When is an agricultural strategy not an agricultural strategy?

The answer: when it’s a socio-cultural strategy.
OK, bear with me.

Cast your mind back to a previous post about Neolithic farming in Britain.  As you may recall, archaeobotanists Stevens & Fuller have recently argued that crop husbandry had something of an abortive start in Britain: fading out around the Middle Neolithic and only returning with a “major upsurge in agricultural activity” in the Middle Bronze Age, from around 1500 BC (Stevens & Fuller 2012).

As I said at the time, I’m not a prehistorian, so I’m in no position to critique the model. But I was interested to discover, just this week, an article from 2000 which puts a different perspective on things (Brück 2000).

Since this work came 12 years before Stevens & Fuller’s botanical study, it’s obviously not a rebuttal – nor vice versa, since S&F don’t cite Brück. What it does, however, is suggest a model to explain why things seem to have changed in the Middle Bronze Age. It also provides a corrective to the overtly economic interpretations that have often been placed on the process. Since this period sees the appearance of clearly-defined “farmstead” settlements for the first time,some scholars have suggested that agricultural activity must have intensified in this period – hence also the rise in crops identified by S&F. This all sounds pretty reasonable – unless you think, like Brück, that those Bronze Age folk weren’t actually interested in maximizing productivity. Rather, she suggests that their main reason for creating (relatively) stable farmsteads within spatially defined farming units was a new pattern of social thinking.

I’ll offer a crude oversimplification of Brück’s argument, for laymen like myself, with apologies to specialists for the inaccuracies and
misunderstandings. Here goes. In the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, we’ve got societies without fixed settlements, but with larger-scale, periodic gatherings of extended kin-groups at monumental
sites – henges and the like. But from the Middle Bronze Age, you have these relatively stable settlements, as family groups preferred to stress their autonomy – real or ideal – rather than their fluid connections within the wider kin group. In short, as communities came to be defined by a new social order, the farmsteads represent the imposition of a new physical, spatial order. So the new approaches to farming were the *result* – rather than the cause – of social change. Of course, we then have to wonder: what caused the social change in the first place? And there’s no easy answer to that.

I can’t do justice to the hypothesis here. It draws upon waggon-loads of archaeological and anthropological theory (“ontological security”…? ) but it’s compelling, nonetheless. I never realized, before reading this, that I’d often made an implicit assumption that maximising agricultural production is a desirable thing to do. And to an extent, I still think that’s a reasonable assumption. You surely don’t have to be an arch-capitalist to think that a bit more surplus grain might come in useful. But clearly social circumstances will count for a lot. It’s a matter of perspective, and since we’ll never know what the Bronze Age perspective really was, the speculation will no doubt continue.


My thanks to Dr A. Bogaard for recommending this article.

Brück, J. (2000). “Settlement, landscape and social identity: the early-middle Bronze Age transition in Wessex, Sussex and the Thames valley” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 19: pp.273-300.

2 Replies on “When is an agricultural strategy not an agricultural strategy?

  1. I never realized, before reading this, that I’d often made an implicit assumption that maximising agricultural production is a desirable thing to do.

    I don’t think this is an arch-capitalist thing to think, but it may be the result of a capitalist upbringing, or possibly a Thatcher-and-afterian one. The contrary end of the scale is the Marxist one espoused by Chris Wickham, in which when there are no lords drawing surplus out of the peasant economy, the peasants “eat more and work less”. I think we can find at least central-medieval examples of enterprise intended to deliver profit, even at peasant level (a future post, involving mills) but when we have so few data points every example is automatically an outlier. Quantifying agricultural growth in various periods is just beginning to be within the reach of arch&aellig;ology; explaining it, though, will be hypothesis for a long time yet I fear. Meanwhile, both models are worth having in one’s toolbox.

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