British Archaeology, no 9, November 1995: Features

This text is also available online in Romanian, translation by Alexander Ovsov.

Using SMR data for research is hard work, finds Timothy Darvill

Researching archaeology? That's tough

Anyone hunting for archaeological information who visited their local Sites and Monuments Record recently, or the National Monuments Record in Swindon, may have been surprised at what they found.

In an age when computers trap, process and spit out data faster than a fox through a chicken coop, one might have thought that information about archaeological sites could quickly be retrieved, displayed, and plotted on a map. But even these simple tasks are not universally possible at a local level, let alone for the country as a whole.

A report by management consultants Roger Tym & Partners and Pagoda Associates, published earlier this year by English Heritage, concluded that much needed to be done to improve Sites and Monuments Records (SMRs), especially in the mapping of sites. The focus of the report was the implementation of PPG16 and the integration of archaeology in planning - the primary raison d'etre for SMRs.

But what of the use of these records for bigger research questions?

The Monuments at Risk Survey (MARS), funded by English Heritage, is one of the largest archaeological research projects in England (see Antiquity, December 1994, for its background). With a remit to provide a census of the past and present condition of archaeological sites throughout England, its starting point was the information in national and local records. In the 15 months since MARS began, there have been opportunities to see both the difficulties and the potential of gathering and using the accumulated data.

One major problem is the sheer volume of information. Nationally, there are over 650,000 records logged onto SMRs - over double the number 10 years ago - with the likelihood that there will be over a million records by the early 21st century. This is a veritable achievement for County Archaeologists and their assistants, but the downside is that so much information has been gathered locally, without overall co-ordination, that there is no such thing as a fully comprehensive integrated national archaeological database.

Anticipating this situation in 1993, the English Royal Commission developed the idea of an `extended national record', being the combination of centrally and locally held records. What this means in practice, however, is that anyone looking for nation-wide information in England has to approach not only the National Monuments Record (NMR), but also the 46 county-based SMRs and a handful of district and borough SMRs, in order to ensure that nothing is missed.

In a way, SMRs have become victims of their own success. Because so much work has been done at local level, each SMR has become increasingly idiosyncratic. It is this which makes stitching together the national picture so difficult. SMRs are diverse in form and often incompatible with one another. They differ, for example, in such fundamentals as the cut-off date for remains catalogued, and what is regarded as sufficiently significant to include.

Moreover, many SMRs are still a long way from being fully computerised. Two still use card-indexes as their primary record; a number of others are only semi-computerised.

Despite much expansion and recasting, some records have never been checked. A typical example, among many, was a medieval timber-framed house added to the SMR from an unchecked source. When visited, the house was found to be brick-built with a date-stone reading 1846.

The MARS project has found that with perseverance, and the help of dedicated researchers and some skilled computer programmers, it is possible, just, to build up national pictures from these disparate sources. But for them to be widely usable by others, attention must now be directed to making the process easier.

Geographical Information Systems (GIS) provide a way forward for SMRs, for research as also for land-use planning. These can combine computerised maps with text, photographs, and other kinds of graphic image. Most importantly, GIS systems can manipulate different kinds of data for a variety of purposes.

But before the powerful new engine of GIS is hitched to a rickety old cart, there is a need for more strategic thinking by national bodies, greater co-operation and discussion between the creators, curators and users of the records, and fresh research and development.

The aim should be to develop GIS-based records which operate at common standards, meet national and local needs, and allow the idea of an extended national record useful for both planning and research to become a reality.

Prof Timothy Darvill is Director of the MARS project at Bournemouth University, assisted by Andrew Fulton, Nicola King and Mark Bell

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`New farming was uncommon before about 1850, writes Susanna Wade Martins

Slowly came the farming revolution

The century 1780-1880 is generally seen as the era of the `agricultural revolution', when great progress was made in farming techniques, and the modern `scientific' approach to farming began.

Yet much of our evidence for the agricultural revolution is based on the writings of the enthusiastic improvers themselves, and it is difficult to know, from these writings, how far new ideas percolated through the farming community as a whole.

The study of farm buildings, however, can shed light on how widely some of the new scientific approaches to farming were adopted. Farm buildings are indicators of change because the new farming methods demanded new types of building such as improved livestock accommodation, and fixed power sources such as horse gins, water wheels and steam engine houses. Farms containing such buildings are often referred to as `model' or `planned' farms, because they were built as a whole and concisely laid out by an architect or agricultural engineer. They fall into two main phases.

The first phase covers the period from 1780 up to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. This was a time of high grain prices and rising rents, when landowners hoped to bring marginal land into grain production. High yields needed plenty of manure, usually produced in strawed cattle yards. Planned farms were thus ideal, built typically around a courtyard with large barns and plenty of provision for cattle. Gentry-style houses were built to attract men of capital, who were needed by landowners to invest in intensive farming.

However in Norfolk, where my work has concentrated so far, such farms are confined to the home farms of the great estates such as Holkham, Houghton, and the Jerningham estate at Costessey, where buildings by architects Samuel Wyatt, William Kent and John Soane are found. Tenant farmers, who comprised the vast majority of farmers, could only obtain new buildings, and adopt the new farming ways, if their landlords were prepared to pay. And only rarely were tenant farmers provided with architect-designed farms.

Leicester Square at South Creake (on the Holkham Estate), for instance, was designed by Samuel Wyatt; but why this infertile farm was picked out for such grandiose treatment is a mystery. Possibly it was simply that Wyatt was working on the estate at the time the decision was made to rebuild the farm.

The second phase of model farm building began with the emergence of `high farming', particularly after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, and reached a climax in the years of growing confidence in farming around 1850. High farming was an intensely capitalised system of agriculture, a high-input, high-output method benefitting from increased scientific understanding of the value of manures and fertilisers.

The buildings associated with this method can be found in elaborate farmsteads, often containing covered yards, loose boxes for cattle, and water, steam and horse engines for threshing and feed preparation. These farmsteads differed from earlier ones in that they were often built by agricultural engineers rather than architects, incorporating such labour-saving devices as tramways derived from the world of industry.

The advantages of this intensive, industrial-style farming were widely publicised, but some historians believe it was an expensive and fanciful irrelevancy, which was not widely adopted. However, work in Norfolk suggests, on the contrary, that the buildings for high farming were not confined to the very rich. At least a dozen surviving examples of elaborate farmsteads have so far been located across the county, only a third of them on great estates and only two in the `progressive' north west. By the mid 19th century, landowners across the county were investing in agricultural improvement, ensuring only then that the agricultural revolution would be carried through to success.

Dr Susanna Wade Martins is a Research Associate at the University of East Anglia. She is currently working on a survey of planned and model farms throughout England for English Heritage, and would welcome any information on the subject from readers. Information should be sent c/o British Archaeology.

For the idea that the agricultural revolution began in some areas in the 16th century, see British Archaeology, April 1995 and June 1995.

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The purpose of rock art is growing clearer, explains Richard Bradley

Making sense of prehistoric rock art

There are two questions that people often ask when faced with an abstract painting. Is it art? And what does it mean? The same questions come to mind when we look at prehistoric rock carvings.

On many natural outcrops in northern Britain there are carvings of abstract designs which seem to have been created between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago. The Ordnance Survey describes them as `cup marks' or `cups and rings', but for an increasing number of archaeologists they are better thought of as `rock art'. The choice of names is significant because it sums up the distinction between two very different approaches to the past.

`Cup mark' is a neutral term, but it is also one which discourages any attempt at interpretation, as if such abstract symbols were beyond the reach of archaeology - either impossible to understand or just ancient graffiti. `Rock art' is not an ideal description either, but at least it suggests that these motifs were organised in a coherent way.

There are several reasons for believing this was the case. The motifs chiefly appear on exposed surfaces in northern England, Scotland, and Ireland, but their organisation seems to have been governed by simple rules. For example, they are usually located on horizontal or gently sloping surfaces. Also, the simplest motifs, cup marks, can be enclosed by as many as eight concentric rings; and the greater the number of rings, the more likely it is that motifs will be joined together to form a more elaborate design.

In most areas the simpler designs tend to be found on boulders and the more complex compositions on outcrops, but this is not because the outcrops afforded more space for decoration. On both kinds of rock part of the surface was usually left intact.

It seems more likely that the choice between simple or complex designs depends on the position of the sites in the landscape. The more complex carvings can generally be seen from a greater distance and are visible over more of the surrounding area. The simple motifs, by contrast, are frequently on the lower ground, in areas which would have been suited to year-round occupation.

In Strath Tay, for instance, it is just where simple rock carvings are found that scatters of worked quartz have been discovered. On higher ground, the results of fieldwalking suggest the more complicated carvings were located on the outer edges of the settled landscape. The same may be true in south-west Scotland where some of the most complex designs are found near to waterholes. It may be that these were situated in areas that were used intermittently, in the course of hunting expeditions or seasonal grazing. At all events they are sometimes located in areas that were unsuitable for sustained exploitation.

That might suggest these more complex designs were boundary marks, but this would hardly explain why the same motifs are also occasionally found associated with monuments within the settled landscape, and on other media such as ceramics. Perhaps the creators of the carvings wanted the margins of the landscape to be protected by sacred symbols that could be recognised because they were also associated with monuments. Alternatively the most elaborate images, carrying the greatest weight of meaning, might have been created well away from settlement sites so they could only be viewed by a restricted section of the community.

Rock art is also associated with groups of ritual monuments and burials. Such sites include henges, stone circles and round barrows, and are best represented in the Milfield basin in Northumberland and Kilmartin Glen in Argyll. In such cases the area around a major group of monuments includes a concentration of particularly complex carvings. In both regions the major monuments occupy a lowland basin bordered by a horizon of hills. The rock carvings are some distance away from these sites and are generally distributed towards the outer edges of the landscape, where they overlook the valleys that provide access from the surrounding area.

Ruth Saunders, a Reading University student, has shown that the main groups of rock art along the route leading towards the Milfield basin are intervisible with one another, so that travellers might approach each of them in turn. It may be no accident that they are found in places where the vista changes, and where the next group of carvings along that route comes into view.

Occasionally there are even closer links between these different phenomena. One of the carvings close to Kilmartin includes the same unusual motifs as the Temple Wood stone circle in the heart of the monument complex. In the same way, a cup-marked stone was buried at the centre of one of the henges in the Milfield basin.

In other cases there was a still more direct link between open air carvings and monuments. For some time it has been recognised that the burial cists found beneath Early Bronze Age cairns include some decorated slabs. But very few of these seem to have been created for the purpose, for often the carvings were weathered before they were built into these monuments; and in other cases the decoration was truncated when the stone was trimmed to fit the grave.

Although it is sometimes claimed that the inclusion of decorated stones in cairns happened by accident, I am not convinced by that argument. Far from reusing any fragment that came to hand, the people who built these cists preferred pieces with cups and rings to slabs carrying simpler motifs. Where they could, they even selected stones decorated with non-standard motifs that are also found on megalithic monuments. It seems far more likely that fragments of already-carved rock were removed from decorated outcrops for use in the burial rite. Again, there seem to have been certain conventions governing which kinds of carvings were to be selected.

Lastly, there are cases in which rock art is associated with distinctive features of the natural topography. On the coast, important groups of carvings are associated with estuaries, harbours, and landing-places, whilst similar motifs occur in inland areas associated with lakes and rivers. There are other groups of carvings located in mountain passes. Decorated rock shelters are found in north-east England, two of them containing Early Bronze Age burials, and elsewhere motifs are carved close to waterfalls. At three sites the decoration even extends to cliffs or gorges, and here the choice of motifs echoes the distinctive images found in megalithic tombs. Rock carvings are recorded in many different areas, from the Kyle of Tongue in Sutherland to Tintagel in Cornwall, but in every case they are located according to the same broad conventions.

So there is some order in the ways in which rock carvings were composed, located, and used, and that underlying order is why it is useful to describe them as `art' (in a limited sense of the term). But the very specialised contexts in which these designs appear also suggest why it is so difficult to say what they meant.

Archaeologists have taken little interest in British rock art because the motifs are entirely abstract. They lack the vivid imagery found in southern Europe or Scandinavia, where there are numerous drawings of people and animals. Perhaps abstract motifs were chosen because their meanings were never meant to be disclosed to the casual observer. The use of such a specialised vocabulary would have ensured that access to that information could be carefully controlled.

If that is true, another implication follows. Far from representing a rather bland collection of doodles, British rock art may have had more significance than we often suppose. These carvings are contemporary with passage graves in Ireland and henges in northern Britain, so we should not be surprised to find that they were the work of a society in which sacred knowledge was important.

Rock art is almost the only medium that links the archaeology of monuments to the study of the prehistoric landscape, for both monuments and outcrops in the landscape were embellished with the same motifs. The carvings gave meaning to features of the natural terrain and imbued them with some of the significance that archaeologists ascribe to monumental architecture.

Richard Bradley is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading

Update: Recent work by Richard Bradley has shown that the kerbstone at Clava NE Cairn was, in fact, carved when the cairn was built or before, but no later.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1995

This text is also available online in Romanian, translation by Alexander Ovsov.