The Archaeology of Britain: An Introduction from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Industrial Revolution

By John Hunter; Ian Ralston | Go to book overview

Chapter Fifteen

The historical geography of Britain from AD 1500

Landscape and townscape

Ian Whyte


BACKGROUND

This chapter covers the period from c.1500 until the start of the most rapid phase of industrialization around 1830. During this period, the British landscape was transformed dramatically. The most important background influences were the sustained growth of population following the post medieval decline, along with growing prosperity for at least some social groups. Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, the population of England and Wales trebled, and in Scotland more than doubled. In the countryside, this encouraged the commercialization of agriculture, with wide-ranging implications for the rural landscape. In the towns, it generated growth and structural changes. Major developments occurred in the technology and scale of many industries, leading to the creation of new industrial landscapes and regions. All these changes influenced, and were in turn affected by, developments in transport. In 1500, society in England was predominantly rural with only c.5 per cent of the population living in large towns. Wales and Scotland were even more lightly urbanized. By c.1830, Britain was well on the way to becoming a society dominated by urban population and industry. The British landscape may be, as has often been claimed, a palimpsest, but it is a palimpsest dominated by post medieval features. It is impossible to present a full landscape history of such a complex period in a single chapter; attention will therefore focus on the main themes in landscape evolution, together with the various approaches that have been adopted in studying them.


APPROACHES AND TECHNIQUES

The 40 years since the publication of W.G. Hoskins’ classic work, The Making of the English Landscape (1955), have seen considerable advances in our understanding of how the British countryside changed from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. There has been an upsurge of interest in industrial archaeology, and in post medieval archaeology in general (Crossley 1990; Rackham 1986; also Chapter 16). The Society for Post Medieval Archaeology was established in 1967, and the reviews of research in its journal demonstrate the range of current activity. Less work has been undertaken on the north of England compared with the south, less work on Wales and Scotland than for England (Whyte and Whyte 1991).

There has been a widespread belief that archaeological techniques, especially excavation, were inappropriate to a period for which historical sources were seemingly abundant and for which there were so many extant buildings and structures (Atkin and Howes 1993). Multiperiod

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