Woodlands, and recommended viewing

In an earlier post I pondered on the theoretical limits of “agricultural archaeology” as a sub-discipline, and vaguely concluded that such limits are rather difficult to define. The history of wooded landscapes is, arguably, a particularly grey area in this respect. After all, the expansion of farming often necessitates deforestation; conversely, the contraction of farmland is followed pretty swiftly by the regrowth of woodland (Rackham 1986, 67). Yet woodland is hardly the antithesis of farmland. It is not the same as wasteland. It can be exploited, indeed managed, for agricultural purposes. For instance, forested land can be used as pasture – most famously for pigs but equally, according to archaeologist and pastoralist Francis Pryor, for some breeds of sheep (Pryor 2010, 53). The managed harvesting of wood itself, i.e. pollarding and coppicing, provides a vital resource for pre-mechanized farming (see e.g. Taylor 1988).

The significance of woodlands within rural economies – both agricultural and industrial – was beautifully illustrated to me last week, when I discovered the BBC TV series Talking Landscapes. First broadcast in 2009, when I missed it, the series is now being repeated on BBC4 (and online). In the opening episode of Talking Landscapes, Prof. Aubrey Manning (formerly of Edinburgh University) investigates the Weald in south-east England, and considers why this relatively heavily wooded landscape has remained so forested for so long (see how Natural England describes the region). In pursuing this enquiry, Prof. Manning consults various landscape specialists – many of whom (e.g. Mark Gardiner, Rob Scaife…) will be familiar to British archaeologists. After considering palaeoenvironmental evidence, dendrochronology, place names, and extant landscape features such as hillforts and trackways, he concludes that the woodlands have survived for two millennia by becoming all things to all men – in the early modern period, for instance, by providing wood firstly to fuel large-scale iron production, and later to serve as timbers for naval shipbuilding.

Clearly, a 30-minute programme aimed at a general audience will not attempt the academic rigour of a peer-reviewed article, and by its very nature the enquiry is somewhat personal. Nonetheless, I find that the programme is an extremely effective and engaging presentation of landscape history in practice. Prof. Manning makes a genial host, but never dominates the screen at the expense of the landscape he is investigating. The documentary is not laden with jargon or complex theory that might deter the interested amateur, nor is it too slow-paced or superficial for the student.  Rather, it strikes a rare balance, and I look forward to seeing future episodes. The Fens, in particular, should make a fascinating subject later in the series, and may inspire a wetland entry on this blog.

A final note: jargon cannot be kept at bay for very long, so I’ve decided to compile a glossary of agricultural archaeology terms as the blog progresses. As yet there are no entries, but please do suggest any terms that you think might be worth including. Similarly, you are of course welcome to suggest topics that might be suitable for a short post.


References & some further reading

Aldridge, N. (2008). ‘Walking through Weald history’, Kent Archaeological Society Newsletter 76, pp.2-3.

Chatwin, D. & Gardiner, M. (2005). ‘Rethinking the early medieval settlement of woodlands: evidence from the western Sussex Weald’, Landscape History 27, pp.31-49.

Pryor, F. (2010). The Making of the British Landscape (Penguin Books, London).

Rackham, O. (1986). The History of the Countryside (London).

Schofield, J.E. & Waller, M.P. (2007). ‘Mid to late Holocene vegetation and land use history in the Weald of south-eastern England: multiple pollen profiles from the Rye area’, Vegetation History & Archaeobotany 16, pp.367-84.

Taylor, M. (1988). ‘Some preliminary thoughts on coppicing and pollarding at Etton’, in C. French & P. Murphy (eds.) The exploitation of wetlands (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, British Series 186), pp.93-9.


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