Thursday, 7 January 2016

Downs and Vale: Landscape archaeology and boundaries

Lidar image of Segsbury hillfort 
Whilst rifling through the piles of British Archaeological Reports in the library the other day I came across Paula Levick's recent Later Prehistoric and Roman Landscapes on the Berkshire Downs (2015). I had to have a peek as I've long flirted with the archaeology of the Downs. When I did my Masters many moons ago I did a long essay on Iron Age/Roman field systems on the Berkshire Downs, and my first ever conference paper (Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference – Reading -1995) was a critique of Vince Gaffney and Martin Tingle's Maddle Farm Survey (the realisation that Vince was sitting in the front row did nothing for my first night nerves...). I'd spent time digging with Oxford Archaeology on the Neolithic/Bronze Age site at Tower Hill and been tangentially involved with a project at Beedon as well.

However, I hadn't really kept up to date with scholarship on the area since then late 1990s - and there has been a lot, particularly with Gary Lock's Hillforts of the Ridgeway project. The discovery of Levick's volume gave me a serendipitous opportunity to catch up. This blog entry though isn't so much about the work itself, rather an opportunity to ponder more generally about how this kind of big landscape archaeology is framed, with particular reference to the neighbouring Vale of the White Horse.

The report is based on Levick's PhD carried out in the Dept. of Continuing Education at Oxford, and is a good, thorough analysis of the Iron Age and Roman landscapes of an area of the central Downs, which includes the substantial univallate hillfort at Segsbury. She uses the immensely detailed cropmark dataset generated by English Heritage's Lambourn Down Mapping Project, which she supplements with Lidar data, geophysical survey, the traditional historic mapping resources (tithe maps/enclosure maps etc), as well as some interesting work integrating the results of metal detecting surveys carried out with the support and oversight of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. The results are a thoughtful reanalysis of the conventional LBA-RB chronology of the area, suggesting that some areas were not as empty in the BA as previously thought.

However, reading it, as someone who now situates themselves as medievalist rather than a Romanist, and someone with an interest in Vale I became increasingly aware of the incredible influence of chronological and geographic boundaries on the way these kind of landscape studies are carried out.

My first qualm is with physical edges. This work and the Maddle Farm survey both focus on the chalk uplands with very little engagement with the neighbouring Vale. There are perfectly good reasons for this- the research agenda of the MVS was to look at the hinterland of a Roman villa situated within the Downs. In the case of Levick, the key dataset was the cropmark survey – cropmarks are far better defined on the chalk downs than they are on the greensands at the Vale-Downs interface. This inevitably means that the focus of this kind of landscape study is on the area with the greatest data, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. PhD theses have to be pragmatic about defining their datasets and study regions.

Yet, the one thing we know about the use of the Downs in the medieval and post-medieval period is that administrative units and agricultural regimes crossed the topographic boundaries between Downland and Vale (between chalk and cheese). The parish boundaries of the villages along the northern scarp all extend from the greensands up to the top of the Downs – and had complex patterns of arable and pasture, with the ploughing up of much of the downland only happening relatively recently. I don't think there is any a priori reason to assume that these kinds of relationships did not exist in deeper antiquity. But by focussing in on specific topographic regions (however understandable) we miss the chance to draw out this crucial relationship. Inevitably, the different topography has meant that the archaeological record itself varies significantly, both due to differences in land-use and agriculture in the past, different geologies and environmental processes (e.g. colluvium build up etc), as well as the different impact of medieval/post-medieval post-depositional processes. To some extent, the Vale of the White Horse survey, Martin Tingle's follow-up to the Maddle Farm Survey attempted to address this issue, but there was no real integration of the two data sets.

A second implicit boundary in so much landscape work is that formed by the Romans. For many archaeologists (and I include some work I've done myself), the 1st to 4th century is a conceptual 'fold' in the landscape palimpsest. Many studies run from the Neolithic through to the Roman period, and others take the early medieval period as their point of departure. Although there are honourable exceptions (e.g. Peter Fowler's West Overton work and Chris Gerrard and Mick Aston's Shapwick project spring to mind, as well as Steve Rippon's Fields of Britain project) there are all too few attempts to take the longue durée approach and follow through the long-term narrative presented by the landscape. There is seemingly an underlying assumption that the arrival of the open-field systems of the central province in the later Anglo-Saxon period creates a profound point of rupture, with an erasure of earlier field systems so thorough that there is a de facto blank slate. This is a pretty major assumption (as the Fields of Britain project has outlined), but even if it was true, it begs the question, what field systems and settlement patterns were being used in the early to mid-Anglo-Saxon period? If there is continuity and development from IA to RB, why should there not be similar continuity from RB-AS? And crucially, can we recognise this in the field archaeology? Of course, there are methodological problems; as with topographic boundaries, the archaeological footprint varies- most noticeably in the massive decline in datable pottery, the chronological marker most used for analysing field walking survey and excavation work. But with the growth of OSL techniques, we should (in theory at least) be able to move beyond this limitation. There are also other data sources available, most strikingly AS charter boundaries (of which there are some good examples from this part of Berkshire). As Paula Levick has also shown there is also some potential from drawing on PAS data.

There is surely the potential for a more integrated approach to looking at the landscape of the Down and the Vale, one that tries to cross these chronological and topographic boundaries. It would be a challenge bringing together the diverse data sets, but that is half of the fun of archaeology.

1 comment:

  1. Have a gander at my PhD on the Vale of Pewsey published as BAR 543 where the questions you raise here are addressed.