Farming unearthed – in practice?

It’s worth keeping an eye on archaeology department websites. Most provide news updates on their current research, and agricultural themes turn up now and again, sometimes with catchy headlines. My own department, for example, last year publicised Dr Amy Bogaard’s work on manuring and crop stable isotopes – featured on the ‘Planet Earth Online’ website under the headline “Of Muck and Men.” Another such item which I recently discovered on the University of Exeter’s website concerns agriculture in the Amazon, with the intriguing headline “800-year-old farmers could teach us how to protect the Amazon” (see here). In brief, this research challenges earlier assumptions that indigenous peoples of the Amazon used fire to clear and manage farmland, prior to the arrival of Europeans from the late 15th century AD. Rather, palaeoenvironmental evidence now suggests that they constructued cultivable mounds, which both assisted drainage and also retained moisture in droughty conditions. Scrapings from the basin below provided fertilizer to keep these mounds in good heart. In this way, the system presumably offered a balance between sustainability and intensity of production – a balance which, the researchers suggest, could inform future management of this region’s savanna.

This idea – that farming, once ‘unearthed’, might then be put into practice – reminds me of another project that I read about some years ago: the Libyan Valleys Archaeological Survey (fieldwork 1979-89). This project, conducted under the auspices of UNESCO at the invitation of the Libyan government, investigated the abundant settlement remains in the arid ‘pre-desert’ of Tripolitania. The modern population of this zone was sparse and semi-nomadic; but in the Roman period, as the project revealed, the region “was characterized… by a substantial agricultural economy developed well beyond subsistence levels” (Barker 1996, 358). This was achieved primarily through a system of irrigation tailor-made to that environment: floodwater farming, catching the surface run-off with carefully planned walls (which also marked fields, paddocks, etc.; ibid. p.225). The authors concluded that this system could, in theory, be reintroduced; indeed, it was virtually a condition of their invitation that the results have some practical application (ibid. p.359).

The practical implications of agricultural archaeology can, however, be seen in a different way. I’d like to turn, finally, to another online news item. This time it’s from Cambridge University, where Dr Susan Oosthuizen is arguing that the roots of British identity can be found in early farming practices – specifically, the rights of common (as in common grazing land), which she traces back to prehistory. For now, I won’t venture into the debate. British identity is too much of a slippery concept for me to grapple with. But I can’t deny that early farming practices can shape cultures and customs for centuries to come. For an unusually strong example, just look at Laxton (Notts, UK), still operating a medieval ‘open field’ system. Closer to home, I think of the annual harvest festival at school, celebrating (apparently) the great baked-bean harvest. Altogether now: “Oats and beans and barley grow…”



Barker, G. (ed.) (1996). Farming the Desert. The UNESCO Libyan Valleys Archaeological Survey. Volume One: Synthesis (Paris/Tripoli/London).


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