The study of boundaries involves a combination of fieldwork and documentary research. Old maps, place‐names such as Meersbrook, Anglo‐Saxon and medieval charters, law suits, and perambulations need to be compared with the visual evidence in the form of boundary stones, wells, watercourses, embankments, etc. See Maurice Beresford, History on the Ground (1957), and Angus Winchester, Discovering Parish Boundaries (1990). Wherever possible, boundaries were marked by natural features, especially watercourses. Natural boulders were inscribed with crosses, the initials of the lord of the manor, or those of the name of the township, a practice that survived from the Middle Ages into the 19th century. Some stones have been marked also by later graffiti, and others have been used as Ordnance Survey bench‐marks. Where no natural boulders were available, upright stones or poles were erected. Many different boundaries were marked in this way: parish; township, manor, or other estate; divisions of woodland; etc. Before large‐scale maps became available in the 19th century, such stones were particularly necessary in moorland areas, particularly in parts which were featureless. The grazing and other rights were often disputed between townships, so markers and regular perambulations were needed to preserve rights and counter the claims of others. Sometimes, the inscriptions on boundary stones have been defaced to challenge the claim of a rival.
Stanage Pole, which divides Yorkshire and Derbyshire, consists of a wooden pole, which has been replaced from time to time, set in a natural boulder which is marked by graffiti going back to the 17th century. It served many purposes, for it also divided the lordship and parish of Sheffield from those of Hathersage, separated the province of York from that of Canterbury, and thus the diocese of York from that of Lichfield and Coventry, and in earlier times acted as the boundary between Northumbria and Mercia. It stands on the skyline in the midst of moors and can be seen for miles around. The relatively undisturbed character of moors means that many old boundary stones survive there, though many of them are now hard to find. Boundary stones are notoriously difficult to date. Even if they have a date inscribed, it may not be that of the year in which the stone was erected but may have been cut during a Rogationtide perambulation or on some other occasion. Documentary references to stones with particular names, e.g. Lady Cross, help with the date, though sometimes a new stone has replaced the original, and in other cases the stone has acquired a new name. Some of the medieval stones are set in stone bases whose edges have been chamfered; many no longer resemble a cross but may well have done so before the Reformation. Some boundary stones have a dual purpose as waymarkers. For a local study that combines documentary and map evidence with place‐names and fieldwork, see David Hey, ‘Yorkshire's Southern Boundary’, Northern History, 37 (2000).
The antiquity of certain boundaries has been a matter of considerable interest. Some appear to go back to prehistoric times. See Desmond Bonney, ‘Early Boundaries in Wessex’, in P. J. Fowler (ed.), Archaeology and the Landscape (1972), Andrew Fleming, The Dartmoor Reaves (2nd edn, 2007), and C. H. E. Jean Le Patourel, Moira H. Long, and May F. Pickles, Yorkshire Boundaries (1993). Prehistoric linear earthworks can sometimes be shown to be ancient boundaries. Certain Roman roads act as boundaries between townships for many miles, but other Roman roads are ignored by boundaries. May Pickles has shown that the topography and underlying geology of the Roman roads (many of which were older roads taken over by the Romans) are of crucial importance in determining whether they were used as lengthy boundaries. Those which act as watersheds and divide resources because they form natural ridges, however slight, are the ones that have served as boundaries from very early times. See also detached portion.