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 20thcentury. 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…

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1

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1 Comment

  1. Dave, I know you from your posts on the Britarch mailing list. Your last post about A-S invasions (or not) sent me looking to see who you are professionally. This blog of yours interests me because I've done volunteer archaeology on a mostly A-S site, but have also done family history research for years and through it ( and my love of Jane Austen), got interested in 18th and 19th century social history (of Britain and of Ontario, Canada, my home). You mention combining cemetery studies with census records. This sounds like a wonderful project for a local history group. And with census records online, people like myself (homebound) could participate very easily. I love doing research, but can't go anywhere now due to disability. Something like this that uses documents posted online would be a marvelous opportunity!


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