Fields of View in Landscape Archaeology

By Bell, Martin | Antiquity, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Fields of View in Landscape Archaeology

Bell, Martin, Antiquity

A growing literature in landscape archaeology reflects moves away from a long-standing preoccupation with excavation of individual sites and confronts much wider issues of multi-period past landscapes, the date and social role of fields and boundaries and the considerable problems of conservation and management which these spatially extensive resources present.

In the vanguard of current prehistoric approaches is the Wessex Linear Ditches Project, a landscape survey linked to strategic small-scale excavations designed to help date ditches, establish their relationships to adjacent artefact scatters and obtain environmental evidence. The survey concerns the military training area of Salisbury Plain which occupies 93,000 acres where the archaeology is much better preserved than in surrounding landscapes of intensive agriculture which is destructive of both earthworks and fragile prehistoric pottery.

Keys to the landscape are provided by the hillforts at Sidbury and Quarley from which linear ditches radiate. Both pottery and radiocarbon dates demonstrate that the ditches are late Bronze Age with specific stretches being refurbished during the Iron Age at the time of the hill-forts, the nature of activity preceding hill-fort construction on these sites remains unclear. Little evidence was found for fields pre-dating the ditches; many were overlain and destroyed by Iron Age and, particularly, Romano-British field systems, which are to be investigated during a separate, successor project. Pottery is considered in an innovative way by Raymond. Styles and fabrics, it is argued, may have encapsulated and helped to consolidate the organized perception of territory (Raymond, p. 87) yet the settlements that defined their territory with ditches still shared a common ceramic tradition with those that did not.

The Foster & Smout volume is the outcome of two originally unconnected seminars held in Scotland, one on soil history and the other on medieval and later fields. The combination, in 12 contributions, provides a useful, well-priced publication which highlights the benefits of linking an ethnohistorical dimension pioneered by Fenton with new analytical approaches to field remains and soils. Chapters include a rethink of Highland field systems (by Dodgshon) and evidence for humanly-created plaggen soils (by Davidson & Simpson) and much evidence of post-Medieval manuring, although without much discussion of the extent to which these practices may go back to earlier periods and their relevance to topics of soil exhaustion and erosion. Catt's essay provides relevant evidence from the world's longest-running scientific experiments at Rothamstead, where sustained yields have been recorded on manured and unmanured plots since 1843. Though achievable on good Rothamstead soils, the story was different on sandy soils of the Woburn experiment where acidification has led to declining yields. It would have been interesting to have some observations, however speculative, on how these experimental results may relate to the Scottish soils considered in other chapters.

Aston & Lewis' medieval Wessex volume is a series of 14 closely linked complementary essays, an excellent introduction attractively produced in hardback by Oxbow. The area straddles the interface between Anglo-Saxon and Celtic / sub-Roman areas, so continuity and change are recurrent themes in the early chapters which consider these problems in terms of burials, communication routes and linear earthworks. What was happening in the ordinary rural farmstead remains elusive, with some evidence of changing crop types but rather little exploration of the potential of palaeoenvironmental evidence to provide an alternative and independent perspective on continuity and change (Bell 1989). Later chapters include agriculture and rural settlement, settlement and villages in Dorset, Hampshire, Wiltshire and Somerset and an excellent essay (by Rippon) on reclamation of the Somerset clay Levels.

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