The evidence for prehistoric settlement in the Yorkshire Dales is widespread but enigmatic since very few of these sites have been excavated under modern archaeological conditions. We can only assume that the scatters of stone hut circles seen on the hillsides of the Dales during aerial surveys date from some time in the Bronze Age or later. Without excavation it is also impossible to say how many settlements there were in the valley bottoms where wood may have been the preferred building material.
The group of stone built hut circles and enclosures found on Burton Moor has been carefully surveyed and may date to the Bronze Age. The cluster of around 14 huts may represent a small farmstead housing one or two families, who made their living grazing cattle and sheep on the high ground. Some of the huts may have housed people, others may have been workshops whilst yet others may have been for sheltering animals or storage.
During the Iron Age, people probably lived very similar lives to their Bronze Age predecessors, farming their land and living in small isolated communities based on family groups. One change was the building of defended settlements such as those at Grinton and Maiden Castle, in Swaledale. Worsening weather and an increasing population from the end of the Bronze Age seems to have led to conflict over agricultural land.
We have better dating evidence for Romano-British period settlements in the National Park. A series of isolated farmsteads were investigated in Littondale during the 1990s, the New Ing Barn site had Romano-British pottery which dated the site to the 3rd century AD. Excavation of a series of sub-rectangular stone structures at Chapel House Wood in Wharfedale recently  turned up iron staples and rotary quernstone fragments similar to those found at the Roman fort and settlement at Catterick.
The arrival of first, Anglo-Saxon and later, Anglo-Scandinavian settlers must have disrupted long established settlement patterns in the Dales although the archaeological evidence is sparse. Other evidence, such as place names has to be relied on instead and is open to interpretation. Lowland villages such as Malham and Kettlewell have Anglo-Saxon names but this is far from proving that they originated in the Anglo-Saxon period. Indeed many medieval villages have evidence for earlier, possibly prehistoric settlement nearby. Place name evidence from Dentdale seems to indicate that Anglo-Scandinavian settlers imposed a completely new settlement pattern of isolated farmsteads strung out along the valley side. These settlers looked upon their estates as their own private property unlike their Anglo-Saxon predecessors and named them after themselves.
By the time that the Normans conquered Britain, the subsistence farmers of the Dales must have been used to a system of supplying tribute and labour to a land owning élite. Carved Anglo-Scandinavian crosses and tombstones found at Burnsall indicate that an important estate was in existence there from the 7th to the 11th century AD. Isolated farmsteads still existed in the hills but on the better agricultural land of the valley bottoms, communities must have begun to form into larger settlements all the better to operate the system of tribute and labour service which was to become the feudal manorial system of the Norman conquerors.
The administrative and economic centre of each parcel of land handed out by the Norman king was the manor although the building block of the countryside in the North of England was the vill or township. Township communities formed the social and agricultural focus. One manor might be made up of one or several townships. Some archaeologists believe that townships are the direct descendants of Roman or earlier estates but that remains to be proved in the Dales.
Around a typical manor would be two or more open arable fields divided into individual strips but farmed communally. In order to create and then work these open fields, people generally lived in nucleated settlements at their heart although there is evidence in the Dales of some open fields being farmed from a series of farmsteads or hamlets. A village might also belong to more than one manor as in the case of Kettlewell, which was divided between two brothers in 1293. There is evidence that some villages were carefully planned by their new owners. Hebden in Wharfedale seems to be an example with its row of eight rectangular house plots or ‘tofts’, a back lane to the west, a green to the east and access lanes linking the two.
In the less favoured upland areas of the Dales a different settlement pattern existed. Large areas were initially kept as hunting forests or chases by their aristocratic Norman owners. These areas were strictly controlled by the lord’s foresters, who lived in isolated forest lodges. Barden Tower began life as one of these forest lodges. By the 13th century, a growing population and the desire to make a profit led many Norman landowners and their medieval descendants to allow the local peasantry to clear land and encroach on the hunting grounds.
Over the years, some forest lodges were let to their occupants and became farmsteads. By medieval times, a few had grown into villages such as those at Bainbridge and Buckden. Research in Swaledale has shown how large cattle farms or ‘vaccaries’ were created in the forest although the Anglo-Scandinavian names of some settlements in the upper dale suggest that stock rearing may have been established there long before the Normans arrived. In some places, Muker is a good example, vaccaries eventually became hamlets and then finally villages. The ‘green’ at the centre of these small villages probably grew out of the original vaccary fold-yard. In many other cases of course these farms have remained as single units or even disappeared.
On the Barden Estate, forest lodges also became vaccaries over time, leased out by the lord of the manor to their farmers. The farms then became small hamlet communities, for example at Drebley. Here the land around was farmed communally, from at least the 17th century in a sort of three field system. Elsewhere on the estate, in between the forest lodge settlements, individual tenanted farms (some from the early 14th century) worked their own blocks of land whereas the stinted moorland above them was farmed communally.
Norman lords gave large upland areas or ‘waste’ to monastic houses in return for intercession in the next life. Monastic houses such as Fountains ran these estates from granges. Just like the lay vaccaries these were eventually let to their occupants and some grew into villages such as that at Kilnsey.
For very many reasons, not all such nucleated settlements survive into the modern day. One of the most impressive deserted medieval villages in the National Park is at the Cove, Grassington although we have no idea why or when it was finally abandoned. From these complicated beginnings grew the settlement pattern we see in the Dales today, with hamlets and villages in the lowland areas and isolated farmsteads on the uplands.
Beaumont, Heather M (1996) ‘Tracing the evolution of an estate township: Barden in Upper Wharfedale’ The Local Historian Vol 26:2 pp66-79
Beaumont, Heather M et al (2006) Pointers to the Past: The historical landscape of Hebden Township, Upper Wharfedale Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No 5
Boulton, David (1985) Discovering Upper Dentdale Dent: Dales Historical Monographs
Fairless, Kenneth J (2004) ‘Burton Moor Settlement’ in White, R F & Wilson, P R (eds) (2004) Archaeology and Historic Landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No 2 pp99-104
Jensen, Gillian Fellows (1978) ‘Place Names and Settlement in the North Riding of Yorkshire’ Northern History Vol 15 pp19-46
Joy, David (2002) Hebden. The History of a Dales Township Hebden: Hebden History Group
Maude, Keith (1999) ‘The Very Edge. Re-appraising Romano-British Settlement in the Central Pennines; the Littondale Experience’ in Nevell, Michael (ed) (1999) Living on the Edge of Empire. Models, Methodology & Marginality Archaeology North West Vol 3 pp42-46
McDonnell, John (1990) ‘Upland Pennine Hamlets’ Northern History Vol 26 pp20-39
Moorhouse, Stephen (2003) ‘The anatomy of the Yorkshire Dales: deciphering the medieval landscape’ in Manby, T G et al (eds) (2003) The Archaeology of Yorkshire: an assessment at the beginning of the 21st century Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No 3 pp293-362
White, Robert (2002) The Yorkshire Dales. A Landscape Through Time Ilkley: Great Northern Books