The Fields of Puttenhamia: Some thoughts on the place of Roman landscape features in the early medieval period and beyond

This is me returning to the theme of early fields and field systems initiated by a long (and gratifyingly popular) post from back in the Spring. Identifying the physical remains of field systems in the northern half of Puttenham Common may have been easy, what with them standing out so clearly on the LiDAR imagery, but identifying when they were created is a very different matter. As things stand – and this is all very provisional – the evidence fits best with an origin in the (?Middle) Bronze Age but with at least one subsequent phase of re-use as arguably attested by the scatters of abraded Romano-British pottery sherds, and one brief phase of partial destruction by plough in the late 1940s.

Screen shot 2016-07-27 at 23.27.56

Abraded sherds of what I take to be Romano-British pottery found by yours truly on the Hillbury ridge and northern lip of the Long Bottom valley

Beyond such matters, however, are other questions that I’ve been wanting to probe in depth. What I held back from highlighting in my first piece (but is perfectly obvious from the LiDAR imagery) is that the field boundaries to the east and north of those parts of Puttenham Common containing the suggested field systems follow very similar orientations. Could it be that the traces of field boundaries on the Common share a genesis with the extant systems beyond? If so, is the extant fieldscape of Puttenham parish in part much older than has been believed?

My starting to write up this recent bout of field systems-related work just so happened to coincide with getting my hands on a major new-ish book, The Fields of Britannia (trust me, if this had been intentional I wouldn’t mention it being coincidental!) The major Leverhulme-funded, University of Exeter-based research project of the same name that preceded the book had been on my radar for some time – I made reference to it way back when in an update to my paper on Thursley, reporting the dissemination of radiocarbon dating of a peat deposit from Boundless Copse that showed they belonged to the early medieval period. Contrary to what I anticipated, this finding does not appear in the full published report of The Fields of Britannia, but does make it into a Surrey Archaeological Collections article probably published too late to make the project’s cut (see the section by Grant, Norcott and Stevens in Thompson and Manning 2014, 12-15).

Screen shot 2016-06-20 at 17.36.08

I mention all of this because palaeoenvironmental evidence is one part of the “triple threat” that The Fields of Britannia comprises. The other two are diachronic change in faunal assemblages, and the common orientation/alignment of dated Late Roman field boundaries with ones of medieval or later date. The brilliance of project and book alike are their scope, and the latter interweaves the results of the data collection and analysis to compelling (if lengthy and dare I say it occasionally repetitive) effect. I have no doubt that The Fields of Britannia will prove to be a landmark book in English landscape studies, both as a go-to reference work and also the stimulus for new research.

A major feature of the analysis is the extent to which excavated Late Roman field boundaries (i.e. excavated rural linear features found to contain pottery or other artefacts dateable to the 4th century CE) and those mapped in the later 19th century – but potentially in existence in the medieval period – are oriented (coincident, either one overlying the other or one effectively acting as an extension of the other) or aligned (run in the same direction but not overlying or continuing the other) in ways that might admit the persistence of the Roman-era land divisions to influence those of the historic landscape (definitions given in Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 100-101).

The “headline” result is that roughly two-thirds – 64% to be precise – of the excavated Late Roman-era boundaries studied in lowland England ‘share a common orientation or alignment or orientation with medieval landscapes (i.e. historic landscapes characterized by former medieval Closes or former Open Fields)’ (Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 323, which includes some caveats about the sources of the percentage). For the South East region as defined by the project, in which Puttenham parish lies, the figure is a very similar 63%, dropping to a still impressive 55% when landscapes of Indeterminate type that may or may not be of medieval origin are factored in (Rippon, Smart and Pears 2015, 141; also 107 for definitions of the aforementioned types of fieldscape). Each represents a powerful, quantitative case in favour of continuity in some form from the 4th to 5th century CE and beyond, rather than wholesale abandonment.

I’ve created a page under the Puttenham tab that looks at two arguments presented in The Fields of Britannia (alignment being unrelated to topography, and the non-survival of former field boundaries in dense woodland environments) where I think there’s some margin for doubt, before concluding with an application of some of the key conclusions of The Fields of Britannia to Puttenham in the belief that this can help to frame and enhance our understanding on the exceedingly limited body of evidence from the parish. Please click through to take a look – it’s a long’un but a good’un, trust me!

REFERENCES

Rippon, S., C. Smart and B. Pears, The Fields of Britannia: Continuity and Change in the Late Roman and Early Medieval Landscape (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)

Thompson, S., and A. Manning, ‘Late prehistoric settlement and post-medieval industrial activity on the route of the A3 Hindhead Improvement Scheme’, SyAC, 98 (2014), 1-27

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About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Agriculture, Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Books, Dating, Field-names, Landscape, Old English, Pottery, Puttenham, Topography and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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