Ploughing Ahead: Medieval Perspectives

Well, it’s that time of the year again when journals start coming through the post, and I hope to review some of the more agriculturally-themed articles on Farming Unearthed in the not-too-distant future.

For now, in a bit of shameless self-indulgence, I’m happy to note that March’s Ploughing Ahead  conference has had two short, medieval-slanted reports printed in the new Medieval Archaeology Newsletter this month. This seems like a good excuse to upload the “director’s cut” of my own write-up, copied below.

NB. The medieval bias here is due to the intended audience of the piece, and implies no disrespect to the excellent non-medieval papers and posters that were presented!

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Ploughing Ahead

On Friday 15th March, 45 students, professionals and enthusiasts in agricultural history and archaeology assembled in Oxford for Ploughing Ahead, a one-day colloquium exploring the social, environmental and technological dimensions of Old World tillage practices. The event was organized by myself and Lisa Lodwick, both postgraduate students in the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford. Ploughing Ahead received generous financial support from both the School of Archaeology’s Meyerstein Fund and the British Agricultural History Society, whose sponsorship helped to subsidise the attendance of nine postgraduate delegates.

The colloquium aimed to highlight recent developments and the current state (or lack) of understanding in the history of ploughing, and also to initiate inter-disciplinary dialogues about this crucial topic in rural history. Through thirteen papers and four posters – all of excellent quality – we were taken from prehistoric China to early modern Ireland, from soil thin-sections to manuscript illuminations, from animal palaeopathology to LIDAR. Although the geographical and chronological scope of the colloquium was extremely wide, medieval topics featured prominently in the programme. Richard Thomas’ opening paper discussed the recognition of traction pathologies in cattle bones and, with a case study from Dudley Castle, introduced a compelling model for the eventual rise of horses as plough-beasts after the catastrophic impact of the Black Death upon cattle populations. Richard Macphail, meanwhile, reported on the multi-faceted palaeoenvironmental programme conducted during highway excavations in Vestfold, Norway, including the study of ploughsoil colluvia in Viking age soil sections, elucidating agricultural practices in the poorly preserved upslope settlements. Soil was also examined in Jan Nyssen’s study of lynchets which, in both excavated sections in east Belgium and current field observations in Ethiopia, were demonstrated to have emerged naturally – accidentally, even – on steep ploughed slopes.

After lunch, Gabor Thomas presented results from the conservation and analysis of the famous Lyminge coulter – highlighting in particular the sophistication of its workmanship, and the design indicative of a ‘swivel-plough.’ The broader continental context of this find was brought to light by Joachim Henning, whose wide-ranging work persuasively suggests that the swivel-plough’s eventual medieval dominance was previously delayed by the Roman villa system which, with its enslaved labour forces, restricted itself to the use of simpler ards.

Catarina Karlsson gave an interim report on her important experimental work, replicating medieval Swedish ard shares in order to gauge the loss of iron through wear over time. The work is on-going, and its results will surely have far-reaching implications not only for agricultural research, but also for studies of medieval metal consumption in rural communities. Continuing the technological theme, Charles Martell, trainer of oxen and owner of a Gloucestershire Long Plough, gave an entertaining and highly informative account of this tool’s design, usage, and local persistence from the medieval period through to the 20th century. In the final session, Niall Brady presented a new perspective on agriculture in early medieval Ireland, utilizing the wealth of archaeological data generated during the late lamented boom years, and highlighting an apparent growth in arable production from around the 7th century although, intriguingly, the adoption of the mouldboard plough is not evident before the 10th century. The colloquium was concluded by Debby Banham’s reassessment of the pictorial and documentary evidence for ploughing in Anglo-Saxon England, which provided a salutary warning, not only that such sources cannot be taken at face value, but also that the ‘face value’ itself should not be overestimated.

Besides these contributions, the colloquium benefited from a vast array of historical, ethnographic, environmental and experimental expertise concerning other periods and localities, and we hope that fruitful interchange of ideas will ensue. We are enormously grateful to all participants, travelling from across England, Ireland, Belgium, Sweden and Germany, for their involvement in such a rewarding and stimulating day.

MJM.

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