The detailed archaeological survey undertaken throughout the Lake District between 1982 and 1989 by OA North (then the Lancaster University Archaeological Unit) recorded some of the most remarkable field systems and settlements in England, mainly of later prehistoric date. The recording programme was set up to provide for the management of these upland landscapes, to ensure their preservation in the future, and to seek a greater understanding of the character of the occupation of the marginal lands of the Lake District and how this developed over an extended period.
The survey involved the detailed recording of the landscape by means of instrument survey, and examined 78 square kilometres of uplands, recording over 10,300 monuments. This, and subsequent surveys, have demonstrated that the greatest concentration of prehistoric landscapes within the Lake District is on the marginal uplands in Western Cumbria, adjacent to the Cumbrian coastal plain, which has been shown to be an area of Mesolithic and Neolithic activity. This survey programme, however, was geared to recording upstanding monuments and thus it is not surprising that the majority of the remains identified in this programme would appear to be of Bronze Age date and reflect an expansion out from the coastal plain during a period of good climatic conditions. The most common physical expression of this activity was the cairnfield, which reflects the clearance of stone as part of a programme of land improvement.
There was a general dearth of Iron Age-type monuments on the marginal lands which, coupled with palynological evidence indicating some forest recovery during that period, suggests a degree of abandonment of these areas, possibly in response to a climatic decline in the earlier part of the Iron Age. At several sites, particularly on the South-West Fells, there was clear evidence of a reoccupation of the uplands during the Roman period, which may have continued into the early medieval period. At several sites across the Lake District, localised medieval settlement was also found, in some cases developing out of shieling sites, and Post-medieval activity within the extent of the study areas was primarily unintensive pastoral farming, represented by stock shelters and extensive Parliamentary enclosure, but also by localised industrial extraction.
The surveys have demonstrated that a series of nationally important archaeological landscapes survive on the marginal uplands of Cumbria, which form a palimpsest of many periods of activity, and provide a remarkable opportunity to understand the development of the land and its people. As a result of this programme, the archaeological landscapes are now subject to improved management and conservation, and have a significantly greater potential for survival beyond the twenty-first century.