A Future for Dark Earth? (Method)

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This paper examines the phenomenon termed 'dark earth' (UK) and terres noires (Belgium and France) as discussed at the workshop 'Terres Noires: Dark Earth in the Dark Ages' (Universite Catholique de Louvain, Louvain-La-Neuve, Belgium, 8th-9th November 2001). It is not often that a 'buzz word' in British archaeology becomes so whole-heartedly taken up in Europe, notwithstanding some mutation of its original meaning. The terms 'dark earth' and 'terres noires' have served a useful purpose in focussing the attention of both archaeologists and environmentalists on one topic, but perhaps it is now time to reassess these terms in the light of how they are understood and utilised, especially on the other side of the Channel (Galinie in press). Due to its broad understanding, the term dark earth is subject to a series of interpretations. For example, its identification on colour alone is meaningless. In addition, reference to a generic dark earth formation process could apply to stratigraphy of any date, in any social context, whether Protohistoric, Roman, Medieval or Modern, and be related to a wide range of activities ranging from cultivation to refuse disposal (Carver 1987: 45; 1993: 61).

The Conference at Louvain-La-Neuve was for the most part dedicated to towns during the transition period between Roman and Medieval times (Verhaeghe in press; Verslype, in press), although a special and important section was applied to rural and post-medieval examples in order to underline the ubiquitous character of dark soils. In the past decades different values have been attached to the term dark earth, according to the historical and archaeological aims adopted, and the country in which they were addressed. In Britain, a narrow use of the term was developed in the 1980s in relation to the historic question of urban life in the Late Roman period, i.e. fourth--sixth century. For archaeologists working in towns its use was equated with the thick and supposedly unstratified or badly stratified layers separating well-stratified Roman and Medieval levels. Although investigations had demonstrated that dark earth was to be expected in many contexts, British urban archaeologists dedicated it to fifth-century levels and the end of urban life in Roman towns. There was an equation between Dark Earth and Dark Ages.

The term was, in the broad sense, exported by British archaeologists working in northern Italy where it was a subject of debate in the 1980s (Brogiolo et al. 1988). There the word kept its general meaning and was associated with impoverishment, decay and ruralisation of the urban context. The debate there aimed to determine if 'dark earth' resulted from a long-term process (La Rocca Hudson 1986) or was produced in the short term (Brogiolo 1987; Gelichi, 1994). In Italy, dark earth was part of a research theme which focussed upon three interrelated subjects: continuity of street plan, continuity of domestic architecture and cultivation.

France and Belgium remained outside this research field until 1995 (Cammas et al. 1995). If, in a few towns, some Late Roman or Early Medieval levels were carefully excavated in the 1980s, no reference was ever made to dark earth. It was through micromorphological analyses that the term reached the archaeological sphere while, in the context of rescue archaeology, it had been admitted that these levels were of no archaeological interest and could be destroyed. No proper research agenda was developed (Carver 1993, 1997). No matter where we look, however, dark earth in the urban context was always associated with some sort of urban decline, whether impoverishment, ruralisation or abandonment.

Investigating Dark Earth

Dark earth ('made earth' and 'dark made earth') was a term coined by Norman and Reader (1912) to describe poorly stratified archaeological deposits in London that occur between Roman levels and overlying medieval and post-medieval archaeology. …