Classic review: The History of the Countryside

Of course I had consulted it. Of course I’d cited it. But it’s taken a while to sit down and read it – properly, finally – from cover to cover. And it feels like a literary pilgrimage.

What am I taking about? None other than “Rackham’s Countryside”, or more formally:

Rackham, O. 1986. The History of the Countryside (J.M. Dent originally – but I’m reading the 2000 edition by Phoenix).


Rackham’s Countryside, in chunky paperback

The late Dr Rackham was a prolific writer, but this is probably his best-known, most widely-cited masterpiece. Although not an archaeological study as such, it feels like a foundation for modern agricultural archaeology and landscape history in Britain. It marks a turning point in modern approaches to British landscape history (a particularly auspicious milestone for me, as I was born the year it was first published).

More than that, some of it practically reads like a call-to-arms for Farming Unearthed:

“The landscape is a record of our roots and the growth of civilization. Each individual historic wood, heath, etc. is uniquely different from every other, and each has something to tell us… The landscape is like a historic library of 50,000 books. Many were written in remote antiquity in languages which have only lately been deciphered; some of the languages are still unknown.” (pp.26-9)

(Environmental archaeology has blossomed most fruitfully since 1986, adding a few more thousand volumes to that notional ecological library.)

That passage comes from a brief chapter on conservation, which is lively, stirring and would be pretty depressing too, were it not for a note added in the 1997 edition which reports an improving situation eleven years later. Conservation is not a central theme of the book, however, as Rackham marshals very many and varied sources to elucidate the history of the British countryside in spite of its vanishing antiquities. Some sources are ancient, others are relatively recent, such as Luftwaffe reconnaissance photos, one of which is glossed as a “Hitler’s eye view ” (Plate VIc). Such is the style of our mordantly witty, thoroughly incisive, academic but down-to-earth narrator.

This doesn’t read like a scientific paper. It’s more like a guided tour of the British countryside at breakneck speed, delivered by an expert so deeply steeped in his subject that maybe half the citations could simply be to Rackham’s brain. Indeed, several intriguing points are raised with no reference given, presumably because there is no citation due – Rackham simply knew what he was writing about from firsthand experience. We rattle through animals and plants – past, present, introduced, extinct – heathland and moorland, fields, fens, trees… He is particularly strong on all things arboreal: woods, woodmanship and woodland ecology. Maybe one third of the book is in some sense ‘woody’, a reflection of the fundamental importance of woods in the story of the countryside as whole, and also of Rackham’s own particular interests. Other scholars pop up too, of course. On page 80, he alludes to a study on medieval woodland near Taunton by a certain “Mr Michael Aston” – surely the late Professor Mick Aston, latterly of Time Team fame?

The illustrations are not perhaps what you’d call lavish, although they are plentiful. There are lots of hand-drawn maps which are mostly very pleasing to the eye (well, to my eye), the exception being the general maps right at the start, which are so densely packed with place-names that it makes your head spin.


Tiny notes on a small island

To be honest, the density of facts and observations in the text itself can be a bit like that. Map upon map, charter after charter… the erudition would be overwhelming were it not stitched into such a well-written narrative. It’s fairly brisk and ‘no-nonsense’, all the same. You might expect a book about the countryside to have some kind of slightly sentimental, reflective or poetic epilogue. This one signs off with a factual remark about fish-weirs.

Ultimately, I can’t really review this book. Some of its arguments will stand the test of time, other may not, but that hardly matters. It’s a cornerstone of the modern canon, so all I can do is encourage you – if you haven’t already done so – to read it. Probably more than once.

What’s up on the Downs?

My phone started ringing before I had unlocked the door.

It was my dad.

“Quick,” he said. “Turn on the news.”

Whatever’s happened? I wondered. Has the Queen emigrated? Has the Isle of Wight declared independence?

As it happened, no, neither of those things had occurred. But still, it was big: agricultural archaeology on the evening news.

You see, there’s a project underway in the South Downs National Park, in southern England, called Secrets of the High Woods. One strand of this project is a pioneering LiDAR survey of parts of the Downs, LiDAR being a form of aerial survey that’s a bit like radar, but with laser beams instead of sound waves. Crucially, LiDAR readings can produce detailed landform surveys regardless of vegetation – it harmlessly penetrates woodland cover to reveal patterns in the land beneath, with never a trowel in site.

And what have they discovered? Nothing less than a vast, sprawling network of enclosures – fields of some sort or another – hitherto lying unknown beneath the downland woods.

You can read the National Park’s own news report for the details, also covered by the BBC among others.

So why the excitement? It’s not news to learn that people in the past farmed in the South Downs; we might have guessed that much. I think it’s partly the technical wizardry of LiDAR that makes this a good piece for the camera, but there are two other aspects which make this a really interesting story, and one to watch as more data are produced: the scale and the antiquity of the field systems.

James Kenny, archaeologist with Chichester District Council, is quoted as saying:

“…The scale is so large that it must have been managed, suggesting that this part of the country was being organised as a farming collective on a very large scale… The degree of civilisation this implies is completely unexpected in this part of the world at this time – something closer to the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians than current views of pre-historic Britain.”

Now, this raises a number of questions. How prehistoric are we talking? No dates are mentioned in the news report, which is perfectly understandable since nothing has been excavated so there’s no material to date. It’s said to be pre-Roman, presumably because it is overruled by the Roman road which is another of the LiDAR survey’s key findings. But that could mean any kind of date, from Neolithic to Iron Age, and it would be a pretty harsh critic who denied any kind of “civilization” behind, say, the Avebury complex or Danebury hillfort – which aren’t a world away from the South Downs, after all.

The planning of field systems wasn’t beyond the wit of prehistoric farmers, but that certainly doesn’t mean that there aren’t serious questions to be asked here. We really need some dates. We also need to understand where the farmers in question were living, since (apparently) no prehistoric settlement remains are known or evident in that area. And while we’re at it, we could do with some environmental remains to reveal what kind of farming occupied these sprawling field systems.

Comparisons with field systems known elsewhere in the country would be a fascinating avenue to explore, as well.

So for me, for now, the excitement of the discovery itself is rather less than the excitement of its future research potential. Full steam ahead!


Origins 7 – The Ghost of the Sea

Max Planck (1858-1947) was a trailblazer of quantum theory, that confusing branch of physics which describes the inherent unpredictability of the very small. It’s kind of appropriate, then, that researchers at his namesake foundations – two of the Max Planck Institutes in Germany – are shedding uncertainty in the tiny world of molecular archaeology.

It’s a response to what was, arguably, last year’s blockbuster story in agricultural archaeology: the identification of 8,000-year-old wheat DNA in sediments at Bouldnor Cliff, at the bottom of the Solent. Farming Unearthed covered the story here. The shocker, as I wrote then, is that this makes the wheat Mesolithic – 2,000 years older than the first evidence for farming in Neolithic Britain. It was suggested on this basis that early farmers from further east were bringing their wheat products to Britain long before cultivation reached these shores – an idea which would have paradigm-quivering implications for agricultural prehistory in north-western Europe.

It sounded so improbable, and there were sceptical responses from the start, but the argument also seemed very strong. The team seemed to have done everything possible to avoid contamination, prove the integrity of their samples, and demonstrate that they’ve really got wheat DNA.

But, it’s now being argued, they may have missed something. Bouldnor, we have a problem.

Geneticists from the afore-mentioned Max Planck Institutes (for Development Biology and Evolutionary Anthropology) have applied rigorous tests to investigate the antiquity of the sedimentary ancient DNA, or ‘sedaDNA’.  I confess that I can’t follow all the arguments and statistics of Weiß et al. 2015. But the crux of it seems to be about deterioration. Ancient DNA, even if it’s good enough to identify, still doesn’t look like new DNA. It doesn’t even look like recent historic DNA. Essentially, ancient DNA has a distinctive pattern of reasonable wear and tear, fraying at the edges: damage, whereby cytosine starts to look like thymine at the ends of the molecules, known as ‘C-to-T substitution’.

The teams conducted thorough statistical comparisons between the Bouldnor Cliff sedaDNA and other libraries of well-dated ancient and modern DNA, and conclude that the pattern of C-to-T substitution at Bouldnor doesn’t look anywhere near 8,000 years old. Apparently, it looks even more modern than material collected 85-170 years ago (Weiß et al. 2015, p.3).

Now, like I say, most of the details of this research are beyond my ken. Way over my head. But the essential clash of results between the two research projects is deeply confusing. The original research appeared to rule out all conceivable means of contamination: the sediments were collected in stainless steel boxes straight out of sealed Mesolithic contexts deep under the Solent, and analysed in pristine labs that hadn’t handled wheat before. Not only that, but the type of wheat – where identifiable – is described as ‘domesticated einkorn wheat… Near Eastern wheat, as distinct from distantly related species in northern Europe and Britain’ (Gaffney et al. 2015, pp.25-6). Einkorn, one of the earliest domesticated cereals, hasn’t been popular in Britain for thousands of years. It was old news when Boudicca was a lass. It still exists today, to be sure, but why – of all possible modern contaminants – should einkorn turn up here?


Einkorn – a golden oldie (source)

Einkorn, forsooth!

Any cultivated plant DNA in a Mesolithic context would seem implausible, but a Near Eastern strain matching einkorn is arguably the least implausible of the bunch. At least there’s a hypothesis – albeit a rather earth-shattering one – to explain how it might have got there. But if it’s actually less than 200 years old, how do we explain that?

Its presence is surprising if it’s ancient, but also pretty mind-boggling if it’s modern. Am I missing something? Could the state of being buried under the seabed somehow inhibit molecular spoilage?

One thing’s for certain: we haven’t yet heard the last of this mysterious story.



You’ll be pleased to know that the new research is in an open-access article:

Weiß, C.L., Dannemann, M., Prüfer, K. & Burbano, H.A. (2015). “Contesting the presence of wheat in the British Isles 8,000 years ago by assessing ancient DNA authenticity from low-coverage data”, eLife 4,
The original work is discussed by:
Gaffney, V., Garwood, P. & Momber, G. “How sedimentary DNA brought wheat to mesolithic Bouldnor Cliff”, British Archaeology no.142 (May/June 2015), pp.22-27
And the first, seminal article can now be accessed with free registration to Science:
Smith, O., Momber, G. et al. (2015). “Sedimentary DNA from a submerged site reveals wheat in the British Isles 8000 years ago”, Science 347, pp.998-1001.

A Grand Challenge: to blog or not to blog?

This post is a belated contribution to ‘The Grand Challenges for Archaeology’, a blogging carnival organized by archaeologist-blogger Doug Rocks-Macqueen.


It’s about half-eight in the morning, and I’ll soon have to be at work. But I’m snatching a moment to blog about blogging in archaeology.

These days I’m paid to do admin, not archaeology. But the past still has a habit of catching up with me. After all, archaeology is a vocation. One cannot simply ignore it when the money stops.

It is also addictively stimulating – cognitive caffeine.

Academic pursuits such as this come at a price, of course. The problem is that, given half a chance, the past can devour the present. Research and dissemination are intellectually demanding, time-hungry activities. Time marches on. The internet can speed the process along, but also bogs the researcher down in endless links, distractions, tweets, comments, bile, graphics, videos… and blogs.

Blogs. Now there’s a mixed blessing for writer and reader alike. The so-called blogosphere: global coffee house and repository for corridor conversations, challenging insights, hot new research, sloppy spelling, pub politics, fact and factoid, enticing hyperlink roads that all lead – at some point – to Wikipedia. The busy, burgeoning blogosphere: free of charge but time-expensive, open-source but unaccountable. Anyone with a mind to blog can jump in and do it. I took the plunge, in the first instance, after being favourably impressed by the blog of a friend from the natural sciences.

A question has dogged my typing ever since: is it worth the time and effort to stay in step with the digital zeitgeist? Here we come to the crux: a grand (or navel-gazing) challenge for the online archaeologist: is my blog a real vehicle for research and education, or merely ‘go-faster stripes’? The fact that many enthusiasts and academics alike maintain blogs does not necessarily, by itself, legitimize the medium. Popularity has some force, in the cyber-democratic milieu of the 21st century. To put it bluntly, if I stop getting hits I’ll have precious little excuse to carry on – if nobody’s reading it, I might as well just keep a private research diary.

But the existence of readers still doesn’t quite answer the question: what is it for? Why, if it all, is it useful for those readers? I started blogging largely as an experiment because it seemed like ‘the thing to do’, and – flatteringly – people still read it. Colleagues at conferences comment favourably on it, often adding ‘I’d like to blog too, if I had the time.’ Indeed. I hardly ever blog these days, not because I don’t want to do so but because, let’s face it, it takes ages to write something worth reading, and there’s no obvious, tangible return from this major time-investment.

Or is there? When I get around to doing it, composing a new post exercises my writing and thinking muscles – valuable simply on a personal level, like physical exercise. As for the end result, it’s still evolving: if the blog is to have any lasting value as a form of archaeological literature, the blogger should presumably look at which posts attract the most interest, and give the readership more of that (in my case, the unexpected answer is lazy beds, corn-dryers, and the origins of farming). But this can be balanced by innovation and experimentation – testing the waters in the inherently fluid environment of the internet. This, perhaps, is the unique strength of the blog, the best way to exploit its  incremental, transient/permanent, paradoxical character. It is, by its very nature, a constant work in progress – it can evolve, it can mature, in step with the blogger’s own career and changing interests, and the wider development of the discipline.

After three and a half years, Farming Unearthed is still finding its feet. Maybe it always will be.

Maybe it always should be.


“Get off my land!” in the Bronze Age

I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

Way back in 1784, when I started this blog, I commented on how farming seems to permeate archaeology as a discipline – from the Neolithic onwards, it’s a crucial thread in so much of human history. It’s hard to ignore.

But equally, it’s often a bit of a poor relation. Farming isn’t always a fashionable topic to research in some regions and periods. Burials, for instance, frequently attract much more attention, I suppose because of the immediate (and mysterious) human interest of a skeleton and its funerary trappings.

So on this occasion, I was surprised. I was reading the latest edition of British Archaeology, with a fascinating article on evidence for mummification in Bronze Age Britain:

Booth, T., Chamberlain, A. & Parker Pearson, M. ‘The Mummies of Bronze Age Britain’, British Archaeology 145 (Nov/Dec 2015), pp.18-23.

This is a fascinating piece of research – mummification is convincingly argued from ingenious scientific methods to have been widespread in Bronze Age Britain – and truly unexpected, certainly to someone like me with limited knowledge of the Bronze Age.

Most unexpected of all, however, were the speculative interpretations of Bronze Age mummification, and this is where agriculture comes in (p.23):

“After 1500 BC… large, planned (‘co-axial’) field systems were laid out. Mummies could have been important for legitimising access to ancestral rights and securing claims on land and property. In a world without written documents or legal title, what better way of producing tangible and incontrovertible proof of ancestry, ownership or descent!”

An intriguing theory indeed. What clearer way of articulating the time-honoured cry of “Gerroff my land!” than with the corpse of a desiccated patriarch?


Barnstorming in Roman Wiltshire

So there they were, poised to knock up a retail distribution centre outside Chippenham, when up pops a Roman barn. Turns out there’s a nationally important Romano-British rural settlement on the site, and Historic England (formerly English Heritage) has scheduled it accordingly – so the development has stopped.

This news nugget caught my eye in the latest edition of British Archaeology magazine, but it also made BBC local news, given the contest between developer and state over what should become of the site (not to mention local petitions).

What’s particularly interesting for Farming Unearthed is the discovery of an unexpectedly large barn, in a part of the country where Roman agrarian developments aren’t that well understood. British Archaeology reports: “Excavation of 12… postholes found second century AD pottery, suggesting that what might otherwise have been interpreted as a large medieval barn was in fact Roman.” As if that weren’t enough, Historic England itself has been excavating at another Romano-British farmstead in Wiltshire, of a rather different character, but nonetheless with “the corner of a large barn.” Are we on the verge of a scholarly overhaul of Wiltshire’s Roman farms?

Broadening the picture, this seems an appropriate moment to flag up a new (and growing) online resource courtesy of the Roman Rural Settlement project. It’s a mammoth collaborative effort from the University of Reading and Cotswold Archaeology, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and Historic England. The project team has been busy harvesting vast swathes of excavation data, much of it previously unpublished, regarding rural settlements in Roman Britain. There’s an important agricultural strand led by Dr Martyn Allen, expert in zooarchaeology but also interested in things like corn-dryers (a hobby-horse of mine, you may recall). Anyway, the team is magnanimously uploading their data into a massive barn – I mean, database – on the Archaeological Data Service. Find it here, and have a browse. It’s a fantastic resource and a remarkable achievement.


Sorting the sheep from… the other sheep

Continuing this blog’s impromptu ‘DNA season’, I’d like to flag up another recent article. Now this is ingenious stuff. It made me chuckle with admiration, in an I-wish-I’d-thought-of-that sort of way.

First, the problem: historic livestock. How can we know what breeds of livestock were kept in the past? How far back can we trace so-called ‘heritage breeds’? For more recent periods of history, there might be realistic paintings or detailed descriptions that allow us some insight, but such sources will get much less reliable the further back we go. By the medieval period at least, we’d be skating on very thin ice. What about the evidence of animal bones? True, that’s extremely useful. Skeletal remains can allow a specialist to calculate the original size of animals (withers heights, etc.). This can allow the identification of selective breeding –  but only if the farmers were selecting for size. Potentially more information could be acquired by extracting aDNA (ancient DNA) from the animal bones, but these are usually far too degraded to allow any such thing. In most cases, after all, they’ve been butchered, gnawed, and thrown away.

That’s where parchments come in. Documents have been written on animal-hide parchment for centuries and, although they’re not guaranteed to survive forever, it’s safe to say that they won’t usually be gnawed or butchered. Indeed, because they often have legal value, a great number have been carefully curated over the centuries. In Britain alone, it’s estimated that more than a million parchments may survive from the last millennium. And now it’s been demonstrated that they can be used as a good source of livestock aDNA. Researchers from Dublin and York have done a pilot project, successfully getting verifiable aDNA from tiny samples of sheepskin parchment from the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Past Horizons website has a good summary.

Not only that, but the original research is published in an open access article, free for anyone to read and download:

Teasdale, M.D., van Doorn, N.L., Fiddyment, S., Webb, C.C., O’Connor, T., Hofreiter, M., Collins, M.J., & Bradley, D.G. (2015). ‘Paging through history: parchment as a reservoir of ancient DNA for next generation sequencing’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, volume 370.

From the two parchments that they analysed, they suggest a speculative interpretation: that one represents an ‘unimproved’ sheep breed (i.e. closer to its natural progenitor) and the other a selectively ‘improved’ breed: potentially, we have here a major new tool to explore how livestock changed during the era of agricultural improvement in England – and of course other periods and places too, if the material survives.

Oh, and if curators don’t mind samples being trimmed from their parchments.