Cropmark landscapes and domestic space.

by Graham Robbins.

Research on the Iron Age and Roman period in the region of the north-east Midlands has been revolutionised by aerial photographic work over the last three decades (RCHME 1960; Riley 1980; Whimster 1989). Since the extent of rural settlement became clear, fieldwork has been struggling to catch up, supplying dating evidence and indications of the economic character of agricultural settlements and fieldsystems. Major advances have been made by units such as the Trent and Peak Archaeological Trust. Interpretative considerations have also been presented (Chadwick 1997; Smith 1977; O'Brien 1978a, 1979; Branigan 1989; Unwin 1983). However, most of these considerations, although valuable, are problematic in their generalising approach to the landscapes represented by our cropmark maps. Contentions have, for example, focused on 'the dating of the brickwork fieldsystem' as if these disparate landscapes could be approached as a static and cohesive unit (for example, Branigan 1989; Unwin 1983). One instance of this naivety is the assumption that regularity necessarily implies centralised planning, and the extension of this argument to suggest that the area was exploited as the estate of an elite (Branigan 1989). By contrast, the most recent work, by Deegan (1996), has emphasised both chronological change and spatial discontinuity. It is this theme of change in the character of the landscapes to which I wish to turn, and in noting one particular shift, suggest the implications for the communities which inhabited this region during the later Iron Age and Roman period.

My consideration of this theme arose with involvement in recent excavations at Scrooby Top (forthcoming), north Nottinghamshire, which focused upon an enclosure defining an area 20m by 25m (see Fig. 1). The ceramic and stratigraphic evidence suggested the enclosure had probably been inserted into an existing fieldsystem in the first century AD. The enclosure may not have been inhabited in its earliest life, but there was soon a structure, pits, hearths and an oven, most of which produced ceramics of the mid second to mid third century AD. Beyond the enclosure's bounds were metalworking remains, a possible pond and more pits. The enclosure ditch itself appears to have had rubbish purposively dumped into it from the mid second century AD, when the external bank also collapsed. In its later phase the enclosure interior was redefined by a subdivision and the build-up of a midden towards the east, and the course of the ditch was slighted by a well, probably in the third century AD. There was no evidence of occupation or even use beyond the mid third century AD.

The enclosure at Scrooby Top is paralleled closely by the excavated site at Dunston's Clump, near Retford (Garton 1987). We find an origin in the first century BC or first century AD, an initial phase which lacks structures, a main domestic phase, a later redefinition of the enclosure's space, and abandonment around the mid third century AD. Other excavated sites, such as Scratta Wood I, near Worksop, also appear similar in both form and date (White unpublished). It would be unwarranted to generalise for the hundreds of other enclosures known only by aerial photography, but their similarity of form and landscape position may be noted. Furthermore, earlier settlement was generally open, shifting and only very loosely focused. This can be seen at sites such as Willington, Gamston, Rampton and Holme Pierrepont, where although landscape boundaries were already well established by the late Iron Age, they provided a frame for transitory occupation (Wheeler 1979; Knight 1992; Ponsford 1992; O'Brien 1978b; Guilbert, Fearn and Woodhouse 1994). Indeed, both Roger Thomas (1997) and Tim Champion (1994) contend that throughout eastern England enclosed settlements only emerged toward the end of the first millennium BC. In summary then, domestic enclosures appeared within a landscape structured by extensive fieldsystems, previously characterised by open, transitory and unfocused settlement. In the north-east midlands enclosures appear to have been distinctive of the Later Iron Age and Early Roman periods.

What was the significance of these enclosures? So-called common sense interpretations have been decisively refuted (Bowden and McOmish 1987). Indeed, it is generally accepted across the humanities that tradition and disposition are under-determined by functional considerations. The latter authors, alongside Hingley (1984a; 1984b; 1988; 1990), have left us three other possibilities. Hingley, working on the Iron Age and Roman period of the Upper Thames region, has contended that enclosures are a token of family land holding; they represent a fragmented society. Secondly, enclosure banks and ditches may be read as indications of prestige. Lastly, all authors take what they call 'ritual deposits' to indicate a formal emphasis on divisive categorisation and the transformative act of passing between spheres.

My assumption is that understanding in archaeology is achieved when the significance for past communities of a materiality is made real to us. On this presupposition, I want to know how such enclosures were implicated in the daily lives of inhabitants and how life was lived around them. These tenets aim to distinguish between interpretations which label, which get us nowhere beyond our own assumptions, and those which to some small extent move us away from ourselves, closer to another way of seeing, closer, even, to past communities. The three suggested interpretations have little to do with the way in which communities inhabiting these enclosures moved around and used these spaces. These three authors, and indeed many other authors, do not show how these supposed meanings were worked into the day-to-day reproductive routines which constituted the lives of past communities. These articles fail to help us understand how such enclosures may have been understood by those occupying them, and they fail to draw out the implications of this materiality for those communities.

The Scrooby Top enclosure stands within subtle landscape. The major contrast of the topography lies between peaty, alluvial river valley and sandy upland, a ridge running north to south (see Fig.2). This distinction determined vegetation and it probably underpinned the agricultural routine from which the fieldsystems crystallised. Land division was oriented against the river's line, running back and up onto the sandy ridge. The field boundaries divided and defined a straggling patchwork along the eastern scarp, a common patterning in the area. Palaeobotany (Bogard 1997; Jones 1987) helps to suggest a tripartite landscape, rising from damp grassland, through dry sandy fields with some crops, hedges and little woodland, to heather heath on the backside of the ridge. Through the middle gradation, running with the long boundaries, were ditched trackways and hollow ways structuring the movement of animals from river meadow through fields. These trackways excluded animals from the fields; they opened-out to the river meadows, an unbounded region. Grazing was undifferentiated and families worked amongst each other on the lowlands. These areas were the site of communal affiliation arising from work and talk.

In the Iron Age, this communal domain is set against little; settlement is dispersed, open and undefined, scattered around the fields in whose boundaries there is also communal negotiation, confirmation and respect. However, during the first century BC/AD many families established a strong and central locus within this landscape, delineating the domestic from the agricultural, actually effecting a classification such as 'domestic'. The return from the communal grazing grounds now implies a retraction to a tightly-bounded, focused expression of family identity. Furthermore, such a boundary also establishes the possibility, or even the recognition, of an alternative set of practices, techniques and domestic tasks. These enclosures established a novel field of discourse (in Barrett's terms (1988)). In so doing, the domestic enclosure forms an alternative locus of identity, founded on a different set of competencies and routines. The materiality of the landscape has become manipulated to enforce and emphasis distinction both within the community and within the family.

To conclude, I have wanted to make a few small points. Firstly, these landscapes, as cohesive and simple as they appear from cropmark evidence, changed and altered over time. Secondly, such changes responded to and effected major shifts in the possibilities of communal, familial and personal identity. Thirdly, the significance of such changes must be conceived through the everyday practice of past communities; otherwise we fail to grasp past understandings, and are only left with our own.


Mel Giles (reading), Glyn Davis et al. (digging), Mike Parker Pearson (enthusiasm), Mike Klemperer (drawing).


Barrett, J. C. 1988. Fields of discourse: Reconstructing a social archaeology. Critique of Anthropology 7: 5-16.

Bogard, A. unpublished (1997). Report to ARCUS on the Charred Plant Remains from Scrooby Top, Nottinghamshire. Sheffield.

Bowden, M. and McOmish, D. 1987. The required barrier. Scottish Archaeological Review 4: 76-84.

Branigan, K. 1989. An early landscape revisited. In D. Kennedy (ed.) Into the Sun. Sheffield: Collis Publications, pp.161-166.

Champion, T. 1994. Socio-economic development in eastern England in the first millennium BC. In K. Kristiansen and J. Jensen (eds.) Europe in the First Millennium BC. Sheffield: Collis Publications, pp.125-144.

Deegan, A. 1996. North Nottinghamshire fieldsystems -- a landscape overview. Aerial Archaeology Research Group. 12 (March 1996): 18-24.

Garton, D. 1987. Dunston's Clump and the brickwork plan fieldsystems at Babworth Nottinghamshire: excavations 1981. Transactions of the Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire 91: 16-73.

Guilbert, G., Fearn, K. and Woodhouse, G. 1994. Archaeological evaluation of crop-marks near Holme Pierrepont, Nottinghamshire, 1992 -- interim report. Transactions of the Thoroton Society 98: 19-23.

Hingley, R. 1984a. Towards social analysis in archaeology: Celtic society in the Iron Age of the Upper Thames valley (400 - 0 BC). In B. Cunliffe and D. Miles (eds.) Aspects of the Iron Age in Central Southern Britain. Oxford:Institute of Archaeology, pp. 72-88.

Hingley, R. 1984b. The archaeology of settlement and the social significance of space. Scottish Archaeological Review 3: 22-27 and comments.

Hingley, R. 1988. The influence of Rome on indigenous social groups in the Upper Thames Valley. In R. Jones et al. (ed.) First Millennium Papers Oxford: British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 401, pp.73-98.

Hingley, R. 1990. Boundaries surrounding Iron Age and Romano-British settlements. Scottish Archaeological Review 7: 96-103.

Jones, G. 1987. The plant remains. In D. Garton (ed.) Dunston's Clump and the brickwork plan fieldsystems at Babworth Nottinghamshire: excavations 1981. Transactions of the Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire 91: 58-63.

Knight, D. 1992. Excavations of an Iron Age settlement at Gamston, Nottinghamshire . Transactions of the Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire 96: 16-90.

O'Brien, C. 1978a. Land and settlement in Nottinghamshire and lowland Derbyshire: an archaeological review. Nottingham:Trent Valley Research Committee, East Midlands Archaeological Bulletin 12 (Supplement).

O'Brien, C. 1978b. Excavations at Holme Pierrepont. Transactions of the Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire 82: 76.

O'Brien, C. 1979. Iron Age and Romano-British settlement in the Trent basin. In B. C. Burnham and H. B. Johnson (eds.) Invasion and Response: The Case of Roman Britain. Oxford:British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 73: 299-313.

Ponsford, M. W. 1992. A late Iron Age and Romano-British settlement at Rampton, Nottinghamshire. Transactions of the Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire 96: 91-122.

RCHME. 1960. A Matter of Time. London: HMSO.

Riley, D. N. 1980. Early Landscape from the Air. Sheffield: Department of Archaeology and Prehistory, University of Sheffield.

Smith, C. 1977. The valleys of the Tame and middle Trent -- their populations and ecology during the late first millennium BC. In J. R. Collis (ed.) The Iron Age in Britain: A Review. Sheffield:Department of Prehistory and Archaeology, University of Sheffield, pp.51-61.

Thomas, R. 1997. Land, kinship relations and the rise of enclosed settlement in first millennium BC Britain. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 16: 211-218.

Unwin, T. 1983. Townships and early fields in North Nottinghamshire. Journal of Historical Geography 9: 341-346.

Wheeler, H. 1979. Excavation at Willington, Derbyshire, 1970-1972. Derbyshire Archaeological Journal 99: 58-220.

Whimster, R. 1989. The Emerging Past. London:RCHME.

White, G. F. unpublished (1959-1969). Scratta Wood I site archive. Creswell Crags Visitor Centre, Creswell, Derbyshire.

About the author.

Graham Robbins has been studying at Sheffield University since 1992. He was previously employed in field archaeology and is currently trying to write about the experience of romanisation by rural communities in the north-east Midlands. He is looking forward to Christmas.

© Graham Robbins 1997

Go on, e-mail assemblage today!

© assemblage 1997