Years of pestilence
The medieval fleet
Editor Simon Denison
This ancient land
Tom Williamson on his discovery that Iron Age field patterns still survive in the modern Norfolk landscape
My favourite find was a huge prehistoric landscape in south Norfolk, surviving in the form of modern roads and field boundaries. This happened in the late 1980s when I'd just moved to Norwich for my first job as a lecturer at the University of East Anglia.
By then I was already what I am now - a kind of landscape junkie. I love rural landscapes. I love teasing out the meaning of them, and understanding whether they are designed or organic or a bit of both. So I wanted to immerse myself in the Norfolk landscape, and chose an area of 'ancient countryside' (small hedged fields with scattered hamlets and no strong tradition of medieval open field agriculture and little late enclosure) near the River Waveney, which is the boundary between Norfolk and Suffolk.
In some respects the landscape of the area was similar to that of parts of rural Essex which Warwick Rodwell and Paul Drury had already argued were probably Iron Age rather than medieval in origin.
So I went to the Record Office in Norwich, got out all the early estate maps for the area going back in some cases into the 16th century, made a massive composite map, and then removed all boundaries of medieval or later date - such as the curving boundaries of a landscape park, or fields which have names indicative of medieval woodland clearance. It would be easier now with computers, but I was transcribing all the detail by hand on a scale of 1:10,000. It took ages.
Anyway, a wonderful pattern emerged which showed a parallel (or 'coaxial') network of roads and field boundaries running from the Waveney floodplain for more than 10km northwards up onto the watershed on the boulder clay plateau above. A Roman road (the present A140 from Caister-by-Norwich to Coddenham in Suffolk) utterly disregards this landscape, smashing through it as though it wasn't there.
Shortly afterwards I went to a conference, and immediately before my lecture Andrew Fleming talked about the Bronze Age coaxial field systems he'd identified on Dartmoor - the famous Dartmoor reeves. He put this slide up, and to my amazement his pattern looked just the same as mine. My immediate response was that in Norfolk we had something in hedged form analogous to the Dartmoor reeves, a big organised field system, and I merrily went into print saying as much.
But then it gradually dawned on me that this wasn't actually a big planned field system - it was simply too big. The most continuous and prominent features in the system, as in coaxial field systems elsewhere in England, are the tracks running at right angles to the river valley up to the high ground. So I think this 'system' began as a semi-regulated network of trackways for the movement of livestock, wood and timber to and from upland areas, which were themselves divided up by a sparse network of boundaries. Much of today's field pattern was created by the subsequent subdivision and infilling of this early landscape.
Even so, the pattern I detected on maps did seem to provide clear, albeit 'soft', evidence for the survival of prehistoric field systems in Norfolk. Since then, rather 'harder' evidence has been found that dates very similar coaxial patterns that I've mapped in Hertfordshire to late prehistory.
A recent excavation by Charles Le Quesne at the Grove, an 18th century landscape park on the dip slope of the Chilterns, discovered a network of lost coaxial ditches which directly continue the pattern in the surrounding countryside, and which have early Iron Age pottery in their lower fill.
And surveys by the county archaeologist, Stuart Bryant, have shown that a coaxial system coming up out of the Lea Valley south of Hertford survives underneath (ie, predates) a massive area of semi-natural 'ancient' woodland which probably originated as post-Roman regeneration over abandoned land.
Despite this evidence, a lot of academics don't believe that field boundaries can date back to prehistory. I have had terrible arguments with people about this. But given the fieldwalking and aerial photography evidence for a countryside stuffed with people by the Roman period, to me the idea that somehow the whole landscape was wiped clean and everything started anew in the Anglo-Saxon period is crackers. It just doesn't make any sense.
Tom Williamson is a Lecturer in Landscape Archaeology at the University of East Anglia
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005