Sheep, Stockyards and Field Systems: Bronze Age Livestock Populations in the Fenlands of Eastern England

By Pryor, Francis | Antiquity, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Sheep, Stockyards and Field Systems: Bronze Age Livestock Populations in the Fenlands of Eastern England


Pryor, Francis, Antiquity


Introduction

The management, control and protection of large numbers of animals is a skilled business. Even today livestock farmers cannot rely on pharmaceuticals; they must understand animal behaviour and know how best to use the limited repertoire of handling aids inherited from previous generations. Pastoral farmers are still essentially conservative in their methods.

This paper is based on my own experience as a lowland sheep-farmer and - more importantly - on numerous conversations I have enjoyed at farm gates. Its roots grow in the farmyard, not the library. That will be seen by some as a weakness, yet an approach to landscape studies which draws upon the wisdom of those who live and work in the countryside today is a strength.

Approaches to the archaeological study of livestock-keeping

Now out of fashion as too deterministic, 'site catchment analysis', and the approaches to early farming that originated from the British Academy Early History of Agriculture Project, paid proper attention to the early history of domesticated animals (Higgs 1972; 1975; Hutchinson et al. 1977). But the very nature of the research - with many smaller, short-term individual projects - made it difficult to address the physical remains of actual ancient landscapes. The approach was map-based, and the underlying paradigm predictive (Higgs & Vita-Finzi 1972).

'Mainstream' literature on prehistoric farming in Britain has largely focussed upon arable. Neither standard work considers practical aspects of stock management, in the way, for example, that ards and ard-marks are closely reviewed; nor is there discussion of the way that the shapes of fields and their associated communication systems can illuminate their original uses (Fowler 1983; Mercer 1981). The collection of essays edited by Mercer (1981) covers arable over livestock in the ratio 6:2; the two contributions on livestock approach the topic from 'direct' routes, bones and fibres.

Fowler's (1983) review, broader in scope and remarkably comprehensive, works with the assumption that the field systems of the principal area then available for consideration, Wessex and the southern chalklands, were originally intended almost exclusively for arable (Fowler 1981: 94-119). In reality the layout of 'Celtic' fields suggests mixed farming, in which livestock, to judge by the many droveways, possibly even played a major part (e.g. Fowler 1981: [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 41 OMITTED]).

Recent recognition of the importance of livestock farming in British prehistory (e.g. Kinnes 1988) has tended to the theoretical, with no real attempt to examine what hedges, ditches, droveways, byres/barns, wells and other features of the livestock farmer's landscape were originally intended to do. We have classification and indeed typology (e.g. Fowler 1981: 128ff), but without understanding the workings of the systems we are attempting to 'typologize'. This is bad practice.

The literature on British field systems has showed greater flexibility. Although Bowen's (1961) pioneering Ancient fields was entirely directed towards arable, Taylor's (1975) subsequent synthesis, and collections of essays paid greater attention to pastoral landscapes (e.g. Bowen & Fowler 1978; Burgess & Miket 1976; Barrett & Bradley 1980). Yet the few pastoral landscapes are described without analysis of how they functioned.

This paper attempts to understand the detailed workings of a small part of the pastoral landscape of lowland England. It may have a wider significance: the British Isles, enjoying a maritime climate, are better suited to grass-land than most of continental Europe. Indeed, Fowler (1981: 188) recognized livestock farming as the major influence in forming the British landscape. It is a topic of fundamental importance.

Fengate fields and paddocks: stock management on the Fen edge

Prior to their drainage, mainly in post-medieval times, the Fenlands of East Anglia and Lincolnshire were Britain's largest wetland (Hall & Coles 1994). …

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