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!



4 thoughts on “What’s up on the Downs?

  1. Arable or pastoral? Any clues?

    Why would they get overgrown by woodland? Loss of fertility? Demographic collapse? Downturn in weather? Mastering of farming on heavier soils at lower altitudes?

  2. “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.” That’s an odd one. Unless the fields were like shielings: high ground summer pasture, with winter spent down on the coast. In that case only some temporary hovels would be required by the shepherds/cowboys. But would such a system make sense in the south of England?

  3. There’s a wealth of material relevant to this field system (or systems) in Judie English, Pattern and Progress: Field Systems of the Second and Early First Millennia BC in Southern Britain, BAR British Series 587 (2013). I’ve been using it a lot recently for something I’m writing and it’s an excellent work that includes several case studies of what seem to be comparable field systems elsewhere on the South Downs. Without wanting to pre-empt what stems from this new discovery, the book does discuss things like associated settlement location and reasons for abandonment, although I should add its main focus is on the origins and morphology of the systems.

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