Towards a Social Archaeology of Later Prehistoric and Romano-British Field Systems in South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire

Adrian Chadwick, Research School of Archaeology and Archaeological Science, University of Sheffield


Derrick Riley's seminal volume Early Landscape From The Air (1980) described the often extensive ancient field systems revealed by aerial photographs of crop and soil marks across areas of South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. Many excavations have taken place on the archaeological features responsible for these patterns, particularly since the emergence after 1990 of developer-funded rescue archaeology. Much of this work remains in unpublished archive form, and what has been published has tended to view the field systems from a normative and thus a 'common sense' perspective. The scientific objective-reductionist paradigm imposed on archaeologists and their data has increasingly been criticised (Adams and Brooke 1995: 93-95), and this paper represents an attempt to write a very different past for these landscapes.

I will use an explicitly contextual approach to outline a social archaeology for the region, to examine the 'silent unwritten other of the archaeological text' (Hill and Cumberpatch 1993). I will demonstrate that it should be possible to create an agenda for the writing of an interesting, exciting past; a past that contains knowledgeable actors whose lives should be drawn out from under the positivist shadow under which they have fallen.

"We should remember...that archaeology and prehistory have as their object human action in the past. Their object is not the recording and chronological calibration of patterns of soil deposition or pottery distributions." (Cumberpatch and Robbins 1995, their emphases).

The evidence

Excavation has revealed that the crop and soil marks recorded by Riley and others are the result of extensive ditch systems (See figure 1).

Figure 1: Photograph by D.N. Riley 1976. SE 429110, enclosure near South Kirkby, South Yorkshire. Used by permission of the University of Sheffield. [Click on figure to enlarge to full size. For best results, view under high resolution.]

Some of these define a variety of subrectangular or curvilinear enclosures which may contain the traces of circular or rectangular buildings. These are occasionally visible on aerial photographs (Riley 1980: 54), but their presence has also been established or confirmed through excavation, as at Chainbridge Lane (Eccles, Caldwell and Mincher 1988), Dunston's Clump (Garton 1987), Wild Goose Cottage (Garton and Salisbury 1995), Holme Pierrepont (Guilbert, Fearn and Woodhouse 1994) and Staunton (Todd 1975) in Nottinghamshire; and at Newton Kyme (Monaghan 1991) and Dalton Parlours in West Yorkshire (Wrathmell and Nicholson 1990). In South Yorkshire, enclosures at Warning Tongue Lane, Bessacarr (Atkinson and Merrony 1994) and Pickburn Leys (Sydes and Symonds 1985, Sydes 1993) also featured buildings.

These enclosure complexes could be large, as at Ledston (Faull and Moorhouse 1981: 119) and Dalton Parlours (Wrathmell and Nicholson 1990) in West Yorkshire, or at Aslockton in Nottinghamshire (Palmer-Brown and Knight 1993), and have had quite complex and lengthy sequences of buildings and occupation as demonstrated by Dunston's Clump (Garton 1987). These enclosures represented individual farmsteads or similar groups of buildings forming 'compounds' (Hingley 1989: 55). The smallest may have been home to couples and their children, but larger examples may have supported much more extended families. The very largest may have been occupied by several different families (ibid: 60), albeit probably of the same kinship group or lineage.

Double-ditched features were probably trackways (Chadwick 1992, Magilton 1978, Merrony 1993), or in some cases perhaps major boundaries (Samuels and May 1980). Both they and the enclosures are usually linked to fields, which Riley divided into three main types: brickwork, nuclear and irregular. The brickwork fields in particular are remarkably large and uniform in size and orientation from the air (Riley 1980: 11), and are associated with relatively few enclosures. Elsewhere, enclosures are surrounded by small fields, with larger fields lying outside these areas.

These were essentially open landscapes, with farmsteads interspersed with fields and copses of managed woodland (Buckland 1986: 4), evidence for the latter coming from charred coppice pole fragments at Menagerie Wood (Garton, Hunt, Jenkinson and Leary 1988: 29) and waterlogged planks derived from coppiced trees at Wild Goose Cottage (Garton and Salisbury 1995: 40-41). Environmental work at Thorne and Hatfield Moors (Buckland 1979, Smith 1958, Turner 1962) suggests that considerable tracts of wildwood had already disappeared by the late iron age (please see note 1), and evidence for flooding and increased alluvial deposition in the Romano-British period at Chainbridge Lane and Sandtoft (Eccles, Caldwell and Mincher 1988: 18, Samuels and Buckland 1978: 74) may illustrate the loss of woodland cover.

Interpretations of the evidence

The chronology and use of these features is poorly understood. Romano-British pottery of first to fourth century A.D. date has been recovered from many sites, and the extensive scale and apparent regularity of many field systems has been taken as evidence of centrally planned Roman-run estates (Branigan 1989: 164-166), where the inhabitants of the landscapes were tenant farmers or tied labourers. It has been suggested that the size (1-2 hectares) of many brickwork fields may have been too large for ploughing given the available workforce and later prehistoric or Romano-British equipment (Riley 1980: 26). Branigan argued that low levels of pottery found outside enclosure areas during fieldwalking implied manuring did not take place. He has suggested that, due to the poor grazing and the lack of water sources, the brickwork fields in particular were given over to the raising of sheep (Branigan 1989: 166, Hayes 1981: 117). It is also thought that this land was rapidly colonised after the Roman occupation due to a burgeoning British woollen industry.

There are many problems with these ideas. Iron age artefacts are rare in the region, at least partly due to their fragility and inappropriate sampling techniques (Cumberpatch 1993: 56). The iron age assemblages from the extensive West Yorkshire settlement sites at Ledston (Faull and Moorhouse 1981: 120) and Dalton Parlours (Wrathmell and Nicholson 1990: 128) were surprisingly small, and Aslockton in Nottinghamshire was almost unique in producing substantial quantities of iron age pottery (Palmer-Brown and Knight 1993: 146). Small coarse sherds recovered from early phases at Scrooby Top (Davies 1996), Dunston's Clump (Garton 1987: 43-44) and Holme Pierrepont (Guilbert, Fern and Woodhouse 1994: 22) could also belong to the pre-Roman period. In South Yorkshire, a bronze sword chape found near Sprotbrough, three Corieltauvian coins and a torc from Dinnington are all chance or metal-detecting finds (Beswick, Megaw, Megaw and Northover 1990, Buckland 1986: 6). Fragments of three vessels recovered at Pickburn Leys (Sydes 1993: 39-41) represent the only positively identified iron age pottery in the county, and this may have been imported from the Lincolnshire area.

It may be that some iron age pottery when found is being misidentified. Some iron age vessel forms continued to be produced well into the second century A.D. (Cumberpatch and Robbins n.d., Darling 1995, May 1996: 398), and secure dates for many types are still lacking. It is also possible that the region was largely aceramic during the later prehistoric period, and that most artefacts used were of wood, leather and other perishable items.

Romano-British pottery is often present in the uppermost fills of ditches, or in recuts and other later phases, but this material does not of course date the digging of features or even their main period of use. This has been the case at Edenthorpe (Atkinson 1994: 21, Chadwick 1995a), Warning Tongue Lane, Bessacarr (Atkinson and Merrony 1994: 27), Bellmoor Quarry near Retford (Cox and Hurcombe 1989: 169), Chainbridge Lane near Lound (Eccles, Caldwell and Mincher 1988: 17-19) and at Scrooby Top (Davies 1996). In such instances, the earliest features or phases of use are likely to be iron age. Landscape stratigraphic evidence also suggests an iron age origin for some field systems, and at Rossington a first century A.D. Roman road and fortress are superimposed across earlier fields and enclosures (Riley 1980: 94-95). This same road cuts across an enclosure at Kirk Smeaton (South Yorkshire SMR), and at Burghwallis a series of three Roman forts also post-date field system features (Buckland 1986: 8). Areas of these landscapes may therefore have been occupied for five or six centuries or more.

Soils in the region are often not conducive to the preservation of organic remains, but environmental analysis identified barley, rye, spelt, bread wheat, oats and emmer from Dunston's Clump (Garton 1987: 58-59), barley and oat grains from Menagerie Wood (Garton, Hunt, Jenkinson and Leary 1988: 32), and spelt, bread wheat and barley from Dalton Parlours (Wrathmell and Nicholson 1990: 192-193). Spelt, emmer and barley were recovered from Sutton Common (Parker Pearson and Sydes forthcoming), and charred plant remains were reported at Aslockton (Palmer-Brown and Knight 1993: 147).

Pests of stored grain were found at Sandtoft (Samuels and Buckland 1978: 72), and quernstones or quernstone fragments have been excavated at Ledston, Dunston's Clump, Menagerie Wood, Wild Goose Cottage, Sutton Common, Pickburn Leys and Dalton Parlours (Faull and Moorhouse 1981: 120, Garton 1987: 58-59, Garton, Hunt, Jenkinson and Leary 1988: 25, Garton and Salisbury 1995: 38-39, Parker Pearson and Sydes forthcoming, Sydes and Symonds 1985: 12, Wrathmell and Nicholson 1990: 106-120). Quernstones were manufactured at Wharncliffe near Sheffield (Challis and Harding 1975: 21-25), and distributed widely across the region. Four-post structures often interpreted as elevated granaries have been found at Ledston (Faull and Moorhouse 1981: 120), and a possible grain drying oven was excavated at Womersley (Buckland and Dolby 1987: 5). Four probable oven bases were found recently at Armthorpe (Samuels 1996), but whether these had a more specific function is not known.

It has been claimed that grain was imported into the region from the south, due to the concentration on pastoralism (Branigan 1984: 30). This seems very unlikely given the evidence above, which has demonstrated that at least the later stages of crop-processing and storage were occurring at many settlements. Arable fields must have formed a significant part of some of these rural landscapes, and this can be seen in the layout of the land.

"The archaeological patterns of a pastoral area should be different from those produced by much more mixed farming. In the latter case the need to separate crops and animals produces more complicated and nucleated patterns with stock enclosures around central huts from which droveways lead through an area of fields to pastures beyond. In a pastoral area we can expect not only sparser settlement but simpler patterns; one or two huts in a simple enclosure, isolated stock enclosures, and ranch boundaries." (Ramm 1980: 31).

The field systems around Sutton, Lound, Babworth, Dearne and Sprotbrough all show such features indicative of mixed farming. This is not so evident around Rossington, Edenthorpe, Hodsock, Torworth and other areas of brickwork field system, where small fields or enclosures are rare, and these larger fields may indeed have been used for the grazing of livestock. It may be significant that it is these areas which also display most of the convincing examples of tracks or 'droveways'.

What is evident however is that no simplistic models can be applied to the region. These pastoral fields may have been held by farmsteads concentrating solely on the raising of livestock. Alternatively, access may have been communal, or based on family or kinship affiliations. Movement to and from these areas of larger fields may have been undertaken on a daily or weekly basis, but might have been a form of seasonal lowland transhumance linked to more mixed agricultural regimes. Animals may have been regularly driven to water sources, and it has been noted that close to rivers many field boundaries were aligned so that they were perpendicular to the watercourses (Deegan 1996). Many farmsteads may therefore have been exploiting a variety of resources and ecological zones.

Contextual perspectives

Arguments that propose a 'pastoral economy' and that see the farmsteads as 'wool-producing units' (Branigan 1989: 164) suffer from the fundamental misconception of transposing modern soil characteristics and modern 'common sense' farming techniques back in time to the later prehistoric and Romano-British periods. The soils present today are the products of over two thousand years of erosion or cultivation, and over this time their nutrient quality has surely deteriorated. The excavation of a double-ditched trackway at Stripe Road, Rossington revealed soil deposits of relatively good quality which may have been derived from the extant fields (Chadwick 1992: 8). As for manuring, the lack of pottery scatters is not surprising given that cultural factors may have influenced the disposal of broken or worn artefacts. Evidence for this will be examined below. Until detailed micromorphological and environmental sampling is carried out, ancient soil quality and the occurrence of manuring cannot be ascertained.

From a modern Western capitalist perspective, the field systems represent economic intensification and a rationalisation of the landscape. These ordered landscapes can thus be portrayed as essentially familiar to us in the present, and from such a modernist viewpoint the ditches are merely passive functional agricultural features. In Britain, traditional views of iron age societies portray the bulk of the population as lumpen and undistinguished farming masses controlled by 'Celtic' warrior elites and druids (cf. Cunliffe 1984, 1991; Harding 1974), in turn replaced by Roman rule which radically transformed not only the physical landscape but the nature of society as a whole. Approaches that portray aspects of the iron age and Romano-British periods as 'familiar' or unproblematic have been critically re-examined (Barrett and Foster 1991; Hill 1989, 1992; Hill and Ireland 1996, Merriman 1987, Reece 1988).

"The late Iron Age and Roman periods suit interpretation from a late 20th Century perspective to an extent which no other periods do. We see, for instance, the origins and development of urbanism in temperate Europe, the introduction of coinage, the use of linear frontiers, road networks and other phenomena which all lend themselves to naive interpretations arising from our own social experience." (Aitchison 1987: 96).

Recent work has suggested that during the later prehistoric period there was sometimes marked ordering of the layout and use of household and settlement space (Fitzpatrick 1994, Parker Pearson 1996) and the deposition of artefacts and refuse (Hill 1989). Ditches and boundaries may have held significance above and beyond functional concerns (Bowden and McOmish 1987, Hingley 1990a), and remains of the dead were dispersed across settlements or incorporated into storage pits and boundary ditches (Cunliffe 1991). This evidence may reveal aspects of a wider belief system which stressed fertility, the seasons and cycles of birth, death and renewal (Parker Pearson 1996). That the organisation of space may have been culturally constrained during the Roman occupation has also been suggested (Hingley 1990b, Scott 1990). Ethnographic studies have shown that in many small-scale societies people's lives and routine practices may be vivified by larger cosmologies (Battaglia 1990, Bourdieu 1973, Gow 1995, Moore 1986), so the landscape itself may become rich in meaning and association.

"...we confront a past in which there appears to be familiar objects; towns, coinage, farms and fields, and a lack of the overtly ritual which we encounter in earlier periods. But these are features in becoming. They may appear familiar to you, but Iron Age people lived in their own worlds of meaning, whose similarity is deceptive. This is to suggest that we have to envisage situations where such features can be organised into a very different world." (Hill 1989: 22, his emphasis).

Significant quantities of animal bone and pottery were deliberately dumped in enclosure ditches at Campsall Quarry (Adams 1993: 56) and Aslockton (Palmer-Brown and Knight 1993: 147). At Chainbridge Lane complete pig carcasses were revealed in an enclosure ditch (Eccles, Caldwell and Mincher 1988: 17), and at least one had been bound. A bound human skeleton was discovered in a palisade ditch at Newton Kyme (Monaghan 1991: 56), and at Staunton burials were on the margins of the settlement (Todd 1975: 30). Other unusual deposits include a skeleton from Adwick-le-Street missing both feet and its left hand (Dolby 1969: 253), and the cremation urn inserted into a silted-up enclosure ditch at Upton, which contained human and small bird bones (Roberts 1995: 18). It is perhaps interesting to note that ravens are amongst the most frequent bird remains found on iron age sites (Grant 1989: 145) perhaps for purposes of augury. At Dunston's Clump, a pit contained the charred remains of what was probably an iron-bound box, grain and a wickerwork container (Garton 1987: 34).

Prosaic interpretations could be advanced for some of the depositional events described, whereby ditches could simply have been convenient spaces for the disposal of waste. However, deposition was often focused on specific areas of ditches such as butt ends, sudden changes of alignment as at Edenthorpe (Chadwick 1995a) and ditch junctions as at Scrooby Top (Davies 1996). Such episodes do appear to demonstrate a concern with the context of deposition, and boundaries or liminality. Cultural proscriptions seem to have been in operation, and there is now a vast corpus of information from around Britain for similar depositional practices in the iron age and Romano-British periods (Parker Pearson 1996). Brevity precludes the detailing of this evidence, much of it deriving from published site reports. As already noted, soils in the region may not preserve organic remains, and even Romano-British pottery is sometimes scarce. The most common and accessible form of evidence is thus the boundary ditch systems themselves.

The ditches excavated on field system sites are frequently much larger than would be needed simply to stop animals from wandering (Merrony 1993: 51), particularly when combined with banks and/or hedges. For much of the region drainage is not a problem either, yet these boundaries would have represented considerable investments of labour and resources. At Edenthorpe, Dunston's Clump, Pickburn Leys and Armthorpe, the apparent uniformity visible on aerial photographs was illusory, and multiple phases were marked by complex sequences of recutting and changes in alignment (Atkinson 1994, Chadwick 1995b, Garton 1987, Sydes and Symonds 1985, Samuels 1996, Webster 1995). These major recutting episodes may have been periodic (Chadwick 1995b: 45), and phases of expansion or contraction can sometimes be identified even from the air (Deegan 1996: 16). In the Rossington area, the ditches appeared to be of one single phase (Atkinson 1995), but even relatively simple sequences may be a product of regular cleaning of the ditches over time (Magilton 1978: 72) rather than short periods of use.

The ditches may therefore vary considerably both along their lengths and from area to area, the landscape often demonstrating great chronological depth. Rather than being planned by centralised authority, their often bewildering variability suggests that the ditches were the product of many different individuals, families or groups who may have identified and defined themselves through certain places and areas of land. Ditches were thus as important for delineating what was 'inside' boundaries as they were for excluding an 'outside'. In a region of often gentle topography, especially to the south and east of Doncaster, ditches and associated banks or hedges would have been highly visible forms of discourse, with active roles in the reproduction of social relationships. They may have inscribed onto the land a variety of symbolic or mythical meanings. Drawing on the work of Relph, Tilley has described such landscapes as 'existential space' (Tilley 1994). It is space which:

" in a constant process of production and reproduction through movements and activities of members of a group. It is a mobile rather than a passive space for experience. It is experienced and created through life activity...Places in existential space are foci for the production of meaning, intention and purpose of societal significance." (Tilley 1994: 16-17).

The complexity of the ditch systems and the few recovered faunal and floral assemblages can only give fleeting glimpses into the variety of choices and practices people were carrying out as part of their everyday lives. They were not tied labourers on large estates (Branigan 1989), subsumed to some larger economic entity. People in these landscapes were coming up with different solutions to the problems of farming, and were making informed decisions about which crops to grow and what animals to raise. They were people trying to do the best by themselves and their children in a world of good and bad seasons, losses or gains, debt or profit, and, following the Roman occupation, taxation.

The unusual depositional episodes indicate that people's lives were enriched, informed and influenced by custom and belief (Bourdieu 1977) not lived out merely to the dull compulsions of everyday existence. Theirs was a subjective world, one which was conceptualised and inhabited through people's identities, histories and understandings (Bender, Edmonds, Hamilton and Tilley n.d.). This was not a secular landscape separated from the sacred realm, but one invested with myth and spirituality, with identity and with power. The extensive systems of boundaries and enclosures were physical manifestations of how people lived and thought through the land.

The social reproduction of structure and belief

The belief system of these people need not have been imposed on them by some druidical or warrior hierarchy, or by a Roman administration. Bourdieu's concept of the habitus (Bourdieu 1977) and Giddens' structuration theory (1984) explain how people's practical consciousness or 'how to go on' in the world was acquired as they grew up and watched individuals reacting to the material world and the other people around them. The day-to-day interactions between people, objects and the landscape allowed the cultural beliefs and practices of the habitus to be reproduced through time. As it was passed down through the generations the habitus itself played an active part in conditioning or transforming future life in a recursive duality of structure and practice.

"Structures are both the means by which socially recognisable actions are achieved, and their consequences." (Barrett 1994: 3).

The complex rhythmic resonances between aspects of the physical world, human acts of dwelling in this world and temporality have been explored more closely by Ingold (1993), who used the term 'taskscape' to describe these interactions. Relationships between people may have been lived out as a series of affinities, demands or obligations between men and women, old and young, different families, lineages or other kinship groups (Barrett 1989: 114). The ditches of the field systems and enclosures were important both as the products of labour and as sources of authority, enabling people to map out in the landscape their identities, routine practices and spiritual beliefs.

Towards a social archaeology

People living in these landscapes and the land itself were intimately bound together by an intricate web of interactions. As the fortunes of individuals, their extended families or their kinship groups fluctuated, areas under people's management contracted or expanded depending on runs of good or bad years. Certain resources such as water, woodland and pasture may have been controlled by a few, or perhaps more likely there would have been communal rights of access. Some may simply have been denied the use of certain areas of the landscape as a result of their family or kin affiliations, but this may have been overcome by payments of different kinds, or complicated systems of obligation and reciprocity.

Tensions concerning boundaries and rights of access would have had to have been actively negotiated and re-negotiated. Entrances and lanes would have been opened up or blocked off as a result of these dialectics. Old boundaries were filled in, or re-excavated and re-routed. These landscapes were constantly being changed and altered, as a physical embodiment of highly dynamic social discourses.

Ditches were as much a product of the desire of people to define and identify themselves as they were statements to outside people or groups about tenure and rights to certain areas. Boundaries therefore had power. Whilst watercourses and woodland would have been valued resources, these too may had a variety of powers and mythical associations. Placatory rites and offerings may have been required to ensure the continued benevolence of the ancestors or spirits living in or responsible for streams and trees.

People would have been going out into the landscape to maintain the boundaries of ditch, fence or hedge, and this work may have been undertaken at many levels. During special times of the year in the seasonal round, or following notable events such as deaths, births or marriages, it may have been required to renew and replenish the physical boundaries of the family or kin group land. The recutting of ditches may therefore have been part of a reaffirmation of belonging and ownership (Chadwick 1995b: 47), and this work would have strengthened and reiterated social ties or obligations between people or groups.

In the course of these activities, deposits of pottery, metalwork, meat, whole animals and grain may have been introduced into pits and ditches, perhaps following feasting. Sometimes these food items were 'fresh' and the artefacts whole, but more commonly these fills were comprised of worn or broken artefacts and midden material, although care was often taken over its deposition. When individuals died, their remains might be interred in ditches or pits, often on settlement boundaries. At other times, their bodies may have been excarnated, and some of the bones removed for circulation around the family or community, or scattered in the settlements or the fields surrounding them. Fertility and natural cycles of birth, death and regeneration may have been emphasised by such practices.

Much of the maintenance would also have been carried out at the level of daily routine, to stop ditches silting up, animals wandering and crops being trampled. Nevertheless, such work would have been culturally embedded in a multifarious mixture of social practice and belief. The renewal of the physical boundaries dividing up the land and encompassing communities would have had implications and meanings beyond the mundane agricultural functionalism that small farming groups are often assumed to live under.

"...daily routines involve people using available cultural resources in strategies by which human relations are maintained. Those relations are structured as demands and obligations, they draw upon resources of authority and resistance, and are played out over certain periods of time and in certain areas of space. Such relations draw upon, and maintain, cultural values which are symbolised by the particular way the material world is used. The rituals of daily life existed always, they cannot be simply accepted when lived out in relation to ancestors and gods, and rejected when lived out in relation to agriculture and fertility." (Barrett 1989: 115).

Ditches may have acted as material mnemonics, to remind people of their ties to the land and their family or community. Certain boundaries would come to be associated with specific individuals, events or stories, as even today some modern farmers can 'read' their land to recall memories of a bad season, a good harvest, the death of a prized animal, working with members of their family who may have since died, and so on. How people moved around settlements and the landscape, tended animals or crops, prepared and ate food and disposed of rubbish, and at what times of the day, month or year that they did so may all have been constrained to a greater or lesser extent by custom and belief. Age, gender and status may have determined who carried out which activities. These people were knowledgeable actors however, and such social conventions and proscriptions that did exist would have been continually reinterpreted, added to or subverted.

The Roman occupation may initially have had little direct effect on the everyday lives of people in the region, and it may have taken several generations for aspects of Roman life and material culture to become widely adopted. For many this would have been deliberate resistance, for others just natural conservatism. The continuation of the round house building tradition well into the Romano-British period at Wild Goose Cottage (Garton and Salisbury 1995), Holme Pierrepont (Guilbert, Fearn and Woodhouse 1994) and Staunton (Todd 1975) may reflect some cultural resistance.

Some individuals might have embraced change however, and the rectangular structures at Bessacarr (Atkinson and Merrony 1993) and Dunston's Clump (Garton 1987) may be evidence of people adopting new styles of building, though it should not be assumed that round houses are innately native and rectangular buildings are always Roman. Although there may have been a break in occupation, the construction of a Roman-style villa on the site of the iron age settlement at Dalton Parlours (Wrathmell and Nicholson 1990) may indicate the emergence of a Romanised native class. Roman influences may have been active before the actual occupation of the north, and the adoption of new forms of construction, dress and decoration would have depended on the changing fortunes and tastes of individuals, their families or wider social groups. Such new influences would have allowed individuals to renegotiate their position with regard to society and other people. Simplistic ideas concerning the relationship between 'Romans' and 'natives' have been questioned (Barrett and Foster 1991), and instead a wide range of different interactions can be envisaged.

The occupation would have created new sets of relationships between people, and between people and their land. New markets for goods would have been created, and some would have prospered. The increased circulation of coinage may have been important, though its significance to people in the rural landscapes may have been different to that of the administrators. Fields might have been expanded, and new areas of the landscape opened up and settled. Others might have been more adversely affected, and their fields and settlements may have contracted in size or fallen into disuse.

The maintenance or reworking of boundaries was still important, and the fertility of the land and the munificence of the gods and ancestral spirits was still maintained by the ritualised deposition of food, animal remains and artefacts. Over time, these preoccupations would have been modified as some 'Roman' customs were adopted and some traditional practices abandoned. As these beliefs had altered during the iron age, so too did they evolve during the Romano-British period. Some of this change was a direct consequence of the occupation, but change may also have arisen from within existing social discourses.

The Roman occupation did not replace a native agrarian landscape replete with meanings and associations with a network of straight roads, geometrically laid out forts and towns and other such Roman artifices. A cultural tabula rasa was not created by destroying traditional beliefs and practices, and then replacing them with classical ideas. Rather, the effect of the occupation was to introduce a new set of variables into an already complex social dynamic.

Some closing thoughts

"Archaeology is not about explaining why the material record takes on the form it does. It is about understanding how people occupied (through interpretation and action) a particular set of material and social conditions." (Barrett 1995).

I have tried to avoid detailed discussion of land use in this paper, and have sought instead to concentrate on the possible symbolic aspects of boundaries. The practices that went on in these fields were obviously important, and not merely from a subsistence or economic viewpoint. The metaphoric and spiritual meanings that small-scale societies can attribute to livestock and crops have also been ethnographically documented. Cattle may have been indicators of wealth and status in addition to draft animals and meat and milk producers, and the predominance of cattle bone and the structured deposition of animal remains in both iron age and Romano-British contexts (Grant 1989: 145-146, Parker Pearson 1996: 128) suggests that animals may have been part of a complicated classificatory belief system. Crops would have been redolent with ideas of seasonal cycles and fertility, and the special treatment often accorded to wild animals and plants shows that they too may have had their own significance.

Any archaeology that seeks to try and understand the lives of the later prehistoric and Romano-British peoples dwelling in these landscapes must concern itself with such issues. Future fieldwork must incorporate more environmental sampling and techniques such as micromorphology, to determine soil quality and land use in the past. Detailed investigation of the field systems of South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire is currently being undertaken by other workers. Such broadly based landscape research projects will enable large areas to be investigated for the first time, and consideration of the many aspects of the field systems not addressed by this paper. These studies should at last begin to answer some of the questions that Derrick Riley's work has posed.

Note 1

A note on conventions

Throughout this paper I have used lower case letters to denote the "iron age", in line with current attempts within prehistory to place much less emphasis on period boundaries. This is not possible for the Romano-British period however, for the words are both proper nouns, and so I have (reluctantly) followed conventional nomenclature here. In order to make the text more readable I have used the term "later prehistoric" as being largely synonymous with the "iron age", particularly the period from the mid-first millennium B.C. onwards. I appreciate that elsewhere, other workers have used this term to describe bronze age developments too.

Return to text


This paper owes much to the many conversations about field systems that I have had over the years. In particular, I would like to thank Max Adams, Tim Allen, Simon Atkinson, Bill Barkle, Mark Brennand, Andrea Burgess, Chris Cumberpatch, Colin Merrony and Graham Robbins for their insights and expertise. Chris Cumberpatch, Mark Edmonds and Graham Robbins kindly commented on an initial draft of this paper, and assemblage's referees and editor Judith Winters suggested some beneficial alterations. Needless to say, the ideas and views expressed here are my own.


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About the author:

Adrian 'Chad' Chadwick was a Sheffield University archaeology graduate in 1990. He has returned this year as a Landscape Archaeology M.A. student after having worked for the last six years in contract archaeology, some of this in South Yorkshire. He is single, and WLTM anyone with a GSOH interested in field systems!

Adrian Chadwick 1997


assemblage 1997