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 Isle of Wight declared independence?
As it happened, no, it was bigger than that: agricultural archaeology was 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.
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!