ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 52, April 2000


Origins of war: Mesolithic conflict in Europe

The Mesolithic era is often characterised as a kind of golden age of harmony with nature and peaceful co-existence between people. Not so, writes Nick Thorpe

Eight and a half thousand years ago a small community was massacred in southern Germany. Stone clubs flew against skulls. Women screamed; children cowered in shocked silence. No one was spared.

Most of the men seem to have been away, perhaps hunting for the rest of the group. Those that remained put up stout resistance against their attackers. But they were all killed too.

Evidence of the massacre was uncovered a century ago by archaeologists excavating Ofnet cave in Bavaria. They found two pits containing 38 decapitated skulls. Most had belonged to children under 15 years old, including several under five.

Two thirds of the adults were women, but the men suffered the most wounds - some had been struck as many as seven times. Several skulls had cut-marks suggesting they had been scalped.

Their burial was particularly curious. It many ways it resembles a conventional burial of this date.

The skulls were covered in red ochre. Pierced red deer teeth and shells were included in the grave.

So were these scalped, decapitated heads buried, reverently and tearfully, by the absent men on their return - who chose not to bury the remainder of the bodies? Or, perhaps more likely, do the skulls represent the booty from a head-hunting expedition, which was later given a ceremonial burial? We cannot be sure.

Massacres were not uncommon in prehistoric Europe. Perhaps the most dramatic case we know took place at Talheim in south-west Germany, where a mass grave dating from about 5000 BC contained 34 men, women and children, killed by multiple axe and adze blows to the back of the head. Three of the dead had also been shot with arrows from behind. Here the victims had been unceremoniously thrown into a pit without grave goods.

What is remarkable about the earlier event at Ofnet is not so much the fact of massacre as the date. The Ofnet community of hunter-gatherers were slaughtered in the Mesolithic period, often characterised as a kind of golden age of harmony with nature and peaceful co-existence between people.

Archaeologists have for some years been squeamish about prehistoric warfare. Many seem to want to imagine that there was no such thing, and war is a product of more modern times. Others argue that war started with the growth of centralised power blocs in the Bronze Age. Some agree to push the origins of war back to the Neolithic, when settled agriculture gave groups a cause to fight as resources became jealously guarded. The Talheim massacre may have marked the end of one such conflict over livestock or land. Yet accumulating archaeological evidence shows this vision of the past is much too rosy. It now seems there never was a golden age in which conflict was unknown. In the last issue of British Archaeology, Paul Pettitt wrote of the evidence for war between the earliest modern humans in Europe and Neanderthals. We also have clear signs of conflict between modern humans as far back as the last Ice Age.

Two late Palaeolithic bodies from about 11,000 BC have been found in Italy with flint points lodged in the bones. One, from San Teodoro cave in Sicily, was a woman with a flint point in her pelvis. The other was a child with a flint point in its backbone, found in the Grotta dei Fanciulli on the Italian mainland. Whether the points were spear-tips or arrowheads is unclear. The excavators in both cases thought they were arrows.

Far more evidence comes from the Mesolithic era, beginning after the end of the last Ice Age around 10,000 BC. The first strand of evidence is weaponry. Tools interpreted as battle axes and daggers are known from parts of Europe in this period. Arrows dating from about 8500 BC have been found at Stellmoor in Germany. Axes, normally seen as workaday tools of forest clearance, may well also have been used for attack (a male burial from Møllegabet in Denmark was found with a healed axe-wound in the head). Wooden weapons such as clubs survive only by chance, and may once have been common.

Some scholars have suggested that these weapons had symbolic value only and were not used in anger. This is surely wishful thinking - for an axe can hardly symbolise power unless its use, as an enforcer of power, has been practically demonstrated.

Rock art from the coastal region of south-eastern Spain has also been cited as evidence for organised, early conflict. Drawn in red pigment on cave walls, three examples are particularly telling. All show groups of archers. At Cueva del Roure, four figures confront three archers; at Les Dogues, 11 archers in one band confront nine in another; and at El Molino de las Fuentes 15 archers are ranged on one side against 20 on the other. These remarkable paintings seem to represent nothing less than pitched battles.

The art has traditionally been interpreted as Mesolithic as it contains no representations of farming. Recently the dating has been questioned on stylistic grounds, and many scholars now regard the art as Neolithic.

The issue remains unresolved.

Human remains with spearpoints or arrowheads stuck in the bones provide the most indisputable evidence for Mesolithic warfare (see box). Such remains are widespread in Europe, from Atlantic France and Denmark in the West to the Ukraine in the East. Most date from after 7000 BC, when the number of human remains surviving from this period really takes off with the creation of cemeteries.

Alongside bows and arrows, clubs seem to have been a favourite weapon. In the early 1980s, Pia Bennicke of the University of Copenhagen studied all head injuries in the archaeological record in Denmark. She discovered that the proportion of skulls with fractures and dents was greater for the Mesolithic than for any subsequent period. Clubbing was not always fatal. Several examples of healed club injuries are known. But the evidence proves the Mesolithic was hardly a golden age of peace and universal goodwill between people.

As in Mesolithic Denmark, a high proportion of head injuries can be seen in the remains of prehistoric hunter-gatherers from California. Among these groups, fractures mostly occur among adult males, as do projectile injuries. A similar pattern has been recorded among the famously aggressive Yanomamö of the Amazon, much studied by anthropologists, where these generally non-lethal wounds have been confirmed as resulting from fighting with heavy wooden clubs.

So if conflict was widespread in the Mesolithic - perhaps for the first time in human history - what was its cause? Why did warfare begin?

Some may say that violence is fundamental to human nature. This is a notion based largely on analogies with primate behaviour. Among some primates, male competition over access to females takes a violent form, and some anthropologists have argued that this would have been the case in human prehistory. However, studies of non-western warring societies (such as the Yanomamö) suggest no such reproductive success occurs. Moreover, most of these theories are really derived from simplistic interpretations of chimpanzee behaviour which apply human notions such as warfare, so creating a circular argument.

I don't believe that warfare is inherent in human nature, or a constant feature of human history. Archaeology suggests that there have been times and places where conflict has been relatively common or uncommon.

Nor can there be any one universal cause of war. A highly developed territorial instinct has been suggested for Mesolithic groups (at least in Scandinavia) and at times, perhaps, conflicts may have arisen over land or economic resources. Such conflicts may have been most acute at the time of transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic, when incoming agriculturalists staked their claims to land. But much of the evidence for conflict dates to long before this.

Moreover, in New Guinean warfare - a classic subject of anthropological study - recent analyses suggest there is no simple relationship between land shortage and warfare, with some of the most warlike societies having fairly low population densities.

Many other causes of wars among modern hunter-gatherers have been noted. Raiding, slaving, fishing rights and individual insults are all known from anthropological accounts to have ended with fatalities.

My own belief is that warfare, in earliest prehistory, arose over matters of personal honour - such as slights, insults, marriages going wrong, or theft. In a small hunter-gatherer community, everyone is related. An attack on one group member is an attack on the whole family. A personal feud may quickly involve the whole community. From there it is a small step to war.

Killed, scalped and eaten

The remains of people who died in the Mesolithic in suspicious circumstances have been found all over Europe - in Portugal and Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden, Rumania, Greece and the Ukraine. Typically they are found with arrowheads in the back or chest, or with damaged skulls.

We can only guess at the cause of these people's deaths. Sometimes, though, the circumstances hint at a story.

At the Vedbæk cemetery on the Danish island of Zealand, an adult male was found with a bone point through the throat. He lay in a grave containing the bodies of a woman and one year-old child. They had been buried at the same time, suggesting that all three died suddenly and violently.

No obvious marks of violence were found on the woman or child, but the woman was found with a necklace of deer, pig, aurochs and human teeth around her neck and a flint knife below her jaw. Had her throat been cut, and that of the child? Had the man, a great warrior, been shot in conflict with a neighbouring group, and were they - the man's family - sacrificed to accompany him to the afterlife?

At Teviec in Brittany a male burial had two flint points embedded in his spine. Why two? Was he fleeing from more than one enemy? An outcast, perhaps, spurned and chased away by his furious community.

Some Mesolithic remains even bear the hallmarks of cannibalism. At Dyrholmen in Jutland, bones were found belonging to at least nine people. Skulls bore cutmarks suggesting scalping, and there were traces of cuts and fractures of bones - as if the assailants intended to reach the marrow.

Bones had also been broken open at Møllegabet in Denmark, and a male jaw broken to remove the front teeth. The excavator claimed that the teeth were removed to `become part of an ornament with which the victor could adorn himself'. It is a striking thought.

Nick Thorpe teaches at King Alfred's College, Winchester

On the road

New evidence suggests Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims were following a pre-Christian tradition at least 1,000 years old, writes Miranda Aldhouse Green

You can see them from afar, a band of pilgrims on the road, raising dust.

They are easy enough to identify. They wear pilgrim clothes and emblems. Some are lame and sick. They carry votive offerings; they long for healing and spiritual nourishment at the holy shrine.

Far back in the distance, you spy other groups. (This pilgrim route gets busy at high season.) And between the groups you see occasional stragglers, shuffling towards their destination on their knees. They mortify the flesh now to ensure divine favour later.

Where are we, and when? Chaucer's pilgrims travelling to Canterbury? Or 13th century devotees on route to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain? Could these, rather, be modern Christian pilgrims flocking to Lourdes? No. We are somewhere in Gaul or Roman Britain. The date is AD 100. Trajan occupies the imperial throne at Rome.

Pilgrimage, for most of us, is so firmly associated with medieval and modern Christian Europe, that it comes as something of a shock to learn of its origins in pre-Christian Roman times. We may discover, eventually, that its roots go even deeper.

My recent study of the finds from Fontes Sequanae, a remote sanctuary in Burgundy at the source of the River Seine, has produced overwhelming evidence that it was a healing centre and pilgrimage destination between the 1st-3rd centuries AD.

Roman shrines

As such it was not unique. A number of similar healing sanctuaries have been identified in Burgundy, at places such as Essarois, Beire-le-Châtel, Sainte-Sabine and Mavilly, many of which were within a day or so's walk of one another and worshippers may have followed a pilgrim route from shrine to shrine. Another great shrine existed further south, at Chamalières near Clermont-Ferrand. In Britain, the religious spa at Bath drew devotees from across Europe, while a Roman shrine is also known at Walsingham in Norfolk - a possible forerunner of the great pilgrimage centre dedicated to Our Lady of Walsingham in the Middle Ages.

What makes Fontes Sequanae unusual, however, are the remarkable pilgrim images preserved there partly as a result of waterlogging. These images suggest that some pilgrim practices in the Roman period closely resembled those of later Christian Europe.

Roman pilgrimage involved a journey. It required self-dedication and hardship. It was focused on physical as much as spiritual healing, and this was achieved through the donation of votive and thank-offerings and the wearing of particular types of clothing and emblems. Pilgrims purchased souvenirs at the shrine and carried them home - just as devotees do today at Fatima in Portugal, Greek Tinos, or Lourdes in southern France.

There is not much to see today at Fontes Sequanae. Set in upland country 20 miles north-west of Dijon - and with no modern or ancient settlements nearby - the sanctuary had been built on a series of terraces climbing a low cliff. By the time the site was investigated in the 19th century, however, many of the terraces had collapsed. No building remains survive; even the foundations are hard to decipher. The land is overgrown.

But in its heyday, Fontes Sequanae must have been a bustling, crowded place. On the left of the entrance was a shop, where craftsmen probably sat working on wooden and stone images for sale. From there, pilgrims wound up the terraced cliff-side past streams and cisterns to a dormitory building where the `sacred sleep' was taken. During this sleep, you would hope for a vision of the presiding healer-goddess. At the top of the cliff was the main sanctuary, containing a statue of the goddess, surrounded by other buildings and statuary.

Inscriptions tell us that the sanctuary was dedicated to Sequana, goddess of the Seine at its spring-source. From a 6th century reference to a St Sequanus, we know she was later usurped by Christianity (and given a sex change). Inscriptions that thank Sequana for a cure demonstrate conclusively that this was a healing centre. Medieval and present-day pilgrimage tends to be focused on sites associated with miraculous occurrences, usually linked with physical healing. The same appears to have been true in antiquity where, during the Iron Age and Roman period - particularly in Gaul and Britain - certain gods and goddesses, very often those connected with natural springs, developed a reputation for being able to cure illness.

The divine forces played a crucial therapeutic role in antiquity. Given the rudimentary nature of medical science 2,000 years ago, sick people probably relied far more on the ability of divinities than doctors to cure their afflictions. At many of the great Classical healing sanctuaries - notably at Epidaurus in Greece - physicians worked alongside the supernatural powers to alleviate disease.

Hard journey

The remoteness of Fontes Sequanae is also significant. Many centres of medieval and modern pilgrimage are situated far from settlements. Some locations might, in part, be determined by the birthplace or miracle-site of a saint, guru or prophet, but remoteness itself is important, as long journeys - especially those undertaken on foot - involve hardship. The discomfort is part of the pilgrim's self-offering to the god or holy person.

Some Christian pilgrims make their way to the sacred place on their knees, to mortify the flesh and prepare themselves for the divine experience. At the modern pilgrim-shrine of the Annunciation on the Greek island of Tinos, for example, and also at the shrine dedicated to the Virgin at Fatima, devotees process to the sanctum sanctorum on their knees. At Fatima they further discipline the flesh by allowing hot molten wax from candles to drip onto their bare hands. These disciplines were as common, or more so, in the Middle Ages.

Fontes Sequanae has produced a rich assemblage of pilgrim imagery, in wood and stone, including a large number of representations of legs and feet, some of the latter with sponges placed against the heel or with ankle-supports. These may be straightforward votives - like other images of body parts - offered up for the healing of damaged limbs; but they may also reflect the physical hardships of the journey.

We have no direct evidence for the distance that pilgrims travelled to reach the shrine, but at Bath, for example, inscriptions show that devotees had come from as far afield as Trier in the Moselle valley. This was probably not unusual.

Pilgrim outfit

A feature of many medieval and modern pilgrim traditions is the symbolic self-dedication of pilgrims by means of special clothing or some other badge of devotion. Devotees following the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela wore a distinctive badge in the form of the scallop-shell, the symbol of St James, and carried a staff with a gourd surmounted by another shell. Early modern western European pilgrims traditionally wore a broad-brimmed hat and carried a staff, being both practical equipment for travelling but also symbolic of dedication of the pilgrim to his sacred journey.

It is of particular interest, therefore, that images from Fontes Sequanae show Sequana's worshippers also wearing special dress or emblems. Many are depicted wearing a curious scarf wound around their necks; others are shown dressed in the heavy outdoor hooded Gaulish garment known as the sagum.

Most enigmatic of all are the images of young people aged about 10 to 14, who are depicted wearing a large flat disc on their chest and another on their back, hung from broad straps over their shoulders and above the waist. It appears to have no practical function whatsoever. The device appears to be unique to the site - significantly, it does not occur on depictions of young people on tombstones in the area, suggesting it was a special item intended only for use at the sanctuary.

It is noteworthy that pilgrims are depicted wearing native Gallic costume rather than Roman garb, and that the names on inscriptions are heavily weighted towards the indigenous population. This may suggest that the concept of pilgrimage was of `Celtic' inspiration and may have its origins deep in prehistory.

Many of the votive offerings dedicated to Christian saints at modern pilgrim shrines consist of models of limbs, eyes, hearts or other organs which needed to be healed. Anatomical models are common sights hung on the walls or suspended from the ceilings of Greek Orthodox monasteries, such as those on the islands of Tinos, Cyprus and Patmos.

A good example is the subterranean rock-cut shrine on the site of a spring dedicated to the Virgin Mary at Mellieha on Malta, whose walls are hung with models of hearts, eyes and limbs, together with plaster-casts from factures, photographs of X-rays and even crash helmets offered to Mary in thanks for healing miracles. The shop at the modern pilgrim shrine to Mary at Fatima sells wax model hearts and other organs, for purchase by worshippers and dedication near the ever-burning fire in which the objects are offered to the saint and the wax recycled.

Many ancient pagan centres of pilgrimage, like Epidaurus and the Italian sanctuary of Ponte di Nona near Rome, of Roman Republican date, received anatomical offerings like these. To judge by the nature of these offerings, the Italian site was famed for its cure of conditions associated with male impotence. Asclepius at Epidaurus was invoked particularly by people with ear afflictions.

Fontes Sequanae seems to have acquired a reputation for the cure of several maladies, including eye problems, goitre, polio and disorders affecting both male and female reproductive organs. The many images of babies, whose swaddling clothes reflect their extreme youth (Roman infants usually grew out of swathing-bands at two months old), suggest attempts to avert neonatal mortality or, perhaps, represent thanks for the birth of a healthy baby.

Other features at Fontes Sequanae appear to mirror cult-activity associated with pilgrimage. A processional way has been identified, leading from the swampy ground on the valley-floor outside the temple precinct up through the various terraces, over streams, past cisterns, along a designated pathway lined with stone images of adult pilgrims and children. The sacred way took the pilgrims to their ultimate destination, the fanum or holy of holies, the sacred spring and the cult-statue of the goddess Sequana.

There is also evidence that ancient pilgrims bought the same sort of souvenirs as modern pilgrims. Today, visitors to religious spas may buy bottled holy water to take home. A silver drinking cup of Roman date from Santander in northern Spain bears an inscription dedicating the cup to Salus, or Health, at the nearby sacred spring site of Umeri, and the cup is decorated with images including a scene showing holy spring water being bottled for sale.

Wood and stone

One of the curious features of Sequana's sanctuary is the presence of two distinct assemblages of pilgrim imagery - one carved in wood, the other in stone - found in separate areas of the site.

The wooden images are clustered in the waterlogged ground outside the temple precinct; those of stone only occur inside the sacred enclosure, along the processional way and on the uppermost terrace near to Sequana's inner sanctum. It could be argued that wooden sculptures might once have been present within the temple grounds but have not survived. However, no stone iconography has been found in the boggy area outside the temple and must always have been restricted to the interior.

To underline this distinction, pilgrims represented on the stone images wear indoor clothing; while many of those represented in wood wear outdoor clothing.

This different positioning suggests that the images may reflect differences in cult practice. By analogy with current thinking about the symbolic properties of stone and wood in Neolithic Britain, it may be that the organic wooden pilgrim images represent an allegory of mutability and instability, while the stone of the internal carvings was thought appropriate to the transformed worshippers, as they were changed into a permanent state of healed transcendence in the presence of the goddess.

Miranda Aldhouse Green is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Wales, Newport. Her book, `Pilgrims in Stone: stone images from the Gallo-Roman sanctuary of Fontes Sequanae' was published last year as British Archaeological Report IS No 754

Viking Christians & Christian Picts

The Vikings and Picts brought a 9th century Christian `Reformation' to parts of Britain. Martin Carver looks at the new evidence

The one thing everyone knows about the Vikings is that they were the archetypal pagans - demonic warriors from the sea, sworn enemies of Christianity who sacked monasteries, violated nuns and slaughtered monks. It took a century of settlement in Britain, or so the story goes, before they were eventually converted from their pagan ways by the godly Saxons of Wessex.

But was it really like that? As settlers in eastern Britain in the 9th century, the Vikings do indeed seem to have been opposed to monasteries and bishops. They disliked the apparatus of state-sponsored religion. But they were not against Christianity as such. In fact, the evidence indicates they encouraged a new form of independent, `secular' Christianity in Britain that was to have a profound influence here ever since.

Further north, in north-eastern Scotland, the Picts appear to have followed a similar line.

We learn little about this unorthodox form of Christianity from contemporary historical records, which were largely composed under the aegis of the Church. Archaeological evidence, however, tells its own tale. It appears that local potentates asserted their independence from Rome and the monastic orders by appointing their own ministers, bearing the cost of putting up a church or a carved stone, and at the same time enhancing the prestige of their own family in monuments - a way of thinking widely regarded as being an invention of the Reformation.

Interestingly, just as at the Reformation, the secular approach to Christianity in the 9th century is also, in places, accompanied by a kind of 9th century `dissolution of the monasteries'. Early Christianity was rife with arguments about how life should be organised and the Almighty worshipped. In matters of ecclesiastical structure, hints are given in the documentary record about the divided preferences of people in Britain. A monastic system was favoured in the Celtic west, and an episcopal system in the English south, with Northumbria trying to reconcile the two.

Whatever the exegetical justification for bishops and abbots, the main practical difference between the two systems lay in the way each was funded. The episcopal system took tithes, the monastic required a grant of land. Funding the third, non-centrist form of religious structure must have depended on the income and attitude of the local lord. No doubt these fiscal aspects played a role in determining which system was favoured within a given area.

How do we recognise the archaeological signs of these three different positions? Monasteries have long been identified by the oval or semi-circular enclosure associated with several known monasteries in Ireland, Iona, and elsewhere. But a number of such enclosures have given radiocarbon dates in the prehistoric period, suggesting that prehistoric strongholds were later adapted for Christian missions - as were some Roman forts in the south and east.

Episcopal centres can probably be recognised as an ecclesiastical investment in the Roman monumental style - seen, for example, in the early churches on the site of Canterbury Cathedral, or more spectacularly on the continent at Geneva.

The independent form of Christianity, by contrast, is revealed by a pattern of singular monuments, either sculpture or small churches, located not in major ecclesiastical centres but in dispersed estates. Where this pattern can be seen, I believe that ecclesiastical power was harnessed to the secular power of local lords.

Perhaps the most remarkable evidence in Britain survives in York and East Yorkshire. A recent survey of early medieval religious sculpture from the region by the late Jim Lang found two distinct phases. Seven sites, he found, contained 15 decorated stones datable to the 7th-8th century, ten of which were shared between the monasteries of Lastingham and Hackness. By contrast, 120 stones of the 9th-11th centuries (the Viking period) were shared between 30 sites, of which only two, Hovingham and Lastingham, were active in the previous phase.

Although we are dealing in both cases with Christian monuments, the change in their type and distribution is striking. The sponsorship of sculpture in the 7th-8th centuries was apparently concentrated in monasteries, but in the Anglo-Scandinavian period we find a carved monument in every village, many of them displaying a strikingly unorthodox repertoire of motifs.

The change in pattern, with what seems to be an associated 9th century `dissolution of the monasteries', is not anti-Christian. But it must denote a change in political thinking, favouring the replacement of a centralised kingdom served by an orthodox authority, with a web of small lordships, each responsible for religious observation in their own area.

These thoughts, presaged years ago by Jim Lang and Rosemary Cramp, arose from recent work at the site of a possible Pictish monastery at Portmahomack on the Tarbat peninsula in Easter Ross, on the northern shore of the Moray Firth, where I have been excavating since 1996.

The Tarbat peninsula lies within an area traditionally regarded as the heartland of the northern Picts. Based on documentary sources, we had expected to find somewhere in Pictland a Northumbrian monastic foundation dating from the early 8th century; and this I believe we found at Portmahomack last year (see BA, October), with evidence of rectangular buildings.

The Tarbat peninsula, however, has long been famous for its large Pictish carved stones of the highest quality, for example at Hilton of Cadboll, Nigg, Shandwick, Rosemarkie and now at Portmahomack. The dates of these great memorial stones are late 8th or early 9th century. The range of everyday outdoor activities represented on them includes fighting, hunting, dancing and playing trumpets. The impression, if not wholly secular, is certainly not resoundingly monastic in tone.

The evidence from Tarbat recalls that of East Yorkshire. We appear to have a monastic phase in the 8th century succeeded within 100 years by a period of `privatised' Christianity. Carved religious monuments now marked the centres or boundaries of a number of small but wealthy estates, within an area that need have had no king, no established church, and maintained its independence from power blocs in England, Scotland and continental Europe.

At some stage, however, the power of these new Pictish individualists came to an end. So far, we have found more than 145 pieces of broken-up sculpture at Portmahomack, some associated with a layer of burning which lies directly over the supposed monastic buildings, and some in the foundations of the nearby church of St Colman. These fragments include simple grave markers, which might be signs of monastic Christianity, and parts of the great memorial stones which we believe had a secular sponsor. The monastery and the secular memorials were broken at the same time.

Who was responsible for this destruction, and when, has yet to be resolved. But for the present, we should consider the possibility that Vikings and Picts had similar views on the role of Christianity. These could be said to favour freedom of thought and political and economic independence from over-mighty European power centres such as Rome. It is an attitude that sounds strangely familiar today.

Martin Carver is Professor of Archaeology at the University of York

Great sites: Wharram Percy

A deserted village excavation in Yorkshire transformed our understanding of medieval peasant life, writes James Bond

Until about 50 years ago, we knew next to nothing about how most people lived their lives in the Middle Ages. Medieval history focused on the documents of the lords and masters. The bulk of the population, the rural peasantry, were regarded as beneath serious scholarly consideration - perhaps even historically unreachable, the evidence of their lives being lost for good.

The physical remains that survive in England of deserted medieval villages and abandoned `ridge and furrow' strip fields were simply unrecognised for what they were.

Numerous assumptions were nonetheless made about medieval rural life. Among them was the idea that village existence was relentlessly grim for most peasants, lived out in meagre hovels at barely a subsistence level.

Another assumption was that the basic geography of rural England - a network of nucleated villages surrounded by open fields - had remained more or less fixed since early Anglo-Saxon times. New village foundations were rare, as were reorganisations and desertions. Oh, how little we then knew.

The one excavation that, above all others, transformed our understanding of this period was the work which began in 1950 at Wharram Percy, a deserted village in the Yorkshire Wolds. Wharram was then little more than a field of humps and bumps surrounding a decaying church in a remote valley about a mile from the nearest metalled road. Few scholars paid it any attention.

There was one man, however, who saw its potential. Maurice Beresford had already begun his pioneering work on medieval landscape remains, identifying deserted villages and fields in the Midlands. He came to Wharram to prove his case once and for all. In 1952 he was joined as co-director by John Hurst. And so began a great research project that lasted 40 years in the field and revolutionised medieval and landscape archaeology.

One of John Hurst's catch-phrases during the excavations was `It's bound to rain' - regardless of how sunny and optimistic the weather forecast had been. A second catch-phrase was `Another first for Wharram'. With this phrase, at least, he was accurate. Wharram saw the first ever excavation of a medieval peasant house; the first complete excavation of a parish church; the first recovery of a large medieval population from a cemetery. So important are these remains that they are still the subject of study.

Clean living

Far from living in hovels, Wharram showed that peasants in a remote Yorkshire village in the high Middle Ages lived in long, spacious, well-built houses. These were kept meticulously clean - so clean that the floors became dished from regular sweeping. A level of sophistication in the detailing of these houses was implied by the discovery of latches and locks for doors, windows and furniture.

The excavations recovered numerous items of dress adornment - bronze buckles, strap ends and the like - and large numbers of coins. We learned, therefore, that the medieval countryside was not a subsistence economy but a monetary economy, in which the wealthier peasants had plenty of money to take to market to buy goods for the home.

Towards the end of the village's life in the early 16th century, houses had stone footings. Previously they were built of wood. The ephemeral nature of these timber remains, consisting of small post-holes and the delicate traces of wattle-and-daub walls, required an excavation record at an unprecedented level of detail. Every feature was mapped stone by stone, with the 3-D recording in situ of every find including pottery. Today this approach is commonplace; then it was new.

The effect of this detailed record was that early interpretations could be challenged decades later. At first, the constant replacement of wattle panels was interpreted to mean that earlier medieval houses were flimsy, and in need of constant rebuilding. Recent work by Stuart Wrathmell, however, has established that Wharram's houses were cruck buildings. The walls were not structural supports, and replacement of wattle panels implies repair rather than rebuilding. Wharram's timber houses, it seemed, were substantial and stood for two centuries or more.

It had been thought that early Saxon villages were planted in `virgin' landscape, and that plans changed little over subsequent centuries other than by outward expansion. Wharram showed this was not the case. Originally it was a dispersed settlement of Saxon farmsteads, at least three of which showed some continuity of occupation since Romano-British times. Wharram became a nucleated `village' only around the time of the Norman Conquest, with two parallel rows of tofts and crofts flanking a street-green.

At roughly the same time the ancient fields were reorganised into a regular open-field system. This pattern of late nucleation has since been identified, or postulated, for hundreds of English villages elsewhere.

New housing

At some time in the 13th century, Wharram was replanned - again, providing the first firm archaeological evidence for such a procedure. The earthworks had suggested a manorial compound at the north end of the village, but excavations revealed a second, abandoned 12th century manor house underneath a sequence of peasant houses - a complete surprise.

From the mid-14th century, when the village population had begun to shrink after the Black Death, some properties were amalgamated, and a new type of courtyard farm was built alongside the older longhouses. Far from being static and immutable, the medieval English village was revealed as having a history of constant change.

Wharram's redundant parish church provided an unprecedented opportunity for the total excavation of a church interior, including its vanished side aisles and former extended chancel, and over 700 burials from the churchyard. Few other churches have been studied in such detail.

It revealed what is now regarded as a classic sequence of English parish church development. A small timber Anglo-Saxon church was replaced in stone in the Norman period. It expanded with side aisles and a longer chancel in the 12th-13th centuries, and contracted again in the 15th century.

At first this growth and contraction was thought to reflect the fluctuating size of the village population. More recently that interpretation has been replaced, or supplemented, by one based on changing liturgical requirements. Side aisles were built to accommodate newly fashionable privately-endowed altars, while the extended chancel was needed for a more elaborate liturgy.

Human remains

The human remains from Wharram remain one of the largest lay medieval skeleton assemblages available for study. Many of the findings have been unsurprising - fractures were not always well set, tooth decay was common, and so on - but other discoveries have been more intriguing. A1995 study found the level of left-handedness at Wharram to be, at 16 per cent, twice the modern world average. This was said to suggest a `natural' level of left-handedness in a society without social pressure to favour the right. A study in 1997 indicated that Wharram's remote rural population may have eaten as much seafish as the citizens of York. That implied more regular contact with the outside world than expected.

Wharram Percy will always be regarded as a classic site for medieval archaeology. Perhaps a measure of the achievement is that the village site itself was taken into state guardianship in 1974, and is now preserved for public enjoyment.

James Bond is a freelance landscape archaeologist based in Somerset. He worked at Wharram Percy in 1968

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© Council for British Archaeology and individual authors, 2000