British Archaeology, no 11, February 1996: Features


Stephen Rippon finds that the origins of a Welsh landscape are still visible.

A land shaped by generations past

It has become a commonplace to speak of the antiquity of the British landscape, but it is only rarely that the evolution of a particular stretch of land has been revealed in detail by archaeological excavation and survey.

Now, a study of the Gwent Levels - the low, flat region of reclaimed coastal alluvium in south-east Wales, on the northern side of the Severn Estuary - has shown how many elements of the present landscape can be directly traced back to the medieval period, and some to the Roman era.

The extensive saltmarshes that fringe the Gwent coast were first drained during Roman times, probably by legionaries based at the fortress at Caerleon, to increase the area of good agricultural land. The remarkable pattern of long narrow fields created by drainage ditches on the Levels near Cardiff was first recognised in the 1980s, but it was only through recent excavations (in which I collaborated with Michael Fulford and John Allen from Reading University) that a Roman date was firmly established. The ditches were found to extend into the inter-tidal zone of the Severn Estuary, where they contained stratified Roman pottery and animal bones, dating the system as a whole. What makes this landscape of great importance is that it is still in use today, probably the only example of an intact Roman drainage system in Britain.

The new study, jointly funded by Cadw and the Countryside Council for Wales, has shown that during the post-Roman period most of the Levels were flooded, apart from the area near Cardiff where the Roman drainage system remained in use. However, because of the potential fertility of the soil, the Levels were soon re-enclosed by sea walls to prevent further tidal flooding.

Following the Norman conquest of southern Wales, the `Marcher' lords started settling their newly acquired estates, including the Levels, with English tenants. In south-west Wales, the English often made use of Flemish entrepreneurs to create new villages. In the Gwent Levels, there is no direct evidence for Dutch or Flemish involvement, but one planned village, Whitson, does show similarities with a system of reclamation used in Holland, known as the `cope'. In this system, farms were laid out in a single line on slightly elevated land, with the tenement plots stretching out, in a distinctive manner, in long strips towards the lower ground.

The study has shown that different landlords exploited their estates in different ways. In the east, towards Chepstow, there was a pattern of nucleated settlements around small village greens, surrounded by open fields, as at Redwick. This area was in English hands; and it contrasts sharply with the dispersed settlements and enclosed fields seen to the west, south of Newport, which was held by Welsh lords. Large areas were granted to monastic houses, such as Goldcliff Priory and Tintern Abbey; and they too managed their estates in ways that can still be discerned in the landscape. Goldcliff established two planned villages, but largely seems to have allowed its existing tenants to manage their land as they pleased. Tintern, on the other hand, managed its estates directly, with each block of land containing a single farm. The Black Death hit south-east Wales hard, with certain manors almost totally depopulated. From the 14th century, the coastline also suffered severe erosion, leading to the sea wall having to be set back several hundred metres - the present wall cuts through earlier fields which must once have extended further out to sea. The increasingly wet climate would have made the heavy soils more difficult to plough, but with some of the most fertile agricultural land in the region, the Levels were not abandoned. The communities there specialised in pastoralism, taking advantage of their proximity to the expanding market and port of Bristol. Thus, while many settlements on the adjacent uplands were deserted, communities on the Levels continued to flourish.

The last major phase in the creation of the present landscape was the enclosure of the commons and open fields in the 19th century. However, by that time, more destructive processes had begun, as the industrial and urban areas of Newport and Cardiff spread onto the Levels. Just as the historical and ecological importance of this reclaimed wetland landscape is being recognised, the rate of proposed loss from further industrial and infrastructure development (such as roads) is, sadly, also increasing.

Dr Stephen Rippon is a Research Fellow in Archaeology at Reading University. His book, The Gwent Levels: The Evolution of a Wetland Landscape, is published by the CBA this month at UKP24.00.


Return to Table of Contents Return to CBA Homepage


A new survey suggests the first farmers were immigrants, writes Chris Tolan-Smith

And then came farmers to the North

The adoption of farming as man's principal means of food production, in succession to hunting and gathering, is generally acknowledged as one of the most significant developments in prehistory. Yet while most prehistorians agree that this change occurred throughout most of Britain during the 4th millennium BC, the details of how the change occurred remain a subject of controversy.

The results of fieldwalking in the Tyne Valley, however, may now provide some clues to this intriguing problem. They suggest that, in the Tyne Valley at least, the transition was relatively abrupt, and may have involved significant changes in population. These results are hard to reconcile with the popular view that the transition was a gradual process, generally accomplished by the indigenous Mesolithic population.

Since 1990, systematic fieldwalking has been undertaken, by a team co-ordinated by me, across about 400ha of the Tyne Valley between Corbridge and the outskirts of Newcastle. We adopted a `landscape approach' in the work, in that our aim was not to discover sites but rather to monitor past human behaviour across the landscape as a whole. It was our view that human behaviour is distributed continuously across the landscape - not just in free-floating `sites' - and that it simply varies in intensity from one location to another.

Our analysis of finds was based on the idea that the activities of Mesolithic and Neolithic communities could be divided into a number of categories. Some were concerned with the acquisition of raw materials (such as workable stone, timber and firewood), while others were focused on acquiring the means of subsistence, whether through hunting and gathering, or through farming the land and tending livestock. Evidence for these activities survives in the form of characteristic artefacts - microliths and arrowheads can be taken to imply hunting, axes forest clearance, and sickles and reaping knives the gathering of crops. All these activities occurred in places where the resources in question were to be found.

Another set of activities, more to do with the processing of raw materials and plant and animal products, took place in locations determined by a range of factors in which social considerations - especially the desire of people to work and be together - may have been paramount. Such activities are represented archaeologically by artefacts such as scrapers and burins associated with antler, bone, hide and wood-working, and adzes indicative of carpentry. They are often found together, and in many cases probably indicate residential locations (or `sites' in the conventional sense), whereas arrowheads and axes are often isolated occurrences, usually found `off-site'.

By categorising finds in these ways, we were able to look for differences between the Mesolithic and Neolithic in the extent and distribution of these activities. We found, for example, that evidence for `off-site' activities was more widespread for the Neolithic period, and that there appears to have been an increase in the amount of landscape exploited, notwithstanding the fact that farming is a more intensive activity than hunting and gathering. Even though Neolithic communities may have continued to hunt and gather as well as farm, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the period witnessed an absolute increase in the demand for resources of whatever kind compared to the Mesolithic. The most likely explanation for this is an increase in population.

Was this increase a result of natural population or of immigration by pioneer farmers moving into the Tyne Valley? To answer this question, we gathered data within sample blocks of land (average 2,100sqm), and nearly 1,700 blocks had been fieldwalked by spring last year. Stone artefacts were recovered from over a third, and 221 blocks produced finds that were `diagnostic', or useful for interpretation. The surprising fact was that in only eight cases were Mesolithic and Neolithic finds recovered from the same block. This absence of any significant overlap in patterns of landscape exploitation argues for a significant discordance in settlement of just the kind we expected with the arrival of a new population. The newcomers also appear to have shunned those areas habitually exploited by the indigenous people.

The idea of an immigration of Neolithic farmers was underlined by our study of the distribution of Neolithic stone axes, which we found declined in numbers on an east-est gradient. Given that these axes indicate woodland clearance for cultivation, Neolithic settlement in the valley appears to have decreased with distance from the coastal plain. It is tempting to see this as an indication of the direction from which the Neolithic pioneers entered the valley.

Dr Chris Tolan-Smith is a Lecturer in Archaeology at Newcastle upon Tyne University


Return to Table of Contents Return to CBA Homepage


History suggests medieval Scotland was backward. No so, writes Peter Yeoman

Dispelling medieval Scotland's gloom

The modern Scots have tended to look back on their medieval centuries as a time of unmitigated misery. It is certainly true that periods of intermittent warfare, pestilence and famine, coupled with a climate which was even worse than today, would not seem like a recipe for a Golden Age. And yet for Scotland the Middle Ages were in fact a period of growth; growth in towns, in trade, and in standards of living.

Scotland embraced urbanism from a standing start in the early 12th century, through the granting of `burgh' status by David I and his successors to numerous settlements such as Edinburgh and Glasgow, Stirling, Berwick, Perth, and St Andrews; and archaeology has shown that the creation of burghs was rapid and successful. Urbanism acted as a spur to the spread of innovation and the creation of a mercantile trading economy, which in turn stimulated an increase in agricultural production and fundamentally altered the subsistence way of life that had formerly prevailed throughout much of the country.

The results, for instance, of the excavations in the High Street in Perth, conducted in the mid- 1970s and since analysed in detail, produce a picture of an ordered and comfortable life for many, if not most, in a firmly established, dynamic young town. In the early 12th century, the existing settlement at Perth was entirely replanned, with a new street layout and a new, regular pattern of property boundaries, indicating a degree of central organisation by an embryonic town council - a pattern that can be seen repeated in other new towns as well. Moreover, in the 12th and 13th centuries the High Street in Perth was 4m wider than it is today, and was lined with a mixture of stone and timber houses and shops, with intensive development of what had been intended to be open backland plots behind.

Uniformity of excavated street surfaces suggests that the main streets at least were maintained by the burgh council. They were roughly metalled with gravel and small stones, but with much of the surface comprising rubbish which had been dumped there. Rubbish, indeed, seems to have formed an important building aggregate in Perth, a naturally boggy town always prone to flash floods from the River Tay, and it seems that the townsfolk may have made a conscious effort to raise the town up on its own rubbish, as much as 3m in less than 250 years in some places. However, this use of rubbish was typical of other low-lying towns in the period, and is in no way an indication of backwardness (for a similar use of rubbish in Monmouth, see British Archaeology, May 1995).

Silks, spices and wine were available to many, no doubt paid for by hard-won income from industry, craft and trade. The large number of feathers found on one site in Perth's High Street may even have come from a burgess's feather bedding. Lighting came from candles made of sheep's fat, and from ceramic lamps fuelled with linseed oil.

The modern Scots are famed for their ability to put themselves down, and it has been common in recent years to interpret the Perth High Street site as an atypical enclave within the town, or even within the nation - but recent excavations in other Scottish towns demonstrate that that is simply not true.

Asplit continues to exist between academic historians and archaeologists working on medieval Scotland. Historians, for instance, continue to state that Scotland's wealth came from the export of wool alone - documents indicate that Scotland served a huge market of weavers in Flanders, Picardy and Artois - but the excavated data clearly show that cattle were by far the most numerous species. As ever, both sides are likely to have got it half right, and no doubt the combination of the export of wool, woolfells (or sheepskins) and hides in combination formed the domestic side of the balance of trade; and there can be no doubt that Scotland was part of an integrated trade network, which enabled the medieval Scots to have silks from Spain and Italy, fine dyed cloth from the Low Countries, ivory and spices from Africa and the East, and figs and grapes from the Mediterranean.

Trade was centred on the principal east-coast burgh ports of Aberdeen, Dundee, Perth, Leith and Berwick, and it was trade that produced most of the wealth of the burgesses who acted as merchants, middlemen and shippers, controlling the production of the countryside and importing essentials of life as well as exotica. Grain, for instance, was imported via King's Lynn in the 12th and 13th centuries, at a time when rural production had not yet caught up with the burgeoning population.

Very large quantities of cattle bones are found in urban excavations, emphasising how much the burghs were processing plants for the products of the countryside. According to Mike Spearman of the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh, who has studied medieval Scottish industries, the streets of some medieval towns (such as Stirling, Inverness and Perth) were usually awash with the dung and blood of thousands of beasts come to slaughter; and the archaeological evidence lends weight to this view of burghs serving as giant abattoirs, supporting a network of industries for the processing of hides, meat and bone. Most cattle were killed when they were about two years old, being the optimum age for the production of hides; but sheep, on the other hand, were either killed aged one or less for meat or woolfells, or at about the age of four, having produced annual crops of wool.

The Scots have tended to put themselves down also by seeing medieval Scotland as chiefly an exporter of raw materials only, and therefore as having a poor and unstable economy compared to her neighbours. Again, the archaeological evidence suggests otherwise, and the production of hides is a key indication of stability and long-term investment. This is because of the long time-scale of 12-18 months from slaughter to the final production of leather and the associated return on investment.

Medieval archaeology in Scotland goes from strength to strength. Gone are the days when it consisted of the architectural analysis of admittedly superb castles and abbeys. The `new' medieval archaeology is about using the results from specific sites to create a picture of the lives of all sections of medieval society. The damp, well-sealed anaerobic deposits of Perth and Aberdeen, for instance, have meant that a wealth of detail about the artefacts and structures of everyday life have survived - about crafts such as goldsmithing and weaving, industries such as tanning, leatherworking, metalworking and cereal processing, and aspects of everyday life such as diet and health. Indeed, Perth possesses a quality and integrity of medieval strata unrivalled in Scotland and comparable to those of York - one of the best and most deeply stratified towns in England. Sadly, Perth has not seen the same degree of planning conservation being applied to its medieval heritage, although it is fair to say that the time of significant threat has largely passed.

And yet to fully understand the development of medieval life and culture we must now look to the land. So far, we have failed to find, protect and investigate the medieval rural farm settlements where 90 per cent of the population lived and toiled. Agriculture and settlement were ubiquitous, and yet no typical medieval farm, either in the highlands or in the lowlands, has ever been excavated. The rural landscapes of today effectively mask the medieval farms, fields and mills, chiefly because of the agricultural `improving' movement of the 18th and 19th centuries. The evidence is there, but so far, unfortunately, it has remained elusive.

Peter Yeoman is Fife's Regional Archaeologist. His book, Medieval Scotland, was recently published by Batsford at UKP15.99.


Return to the British Archaeology homepage

Return to the CBA homepage


© Council for British Archaeology, 1996