English Landscapes & Identities Project


The English Landscapes and Identities project

Since the early 1990s, when archaeological investigation was made a routine aspect of development and construction work in many European countries, the amount of archaeological data available to researchers has increased exponentially. Now, almost a quarter of a century later, a number of research projects are taking place that are trying to find new ways of dealing with this ‘Big Data’. One of these is entitled Landscapes and Identities: The case of the English landscape c. 1500 BC – AD 1086, aka the English Landscapes and Identities project, or ‘EngLaId’ (http://www.arch.ox.ac.uk/englishlandscapes-introduction.html). Funded by the European Research Council, this 5-year project headed by Professor Chris Gosden is based at the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, and is scheduled to finish in December 2016. As the title suggests, its aim is to investigate the long-term history of the English landscape from the middle Bronze Age to the period of the Domesday survey of AD 1086, combining a broad-brush nationwide analysis with more targeted regional case studies. The analyses are structured around seven broad themes: 1) identity; 2) temporal patterning (or ‘continuity’ vs ‘change’); 3) spatial patterning; 4) landscape ‘force’ (or ‘agency’); 5) mobility; 6) scale; and 7) relating datasets. The project currently employs five research specialists: Anwen Cooper (prehistory), Chris Gosden (later prehistory), Zena Kamash (Roman), Letty ten Harkel (early medieval) and Chris Green (GIS), and 3 doctoral (DPhil) students: Dan Stansbie (researching changing consumption practices), Sarah Mallet (studying isotopic data) and Victoria Donnelly (studying the role of grey literature in English archaeology). A project artist, Miranda Creswell, is also involved (see http://englaid.com/visual-blog/ for updates on her work).

During the first 18 months of the project, the researchers focused on gathering a mass of digital data from a number of sources into a single database, which is linked to a Geographical Information System (GIS), a mapping platform that allows for spatial analyses. Amongst the most important data sources feeding into the project are county-based Historic Environment Records (HERs; more than 80 in total), which archive the results of archaeological investigations at a regional level. Repositories of nationwide data include English Heritage’s National Record for the Historic Environment (NRHE) and National Mapping Programme (NMP), listing the results of aerial survey; the Archaeological Investigations Programme (AIP), which details developer-funded investigations from 1990 to 2010; and the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), which catalogues on-going discoveries of portable material culture made by members of the public, mostly metal-detectorists. Thus the data that informs the analyses of the EngLaId researchers varies both in character and in recovery method, on the one hand providing a more balanced view of the past, but on the other hand also bringing considerable challenges, which have been explored during the first part of the project under the broad thematic heading of ‘relating datasets’ (Cooper and Green forthcoming, ‘‘The good, the bad and the ugly’? History and relationships in archaeological data: the case of the English Landscape and Identities project’). With over 800,000 records in its database, the EngLaId project is unprecedented in terms of the scale of the undertaking, and it is beyond the scope of the current context to discuss all of its aspects (but see Cooper and Green forthcoming, ‘‘The good, the bad and the ugly’? History and relationships in archaeological data: the case of the English Landscape and Identities project’; Gosden, C. and L. ten Harkel. 2011. ‘English Landscapes and Identities. The Early Medieval Landscape: a perspective from the past’, Medieval Settlement Research 26, 1-10; Gosden, C., A. Cooper, M. Creswell, C. Green, L. ten Harkel, Z. Kamash, L. Morley, J. Pybus and X. Xiong, 2012. ‘The English Landscape and Identities Project’, Antiquity 86 (332). Available at http://www.antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/gosden332/; Landscapes 14 (1), 2013. This themed issue published the proceedings of a workshop on ‘landscape and scale’, organised by the EngLaId team in June 2012; Ten Harkel, L. 2013. ‘Landscapes and Identities: the case of the English landscape c. 1500 BC – AD 1986’, Post-Classical Archaeologies 3: 349-56). This brief discussion will therefore focus on some issues pertaining to the later part of the chronological range, the early medieval period.

A major survey of the English landscape that had a far-reaching influence on the conception of the EngLaId project from an early medieval perspective was Roberts and Wrathmell’s retrospective analysis of settlement patterns in England (Roberts, B. and Wrathmell, S. 2000. An Atlas of Rural Settlement in England. London: English Heritage; Roberts, B. and Wrathmell, S. 2002. Region and Place: A Study of English Rural Settlement. London: English Heritage). Taking 1st-edition Ordnance Survey maps as their starting point, Roberts and Wrathmell identified three distinct settlement zones across England – a central zone of nucleated villages flanked by two zones of more dispersed settlement forms – and, by reference to place names and the Domesday survey of AD 1086, they traced elements of these patterns back into the early medieval period. In terms of research methodology, their work differs greatly from the three other major surveys that fed into the initial conception of the EngLaId project – namely, Taylor’s Atlas of Roman Rural Settlement (London: English Heritage, 2007), and Yates’s (Landscape, Power and Prestige. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2007) and Bradley’s (The Prehistory of Britain and Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) overviews of prehistoric data – since the latter were based entirely on excavated evidence rather than on tracing later cartographic data, place names and historical material back through time. This difference in methodology is not a result of a lack of early medieval archaeological data: of the various archaeological records in the EngLaId database, 11.1% include securely dated results from the early medieval period, compared to 12.0% for the Iron Age and 11.4% for the Bronze Age; only the Roman period stands out with a total of 39.6%. Instead, it reflects broader modern-day perceptions of the significance of the early medieval period in England’s longer-term history.

The latter part of the early Middle Ages – from c. AD 850 onwards – has traditionally been associated with the emergence of the villages and open fields that came to characterise the post-medieval and ultimately the modern landscape of England. The development of this landscape occurred roughly contemporaneously with the development of a growing sense of ‘Englishness’ as a result of the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms under the descendants of King Alfred. A strong association therefore developed in historical research between the village and English identity; this was particularly deeply rooted in 18th– and 19th-century romantic nationalism, which had a lasting influence on landscape studies until at least the middle decades of the 20th century (a well-known example is W.G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1955). Due to this view of the early medieval period as formative in the creation of the present-day landscape, research into the early medieval period has tended to look forwards in time, to the here and now, rather than to preceding periods.

Recently, amongst researchers there has been a growing realisation that the early medieval landscape itself had developed out of earlier landscapes (e.g. Rippon S., Smart, C., Pears, B. and Fleming, F, ‘The fields of Britannia: continuity and discontinuity in the pays and regions of Roman Britain.’ Landscapes 14.1: 33-53, 2013). Because of its long-term chronological focus, the EngLaId project is excellently placed to address such issues of continuity and/or change, and to bridge the gap between the different research traditions that characterise early medieval and earlier landscape studies. The nucleated village has therefore formed a particular focus of the project. This settlement form combined a nucleated community of the living with a nucleated community of the dead (in the village churchyard) in a hitherto unprecedented manner (Gosden, C. and L. ten Harkel, ‘English Landscapes and Identities. The Early Medieval Landscape: a perspective from the past’, Medieval Settlement Research 26, 1-10, 2011) but this was not a development that took place everywhere in England, with more dispersed communities continuing to exist in large parts of the country to a much later date. The EngLaId project will address several questions in this context, each relating to the analytical themes outlined above. These include examining the importance of landscape and topography in determining differences between settlement patterns in different areas; relative levels of nucleation and dispersal on different scales of analysis; the effect that the coming together of the living and the dead in a single nucleated settlement – as opposed to these communities being more spread out across the landscape – may have had on people’s movement through the landscape; and, ultimately, the effect that this had on the identities of different communities.

With more than two and a half years left, analysis is currently still in its early stages, but it is possible to keep up to date with developing methodology and initial results via the EngLaId blog (http://englaid.com) or twitter (@englaid_oxford). For more information, please contact the author at the email address listed below, or Laura Morley (the project administrator and research co-ordinator) at laura.morley@arch.ox.ac.uk.

Letty ten Harkel
Early medieval researcher
English Landscapes and Identities project
Institute of Archaeology
University of Oxford

Image: A pencil drawing of Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland, by Miranda Creswell.

The views, perspectives, and opinions expressed here and by those providing comments are those of the author(s) and commentator(s) alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Dissertation Reviews, its members, editors, or advisory board members.

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