellite signals. In this case a total station is additionally used to 'fill in the gaps', working from a GPS-derived network of stations. The survey gives us a set of independent spatial data, containing the coordinates of features in three dimensions. This information is then used as a basis to map the layout of the medieval town using GIS. More detailed information on the survey methods employed will be forthcoming on this website.

GIS is a means of storing and analysing spatial data sets. We are using it to amalgamate different sources of spatial data for each of our twelve study towns. GIS thus provides an analytical tool which enables us to examine the morphological make-up of a town – the shape of its component features – these being the only evidence we have for a town’s design at the time that it was created. GIS also provides a means of visualising these data and representing the urban landscape cartographically, in three dimensions. Some of the early results of this mapping work can be found by clicking here.

A georectified plan, digitised from historical Ordnance Survey mapping, shows the layout of each of the twelve study towns. The features selected are the towns’ streets and plots, as well as key medieval buildings such as castles and churches. These town plans are as close as we can get to the original designs drawn up and implemented at the time the towns were created. Without specific documentation relating to this process of town planning, the patterns and forms of the streets and plots are an important source in their own right for they provide evidence of the activities of those individuals who were employed to establish and layout the towns.

By comparing the layouts of the towns it is possible to identify similarities in their design, and these begin to give clues as to who might have been involved. This detective work is helped by the fact that the castles that feature in many of the Welsh towns were particularly well-documented by medieval standards, and since the towns and castles have a close relationship, both historically and topographically, it is possible to use the castle records to examine who may have had a role in town planning. In some cases we may suspect that the king’s appointed clerks played a role in deciding where a new town should be sited and what its plan should be, but while this may have occurred in some cases it is also highly likely that rather than doing the work themselves they employed more specialist workers to do the job, people who were skilled in matters of surveying and engineering and who had been trained in the use of geometry and the mechanical arts. Evidence for such people does exist from other parts of Europe. With further study of the plans left behind by these mysterious individuals it may be possible to know more about how urban landscapes were formed in the later middle ages.

Flowchart showing data sources and analysis
Establishing a GPS network
Surveying urban features
Surveying relic urban features in the landscape
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