The Fields of Britannia: Continuity and Change in the Late Roman and Early Medieval Landscape

The Fields of Britannia: Continuity and Change in the Late Roman and Early Medieval Landscape

The Fields of Britannia: Continuity and Change in the Late Roman and Early Medieval Landscape

The Fields of Britannia: Continuity and Change in the Late Roman and Early Medieval Landscape

Synopsis

It has long been recognized that the landscape of Britain is one of the 'richest historical records we possess', but just how old is it? The Fields of Britannia is the first book to explore how far the countryside of Roman Britain has survived in use through to the present day, shaping the character of our modern countryside. Commencing with a discussion of the differing views of what happened to the landscape at the end of Roman Britain, the volume then brings together the results from hundreds of archaeological excavations and paleo environmental investigations in order to map patterns of land-use across Roman and early medieval Britain. In compiling such extensive data, the volume is able to reconstruct regional variations in Romano-British and early medieval land-use using pollen, animal bones, and charred cereal grains to demonstrate that agricultural regimes varied considerably and were heavily influenced by underlying geology. We are shown that, in the fifth and sixth centuries, there was a shift away from intensive farming but very few areas of the landscape were abandoned completely. What is revealed is a surprising degree of continuity: the Roman Empire may have collapsed, but British farmers carried on regardless, and the result is that now, across large parts of Britain, many of these Roman field systems are still in use.

Excerpt

In 1996, a young Stephen Rippon was interviewed for a lectureship at the Department of History and Archaeology at the University of Exeter. One future research project he talked about was the need to take a broad landscape-scale view of the transition from Roman to medieval Britain, and having got the job at Exeter, he set about exploring different aspects of that subject. An early paper discussed some initial ideas (Rippon 2000a), one of which—the need for more work on palaeoenvironmental sequences—was explored in South West England through a project titled ‘Landscapes in Transition’, generously funded by the Leverhulme Trust (award F/00144/D: Fyfe et al. 2003; 2004; Rippon et al. 2006). Several PhD students explored the Roman to medieval evidence from specific parts of the country, including Chris Smart (2008), who was awarded an AHRC studentship for his thesis ‘Continuity over crisis: the landscape of Southern Gloucestershire and South-East Somerset in the late Roman and early medieval periods’. There remained, however, the need for a larger-scale study with two particular characteristics: firstly, that covered the whole of Roman Britain but avoided simply repeating broadbrush narratives that obscured the possibilities of local/regional differences in the experience of native and immigrant communities in the fifth century; and secondly, a project that complimented the traditional approach towards this period—of writing a narrative—by using quantified data. And so was born the ‘Fields of Britannia Project’, generously supported by the Leverhulme Trust (award F/00 144/BI). In addition to the Principal Investigator, Stephen Rippon, it employed a team comprising Chris Smart and Ben Pears as the two Associate Research Fellows who worked on the archaeological and palaeoenvironmental material respectively, and Fiona Fleming as the Ph.D. student. Additional funding from the University of Exeter enabled research assistant Adam Wainwright to collect the palaeoeconomic data (animal bones and charred cereals). The fieldwork at Membury Court, in Devon, which contributed to Figure 7.5, was funded by Devon County Council and Natural England.

Most of the illustrations in this book were produced by members of the project team, and in particular we thank Mike Rouillard, for whom working on this book was his last project in the Archaeology Department at the University of Exeter. In addition, we wish to thank the following for permission to reproduce their illustrations: Oliver Creighton (Figure 1.1, Caerwent), Northamptonshire County Council (Figure 1.2, Faxton), English Heritage (Figure 3.6, Knook Down East), Stewart Bryant (Figure 3.8, Cheshunt), Chris . . .

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