British Archaeology, no 16, July 1996: Features

Historic landscapes, wherever you look

Simon Denison reports on the growth of historic landscape maps

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a local-authority planner. You know you have to consider archaeology when siting a new road or development. And you usually do this by avoiding sites and findspots, scheduled monuments and conservation areas.

But what do you decide, when a proposed development lies between sites or monuments, or on the edge of a conservation area? And how do you know if a proposal is appropriate to the historic character of an area? If you want appropriate development - rather than development that just avoids known sites - you simply do not, usually, have adequate information for the job.

Enter one possible solution - historic landscape maps. Rather than designating `places to avoid', these maps aim to define the historic character of whole tracts of landscape. They work on the principle that all landscape has a historic character - not just the special bits - explaining its current appearance and uses. The idea is that if you know the historic character of an area, you have a better idea whether any given proposal is appropriate or not.

The first and largest of these maps covers Cornwall. Prepared by the Cornwall Archaeological Unit and sponsored by English Heritage, it has been used for two years by the County Archaeologist to guide his advice to planners. According to Peter Herring, a field officer at the unit, the map came as a revelation to most planners, who were used to seeing `incomprehensible' landscape maps based on geology, wildlife habitats, and the like. `They see our map, and suddenly recognise the landscape they know,' he said.

The Cornish map was created in two stages. Firstly, each parcel of land in the county was assigned to a landscape `type', at a scale of 1:25,000, using a variety of documentary sources such as early OS maps, habitat charts and tourist-board publications. This very detailed map was then simplified to show the predominant landscape type over larger blocks of land. This simplified map is the one used for planning. Its 18 `super-types' or `zones' include anciently-enclosed land (untouched, altered in the 18th/19th centuries, and altered this century), recently-enclosed land, upland rough ground, coastal rough ground, upland woods, ornamental land, industrial land, urban development, and others.

The map is accompanied by text, indicating among other things the historical processes that shaped each zone, typical archaeological features found within the zone, its vulnerability, and its potential for amenity and research. The effect on planners is not always restrictive. `We can show, for some zones, that the historic trajectory is for development to continue,' Mr Herring said.

The map, he added, has also proved invaluable for Cornwall's archaeologists, providing a framework for information in the county Sites and Monuments Record, which would otherwise be a just a `scattering of disconnected points'. It already appears the map can be used to predict where new sites will be found - though this needs to be tested further.

Following Cornwall's lead, similar maps are now in preparation elsewhere. In the former county of Avon, a GIS map - an interactive 3-D map on computer - is being produced, which combines information on the historic landscape and nature conservation. Smaller historic areas have also been mapped, such as the Gwent Levels (see BA February) and the lead-mining region of the Peak District.

English Heritage backs the development of these maps, believing they represent the historic landscape's best chance of being respected in planning policy. The historic landscape was virtually ignored, after all, in the Government's recent policy document, the Rural White Paper (see BA December 1995 and June). The maps are being produced, however, in parallel with another series of maps - the better-known `countryside character maps' covering the whole of England, based mainly on geology, topography, scenery and wildlife, which will be published this autumn by the Countryside Commission. The two sets of maps are likely to remain confusingly separate.

A different approach is planned in Wales. Cadw, in co-operation with the Countryside Council for Wales, favours `listing' individual historic landscapes of special importance, such as the Black Mountains and the Gower Peninsula, and grading them like listed buildings. Cadw is currently consulting on 36 proposed one and two-star areas. The lists will be advisory, and not carry the force of law.

Cadw's proposals have been criticised by some as implying a `two-tier' system, in which non-listed areas could be thought historically worthless and suitable for any development. However, Richard Avent, Cadw's Chief Inspector, said the clarity of the proposals outweighed any such danger. `You can't focus initiatives unless you identify what's most important,' he said.

Whichever method of mapping historic landscapes proves most effective, one thing is clear. The days when archaeology was thought of as no more than a few random points on a map are over.

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Contrary to popular belief, it took a very long time, argues Alasdair Whittle

When did Neolithic farmers settle down?

The Neolithic is generally seen as a lifestyle that was sedentary. It is equated, traditionally, with the arrival of farming; and farmers are regarded as necessarily sedentary because plants and animals demand long-term labour investment in one place.

Also, the productivity of plants and animals releases surpluses, which enable people to store foods and stay in one place while using them. Farming populations also tend to increase in numbers, the argument runs, and so the long-term trend has been seen as towards more and more `packing' in the landscape and towards economic intensification.

Foragers, by contrast, are assumed to have moved around in order to survive, though they may have done that in varying ways. A distinction has been made, for example, between `circulating mobility', in which a given group moves as a whole from one set of resources to another in a seasonal or annual cycle, and `radiating mobility', in which a group may rely on one or more bases, from which forays are made out to seasonally fluctuating resources. The assumption is usually made, however, that when foragers become pre-disposed to adopt agriculture themselves, they first reduce the extent of their mobility, becoming semi-sedentary as a precondition to becoming farmers.

These arguments about the sedentary nature of farming no longer work. Some indigenous people may have adopted new resources, but at the same time retained the use of older ones, together with something of the residence patterns that went with them. There is good ethnographic evidence that foragers can go in and out of cultivation and herding with some ease; and other evidence that cultivation does not in itself have to tie populations down to one spot. Plots can be sown and then harvested after seasonal absence. Cultivation, moreover, may be adopted for sporadic use, experiment, or novelty. Most models of Neolithic economy emphasise cultivation, but animals may have been at least as important as crops, as providers of food, and as partners in a world seen differently, in which people both worked with and used the natural world.

How do these ideas fare when applied to Neolithic archaeologies in Europe? In Britain and Ireland, they make a lot of sense. It is hard to find evidence of colonisation at the start of the Neolithic, for the sustained practice of mixed farming, or for permanent residence, until as late perhaps as the mid 2nd millennium BC (the Middle Bronze Age). Big regional archaeological projects which should have produced such evidence have signally not done so. Instead the picture is of sporadic, episodic clearance, continued use of woodland resources alongside new domesticates, and of ill-defined occupations rather than homesteads, hamlets or villages. At the same time, some scholars are now suggesting the role of monuments was to create allegiance to a fixed place, in a world which retained much mobility.

Both circulating and radiating mobility could still be useful concepts for the Neolithic world. `Tethered mobility' may be a useful variant on radiating mobility, to allow for seasonal or other fluctuations in household or group composition. How easy it is to envisage that all members of a group stayed together at all times, as in our world; but if animal herding was more important than previously thought, that becomes a dangerous assumption.

Another variant to think of is very short-term sedentism over periods of five years or less. There is some empirical support for this from tree-ring dated sites in Switzerland and Germany, and it may also be seen in British pollen diagrams.

These models may also apply to the Continent. The tells of south-eastern Europe and the early timber longhouses of central and western Europe are so often taken, without question, to be the permanent settlements of sedentary populations. But why are some of the longhouses so massive? Perhaps the `house' provided much more than shelter and work space. Why do their successive replacements so rarely overlap? Perhaps the continuity of place was especially important because not all the population lived all the time in the same place. Why are the carbonised weeds from pits and other features so often dominated by shade-loving plants? This is strange, for a supposedly agrarian system which endured for at least 600 years.

We have been in too much of a hurry to make Neolithic people resemble ourselves. The time has come to interpret their society in new ways.

Dr Alasdair Whittle is Reader in Archaeology at the University of Wales, Cardiff. His book, Europe in the Neolithic, was published recently by CUP (UKP65.00 hb, UKP22.95 pb).

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Post-medieval remains add much to the town's history, says Geoff Egan

The London that records fail to show

London, in the centuries since about 1500, is so well known, so well documented and studied, that you might have thought archaeology had little of significance to add to its history.

For well-documented periods, it is true that archaeology does not have to ask the kind of fundamental questions about society and events that it asks of earlier times. Yet research in London over recent years has shown that archaeology has much to add to the historical record, as it deals with the remains of people's lives and work that are often overlooked by the written sources.

A nice example of archaeology's contribution to national political history relates to the establishment of the Tudor dynasty in 1485. The new authorities fostered the cult of `Saint' Henry VI, whose murder by the rival Yorkists half a generation earlier was central to a blend of religious and worldly propaganda put out on behalf of the new regime. The cult, based in nearby Windsor, was made familiar to Londoners by the mass-production of pilgrim souvenirs; and over 200 of these, featuring Henry in several different versions, have now been excavated in London. They indicate just how successful at street level this manipulation became for a brief period at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries.

A large part of post-medieval archaeology's subject matter is industry and trade. The textile trade through London has been seen by historians as central to the development of national prosperity in the 16th and early 17th centuries; and again this aspect of economic history is well served by documentary sources. Yet although excavated remains of textiles - at that time England's principal mercantile commodity - are often very scrappy (if they survive at all), remarkably detailed information is provided about them by the discovery of thousands of lead seals, of the kind attached to each traded cloth as part of a system of industrial regulation.

The seals, which often survive when the textile to which they were attached has completely decayed, indicate where each was woven, sometimes specifying dimensions and even brand names, as well as the personal mark of the clothier. Thus Taunton and Exeter serges, heavy Worcester cloths, and `new draperies' such as the bays and says produced at Colchester by Low Countries immigrants turn up frequently in the capital. Less common are seals for Witney blankets, Kendal cloths from Westmorland and other specialised fabrics. Several seals give the year of issue, allowing more precise dating than is possible with coins (which could be current for decades).

All this very specific information makes possible the production of statistics charting places of origin and changes of fashion through time, and so on, for textiles brought to London during this key period.

One of the more interesting series of seals is that issued by the London Dyers' Company, probably in the late 16th or early 17th centuries, as part of its regulation of the quality of work at Thamesside dye- houses. At the Trig Lane site a drain leading down towards the river was found to be full of seals for a range of cloths from East Anglia, Devon and Yorkshire, along with Dyers' Company issues for cochineal and for woad in combination with other colourants. All had the initials of one person - IW. From these and further similar finds at half a dozen waterfront excavations in the City and along the south bank, a complex pattern of the various kinds of textiles handled by different dye-houses is emerging.

The products of the looms of at least 28 counties, as well as Scottish, French, German and Low Countries fabrics, with occasional Polish and Iberian ones, are all attested by the seals. The overall pattern is what would be expected from the documents, but there are several surprises, like the relative prominence of Kent cloths in the early 16th century and of Buckinghamshire ones some 100 years later. The seals also demonstrate the spectacular rise of Norfolk, in under two centuries, from virtual non-representation in this context to overall predominance as the most prolific county - with over a quarter of the identifiable 17th century seals being for Norfolk worsteds. This is probably not so much a manifestation of a new penetration of the London market by these fabrics (they had been available in the capital for centuries) as of the development by the City dyers of techniques appropriate for colouring this kind of textile, at the same time as the Norfolk weavers achieved a very wide mass market for their products.

Sugar-refining is another of the industries starting to emerge, represented both by a late 16th century plant at Ratcliffe in East London - probably the earliest refinery in England to be uncovered - and more widely from the distinctive vessels used in the process. Several large concentrations of conical sugar moulds have been uncovered, notably in the Fleet Valley, and also in Southwark and again alongside the Thames on the north bank. It remains to be seen whether archaeology can furnish information about the developing technology for this Caribbean product, which should be reflected by different forms of plant and industrial vessels.

Another major revelation has come from a few scrappy fragments of lead/tin, which when unearthed tend to look like crumpled foil wrappers. These most fragile finds are 16th and 17th century children's toys, providing evidence for a thriving mass market in cheap models of kitchenware, furniture, and the like, at a date far earlier than was suspected even 20 years ago. A series of these finds means a revision is needed, not only of the history of toys, but also of attitudes to childhood in the early modern period.

There is now considerable excavated evidence for early glass-making in London. A small dump of waste comes from the early 17th century Winchester House factory in Southwark (the first in England to achieve commercial success with coal-firing of the furnace), and several assemblages can be attributed to Mansell's prolific Broad Street industry in the north of the City, with both green and colourless vessels represented. Last year, on the south bank, waste from the mid/late 17th century Bear Garden factory was uncovered; and most interestingly, some of the fragments may be from the `light sky-blue' vessels for which this industry was renowned. This discovery is particularly timely because excavations at the 17th century colonial site of Jamestown in the USA have uncovered some vivid blue glass which a local specialist has speculated might be a Bear Garden product. It will now be possible to put the finds from each side of the Atlantic together to see if they match. Waste found at all these sites for the first time provides opportunities for more informed factory attributions of excavated and other surviving vessels elsewhere than were possible just from historical references.

Another intriguing question to arise from the new evidence comes from preliminary chemical analysis of fragments thought to be from the Broad Street factory. This has revealed a completely unexpected composition for colourless glass - a hybrid, using the new formula containing soda introduced by Italians, along with the traditional ingredient in England, potassium. Potassium would have been a pointless addition, but it might have continued to be included because of limited understanding at a time when successful formulae were valuable, closely guarded industrial secrets. If this analysis is confirmed it will be a useful pointer to further products from the same industry and eventually help gauge its penetration of the market. The two traditions of glass-making may not have been quite as separate as is presented in most accounts of the industry's history.

Porcelain, long the realm of highly committed connoisseurs, has come very late to the attentions of mainstream archaeologists working in London, and yet collectors were out searching for wasters at the site of the Chelsea factory in the first half of the 19th century - less than 100 years after it started production. Archaeological investigations in the late 1980s at the site of a porcelain factory at Limehouse produced a number of unquestionable products and this information was assimilated very rapidly by the salerooms through speedy publication (in hardback) and through a rash of shorter papers in specialist journals. If all archaeological information were to meet such an enthusiastic and moneyed audience, a lot of the profession's most acute problems of the mid-1990s would be readily soluble.

An interesting contribution to the history of ideas comes from a mass of broken, late 19th century clay pipes and porcelain figure fragments recently recovered from near the City Custom House. These prove to be imported pornography in the round, seized and smashed by the Customs authorities under legislation introduced in 1857. Although ceramics can be made smaller, it is very difficult indeed to get them to disappear altogether. The cache also includes shards of lithophanes (porcelain slides) which reveal scenes in the same vein as the other material. These finds may be the only specific evidence available for just what, in ceramics, was considered too outrageous for Victorian England.

Geoffrey Egan is an archaeologist specialising in medieval and later archaeology at the Museum of London Archaeology Service

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