The West Midlands region contains numerous smaller towns, and in this respect it is typical of southern and midland England. The existence and the location of the majority of medieval smaller towns in the region is known from detailed documentary research based on state record (Beresford and Finberg 1973; Beresford 1981). Many aspects of individual settlement lordship, chronology, economy, and religious institutions are known from Victoria County Histories and local historical studies. Older historical research tended to focus on documentary evidence for the legal status of towns (such as the dates of borough charters). Modern historical research has adopted a broader framework, and previously ‘invisible’ towns have been revealed through detailed documentary research, such as Redditch (Worcs) and Knowle (Warks) (Dyer 1994).
Archaeological research in medieval towns of the west midlands began in the major towns in the late 1960s. However there was important early work in a number of small towns, with Droitwich (Worcs) seeing sustained and concentrated archaeological attention from the mid-1970s (Freezer 1981). The results of this programme led to a detailed understanding of salt production in this town (Hurst 1997; Woodiwiss 1992). However the archaeological attention focused on Droitwich was a special case in the west midlands region as a whole, and archaeological research in smaller medieval towns up to the 1990s was very limited.
The smaller medieval towns of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire were the subject of an ‘extensive urban survey’ in the 1990s (the Central Marches Historic Towns Survey). The survey was part of an initiative launched in 1992 by English Heritage, and comprised a detailed study of over 50 urban settlements, excluding the three county towns (cf Schofield and Vince 2003, figure 8.3). The Central Marches Historic Towns Survey drew on archaeological information as well as a range of other sources, and used morphological analysis to develop an understanding of each town. This study led to a notable increase in archaeological fieldwork resulting from planning conditions: in some market towns in Worcestershire there were real developments in archaeological knowledge (Dalwood 2000).
The individual assessment reports produced as part of the Central Marches Historic Towns Survey synthesised archaeological information. For most towns, the quantity of existing archaeological information was rather limited. However the provision of synthesised information, and a coherent assessment of the archaeological potential of every identified medieval town, proved to be a sound basis for archaeological resource management (Dalwood and Atkin 1998). Currently, similar ‘extensive urban surveys’ are planned for other counties in the region.
Although there has been a demonstrable increase in archaeological understanding of some towns in the region since the 1990s, it is beyond the scope of this paper to provide a detailed assessment of the general pattern. However the contributions to the medieval seminar suggest that the level of archaeological fieldwork in smaller medieval towns is highly variable across the region