Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Archaeology Blogging Carnival- Grand Challenges Part 2: Lives in the Landscape

Haymaking- Tristram Hillier (1943) (C) York Art Gallery
 a landscape without people
This is the second of my two contributions to the Archaeology Blog Carnival which is asking us to outline what we think are the grand challenges for our field of archaeology. I've already written one entry outlining one of the big challenges I envision for the archaeology of early medieval Britain, my main academic stamping ground. However, like a lot of archaeologists, my wider interests span traditional chronological divides. Over the last decade or so I've become increasingly interested in post-medieval archaeology, particular the 18th and 19th century.

A lot of the current research on the archaeology of this period focuses primarily on urban and industrial sites. This is for a number of reasons; firstly, there is a long tradition of industrial archaeology as an independent sub-discipline, originally focussing on technological history but increasingly expanding its focus to encompass the wider social context of industry. Second, much of the actual excavation on later post-medieval sites tends to be carried out in a development-control (cultural resource management) context, which widely occurs on urban and brown-field sites, for example, the important work by the York Archaeological Trust on the former Victorian slums at Hungate.

When it comes to the rural archaeology of this period the situation is very different. Despite there being a very well-established tradition of landscape archaeology in Britain, which can trace its origins to the work of pioneers such as WG Hoskins, this does not engage as extensively with the post-medieval period. Crudely speaking, the amount of work carried out trails of significantly in the post-Enclosure era, once the medieval common fields have been parcelled up, a process which was more or less complete by the early 19th century (although it did carry on later than this). This landscape approach largely draws on field survey and analysis of documentary and cartographic sources with relatively little excavation. In fact, when I was carrying out an audit of post-medieval archaeology in north-east England for the local Research Framework, I could not find a single example of an excavated post-medieval rural building in the region.

The danger of this landscape approach is that it is easy to lose track of the people, particularly the rural poor or indeed anyone except estate managers, farmers and land-owners, the people who make the decisions about how landscapes are shaped. Even this group often end up being viewed as passive pawns of wider social processes (high farming- enclosure- agricultural depression) – although I would single out the really useful fine-grained analysis of 18th and 19th century landscape and farm development in Northumberland by Ronan O'Donnell as an exception

What we are missing is any attempt to really explore the lived lives of rural workers (and I’d include within this category the population of small country towns). To get a sense of the richness of day to day life that we are missing read Flora Thompson’s Larks Rise to Candleford, her account of growing up in the North Oxfordshire countryside in the late 19th and early 20th century. Although it has acquired a rather ‘chocolate box’ reputation (not helped by the recent execrable BBC adaptation), it is actually far grittier than many people give it credit for. Reading it, one gets a first-hand sense of the complexity and light and shade of rural life. It talks about poverty, agricultural wages, food, music, employment, upholding traditions and breaking the law. The same can be said about Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie which deals with a marginally later period in the Cotswolds. Both books are of course literary creations rather than ethnographic studies and suffer from selection and omission (a bit like the archaeological record…). Nonetheless they are first-hand accounts of rural society which put lives in the landscape.

Family outside their cottage, Uffington- 1916
Henry Taunt (C) Oxfordshire County Council
My grand challenge for archaeologists is to try and encompass the complexity and fullness of rural life in the post-medieval period. We have no shortage of material, yet so it is so little exploited. For example, the grave yard survey is a staple of local heritage societies and student projects, yet I have come across very few studies that have attempted to combine the rich data about burial derived from these surveys with local census data, which can tell us about the status, profession and place of residence of those buried in the churchyard. This could then be combined with building recording which can tell us about their domestic space and even excavation, which has the potential to address patterns of consumption and production. If one was careful with the selecting the right village, there may be many other resources available, such as estate records or photographic records. For example, in an area close to my heart, the Vale of the White Horse in North Berkshire, there is a great photographic legacy through the work of the late Victorian photographer Henry Taunt, the collections of rural artefacts made in the first half of the 20th century by Lavinia Smith, records of folk traditions and folk songs (including some made by the noted archaeologist Stuart Piggot who retired to Uffington). There is ample scope for a truly holistic study of rural life that goes beyond landscape study or archaeology but takes the best of all disciplines and, in particular, embraces the potential of biography of people, places and things to explore rural England in all its diversity.

It is easy to get dewy eyed over England’s rural past; there is a good, solid tradition of creating pastoral idylls for ourselves, and the hankering for a rural, pre-industrial past has a long genealogy encompassing William Morris, John Ruskin, the ruralist writers of the inter-war period, such as HJ Massingham and the Kinship of Husbandry, and can still be found today in outlets as diverse as the ‘vintage’ design movement, Country Living and the eco-economics of the Soil Association and the Green Party. Yet, as I remind my students when I’m teaching them about this period, one of the reasons why the industrial towns of Britain had such swollen populations was that rural life was one of such grinding poverty and limited horizons that industrial labour seemed the better option. I’d like to see archaeologist engaging with this difficult, unromantic, rural world making full use of the incredibly, yet under used archaeological, architectural and documentary record that is out there but yet to be fully utilised.
Morris dancers, Chipping Camden (Oxfordshire) Henry Taunt 1896
Splendid example of aspects of rural life and tradition not
traditionally engaged with by archaeologists

Having done some family history, like many people, I only have to go back four generations to find out that most of my ancestors were ‘ag labs’ (agricultural labourers) or working in associated trades (in my family’s case, mainly in the fields of North Buckinghamshire and South Oxfordshire).As I stated at the beginning of this blog, my main academic  focus has long been the early medieval period, but as I get older I am more and more seduced by the idea of telling the stories of the the Petts men and women cutting hedges, harvesting hay and making straw hats in the villages and fields of the East Midlands. Is this a grand challenge or a mid-life crisis...

Monday, 11 January 2016

Archaeology Blogging Carnival- Grand Challenges Part 1

Anglo-Saxon burial from West Heslerton
This blog entry is in responses to the blog carnival set by Doug’s Archaeology on The Grand Challenges for Archaeology, which asks  “What are the grand challenges facing YOUR archaeology?”

The first thing to say is that I'm glad that we are being encouraged to home in on our own personal domains within archaeology- the days when scholars like Gordon Childe could be personally familiar with more or less the entire prehistoric archaeology of Eurasia are long gone, and I suspect that we all struggle to keep on top of the literature within our own little disciplinary nests. I'm quite sceptical of the notion of pan-disciplinary grand challenges- they are either so vague as to be meaningless (e.g. social inequality; globalism etc.) or actually not really that pan-disciplinary at all (e.g. the origins of agriculture). I much prefer more localised, specific challenges which have the potential to shed more light on a smaller area.

In the UK we have an established tradition of Research Agendas – such as the Research Agendafor the North-East of England which I've been closely involved with or the excellent on-line Scottish ArchaeologicalResearch Framework (ScARF). These to some extent flag up the perceived priorities for the archaeology of local areas- and they are extremely useful and valuable tools. But they are often written from the perspective of what is possible and realistic in terms of future avenues for research – I want in my blogs to be a little more ambitious and think about the question from a slightly more blue sky perspective assuming (of course, incorrectly) that money / time is no object.
I am going to do two entries because my work straddles several chronological periods; in this entry I am going to focus in on the early medieval period which is perhaps my main stamping ground
From my perspective the big challenge is for early medievalists to get to grips with the potential of archaeological science related to population mobility.

For researchers on early medieval England, the twin issues of the Anglo-Saxon ‘migrations’ and the construction of ethnic identity continue to be a contested and lively subject for debate. Put very crudely, there is an ongoing debate about how England became Anglo-Saxon- was it a result of mass Anglo-Saxon immigration and population replacement or small-scale Anglo-Saxon immigration and acculturation of aspects of Anglo-Saxon society by the indigenous British population? Of course, within those two sides of the argument are a wide number of alternative perspectives and the debate is far more subtle and complex than my crude characterisation would suggest.

Over the last 10-15 years we have seen the increased intervention into this debate  by scholars using a range of scientific techniques , particularly bone chemistry (which has the potential to help identify where an individual spent time as a child) and DNA which has the potential to identify relationships between individuals and groups at a variety of scales – this can be done using modern populations and projecting inferences back into the past or increasingly using ancient DNA.  There was a hope that these techniques might have been a magic bullet which could clearly and unproblematically identify the extent of migration into England. However, inevitably the results have not been as clear-cut as everyone originally hoped. As a result there has sometimes been a dismissal of such techniques as unsatisfactory or pointless

My grand challenge is to see a massive increase in the use of these techniques and  crucially a major change in the questions we are trying to ask with them.

The first problem is that when we actually look at the number of sites where these techniques have been used, the figure is tiny- for early medieval England (5th-7th century AD) for example, bone chemistry has been used on a handful of sites – West Heslerton, Berinsfield and Wasperton with occasional work on individual burials. This work is very useful in telling us about population movement in individual cemeteries, but of very little use in unpicking the national picture. In early medieval England, the patterns of population movement and the shifting social dynamics across the country are likely to have been massively regionally variables and locally nuanced. The work of archaologists such as Sam Lucy has shown how cemetery rituals could vary widely between local cemeteries- there is no reason to assume the process of population movement would not be as equally as variable. Why should the pattern of population movement in North Northumberland be the same as that in Suffolk, or Herefordshire or the Upper Thames. Equally, variability may be reflected at a very local level too. The only way to address this is to have a large-scale campaign of bone isotope analysis rolled out across tens, maybe hundreds of early medieval cemeteries – allowing us to properly compare and contrast the variation in population patterns across England rather than extrapolate national patterns from a tiny, tiny, handful of sites.
A related challenge is to re-configure the way we talk about the movement of people within early medieval England (and Britain as a whole). Almost the entire debate is couched in terms of Germanic migrations – but there are two problems with this- first, it assumes that all probably population movement was Germanic- yet one of the key things that has out of the isotopic analyses of sites such as West Heslerton and Bowl Hole, Bamburgh, is that people were moving in other directions, including moving west to east as well as east to west. For example, the isotopic analysis of West Heslerton shows as many if not more individuals ending up in the cemetery who had their origins west of the Pennines as east of the North Sea. Yet, because ultimately we take our narratives and hypotheses from Bede and Gildas (quite understandably) we never really address the extent of this alternative direction of travel.

A second problem is we tend to assume all population movement is some form of ‘migration’ and is (a) deliberate (b) long-distance and large-scale. Yet there are lots of other ways in which people might move from their place of origin. For example, there is forced movement through the slavery (for example Patrick’s initial visit to Ireland) and also both local and long-distance movement through other social mechanism such as marriage, internal colonisation or fostering.
It would be great to see for example, a focused campaign of both Ancient DNA and bone chemistry on a regional group of cemeteries, such as those from the Upper Thames valley. This would obviously have the scope to tell us about the extent of population movement from the Anglo-Saxon homelands, but it would also have the potential to tell us as much about the movement of individuals from other parts of Britain (Cotswolds, Midlands, East Anglia) into the area, and also drilling down more closely allow us to address issues about kinship and marriage patterns. Attempts have previously been made to identify related individuals within a cemetery through non-metrical trades, but think of the potential to identify family groups over several generations- identifying individuals marrying in and potentially the movement and budding off of elements of the kin group through fostering elsewhere or marrying into nearby families. Looking at a slightly later period, wouldn’t be great to look at an early medieval monastic cemetery for example and be able to pick up not just whether the monks were local or not, but the extent of inter-relationships between them- were they being drawn from the same family groups or was there far wider recruitment?

Combining this with other elements of grave analysis, this would allow us also to radically increase the subtlety of our understanding of burial rites, the representation of individuals in death and even social mobility. So, rather than obsessively chewing over Germanic Migration let’s try and think about population mobility at a variety of scales ranging from the very local to the international.
Of course there are immense practical challenges- the cost would be astronomical and time / lab resources would be significant. So much of the funding of archaeological science focuses on what is innovative and new at the expense of consolidation and wider application of an existing, effective techniques. Also, we would need to be very careful in couching the questions and interpreting the answers. In the past, some scientific studies were great at identifying patterns but far less effective in providing the contextual analysis, as there was often a lack of archaeologists involved at all stages of the project, although this tendency is improving.  Equally, it is axiomatic that there is clear distinction between biological relationships, geographic origin and ethnic identity. This new data certainly would not be a short cut or magic bullet answering all our underlying questions about early medieval England, but what it would do is open up a lot more very very interesting debates.