5.1 Early developments

We argued above that we need to develop a greater understanding of mobile communities in many periods. Doing so involves accepting that, although the social development of such itinerant groups was sometimes affected by changing environmental circumstances, it could equally be a product of internal dynamics. The latter forces might include gradually changing technologies and the resources needed for artefact production, or social conflicts and their resolution. In addition, interpretations of early prehistoric development should move beyond the assumption that these processes were superseded when a coherent Neolithic package of tool manufacture, monumentality and agricultural practices came into existence at some point. Yorkshire's archaeological evidence can be used more fully than simply showing where this change first occurred in different parts of the landscape, and when.

To some extent, we are already developing new approaches to landscape and social change, as a recent account by Manby et al. (2003b) implicitly acknowledges. These authors mould diverse evidence types to define some significant trends within the Neolithic period: the move from long barrows to cursus monuments on the Wolds, and from there to henges in the Vale of Mowbray (and eventually, beyond the Neolithic, to round barrows across the region). Such change is interpreted as using different forms of mortuary practice to oversee the landscape. In addition, the long-distance trade in prestigious axes from Cumbria, noted earlier, is interpreted as gift exchange designed to ameliorate tensions between different social groups.

However, we are left with significant questions concerning the underlying forces at play here: why are monuments needed to make increasingly focused claims on the landscape? And what is the source of the social stress which the exchange of prestige goods helped to solve? The process of agricultural intensification implied by field systems and in patterning in palaeoecological evidence has tended, in Yorkshire, to be related to climatic deterioration which pushed people into expanding into more marginal areas (see, for example, Manby 2003, 123). While there may be an element of truth in this for some areas, there are others where production levels do not vary in this simple way with weather regimes. Here the significant evidence of increased social hierarchies at this time could be noted. Such greater complexity can create change in its own right, independent of the impact of extra-systemic factors such as environmental change.

In addition, we should aim to accommodate fully the evidence that our analysis suggests for mobile lifestyles persisting well into the Neolithic period. With the emergence of some settled agricultural communities, negotiations between them and continuing 'Mesolithic' elements would have been fraught with problems. This process of transition would, no doubt, have involved diverse forms of movement operating at different temporal, as well as spatial, scales. Whatever the details, we can be sure that attempts to settle in an area must have impacted on those with very different social relations who still needed to move through it: any 'agricultural revolution' would not have taken place on a blank canvas, and would have been contested, involving negotiation over successive generations. Both asserting rights on the landscape, whether by monumental features or burial practice, and exchanging prestigious objects to relieve social tension, should be located in relation to the conflicts that are likely to emerge when divergent sedentary and itinerant strategies collide.

Finally, it is possible to consider the process of landscape development in its own right. Here it is important to recognise that the production and articulation of surplus may move along quite different lines from cultural, and especially sacral, dynamics, and perhaps take place on very different timescales. This means taking on board the full implications of Bradley's (2002) note of the incongruence between landscape change, as established by palaeo-environmental studies and underpinned by radiometric dates, and cultural change, as purportedly indicated by artefact-based schema.

In addition, two further big issues should be tackled. The first is to think through the relationship between the pastoral and agricultural elements of the rural economy. This matter, after all, is a key component of the 'secondary products' thesis, which argues that interaction between the two regimes is critical in understanding how each developed at a formative stage (Sherratt 1997, 158ff). We may be well past the time when prehistoric landscapes north of the Humber, especially Brigantian territory, were thought to have been occupied solely by extensive ranching systems: the archaeological fieldwork discussed previously indicates a mix of rural strategies. Within this, aerial photography demonstrates, at least on the Wolds, a progression from the large, linear landscape features which seem to define large territories, to the creation of increasingly focused landscape partition in the form of more complex field systems. The proposed territorial divisions are seen in some quarters as formally delineating areas of upland grazing from arable use and settlement. Yet, beyond this, the relationship between the needs of extensive cattle and sheep farming and field development is rarely discussed. Developing appropriate conceptual frameworks here will be key to explaining the strong links which our study shows to have existed between late Bronze Age and early Iron Age landscape exploitation.

Secondly, while elite groups are clearly emerging in the course of later prehistory, the basis of their social power needs more careful consideration. For example, Halkon and Millett (2000) have suggested that management of iron production in the Foulness Valley of east Yorkshire was pivotal to the consolidation of aristocratic power in that area. Yet even this relationship must have been predicated on more general control of the landscape. The latter would have been essential for the transport facilities and food resources which it embodied. Producing, processing and transferring surpluses would be vital if central authority was to reproduce itself in the long term. What, then, was the basis of their authority?

In discussions of the emergence of social hierarchies, it is often assumed that such higher-order groups were sedentary. However, the possibility of itinerant authority, in fact its probability at a formative stage, must be considered. Indeed, the Iron Age could be the time at which a long-term process of social consolidation came to fruition, the point when once-mobile aristocratic authority moved beyond the use of gathering places to permanent sites. Does this explain the change from an initial proliferation of small hill-forts to the occupation of fewer, larger, places such as Stanwick? And is such success based on escalating control of large swathes of landscape, for example in the form of the increasingly common ladder settlements on the Wolds? Questions such as these, and the models that might be built from them, provide a more useful context for structuring our archaeological evidence than discussion of whether a particular patterning can be allocated to the formally defined Iron Age period or to an earlier (or, indeed, a later) one.

Our own view is that these processes are based, at their most general, on the development of tributary systems, the latter being defined as societies in which an elite took surplus from its 'followers' on the basis of the social allegiance of the whole community. This process may have involved various mechanisms, whether extraction in kind or in the form of primitive money, yet, whatever form it took, an overarching bureaucracy (royal, religious, etc.) must have been needed to guarantee the stability of the process in the long term. Regulating the taking of tribute would have required ways of defining such communities in the landscape, something that should be visible spatially. It would also have needed mechanisms by which elites retained communal membership with the majority, direct producers, at the same time as differentiating themselves from the latter in order to justify exploitative relations. This should be evident in a range of types of archaeological evidence, most obviously the circulation of material culture and burial practices.


© Internet Archaeology URL:
Last updated: Mon Nov 26 2007