4. Intellectual Challenges

4.1 Obstacles to progress

As noted at the outset, our project aimed not just to gather data from the region and point up gaps within it, but also to assess these existing resources in relation to current interpretative frameworks, whether generated from within Yorkshire or defined at wider, national or international, levels. In trying to define new research directions for any region, archaeologists face three fundamental challenges: the partial, and sometimes parochial, nature of existing, internally generated schema; the questionable relevance and application of any frameworks which might be imposed from outside; and, if the first two hurdles are jumped, the need to make any new, replacement structures relevant to, and testable against, data-sets structured in relation to then-obsolete concepts and terminology. Each issue is by no means confined to our attempts to create a regional agenda, of course – it appears, in one form or another, in most archaeological endeavour. However, this does not lessen the need to create viable solutions. These matters, the third of which being the most intractable, are considered in turn below.

The biases noted in the opening section concerning the distribution of evidence across Yorkshire have fundamentally influenced the way in which archaeological syntheses for the region have been written. This is especially the case with the distinction between east and west, something acknowledged as problematic for many periods. Thus the apparent contrast between Neolithic developments in each area have led some authors to see the landscapes of the Wolds, Tabular and Howardian Hills, together with their adjacent lowlands, as a developed core contrasting with more peripheral western areas (Manby et al. 2003b). Equally, Iron Age funerary practices, the most prominent element in the archaeological record for that period, are restricted mostly to the Wolds and the uplands immediately north of the Vale of Pickering. Hence histories of this period tend to be written with a Wolds focus (Mackey 2003 vs. Manby 2003), discussion of settlement evidence usually relegated to remarks on selected hill forts and the allegedly unique site of Stanwick (Haselgrove et al. 1990). All such writings continue the antiquarian tradition of concentrating on monumental elements, with limited discussion of linking to landscape enclosure, still less to the more general development of the agricultural and pastoral economies. Finally, for the Early Medieval period, an 'Anglo-Saxon' east containing more voluminous and diagnostic material culture, which allows a detailed account to emerge, is contrasted with a relatively impoverished 'British' west, where more general trends only can be distinguished (Loveluck 2003).

Secondly, at a larger scale, discussions of the region's archaeological development have been shaped, essentially, by interpretative frameworks developed in the south of England, in particular by analyses of later prehistory within Wessex. In so far as Yorkshire has a distinctive role in such perspectives, it is seen as deriving from its supposedly pivotal position in articulating relationships between different parts of a south–north core/periphery. A good example here concerns Neolithic long-distance trade in prestigious axes, imported from the Lake District into East Yorkshire (an exchange system linked by some with the development of the henges in Mowbray), and that of till flint from the Wolds found to the west (Manby et al. 2003b). Yorkshire is seen as fortunately situated, lying at an important geographical nexus between the stone sources of the Cumbrian Fells and distinctive regional landscape and settlement complexes elsewhere.

Now, perhaps we could argue for an eastern core area spreading up the whole of the country, with Yorkshire, pivotally, at its centre – that we should be reading all periods of human activity, at least up to the early modern, from east to west rather than north to south. And it may be that there is a concrete link in many periods between East Yorkshire and the corresponding regions to north and south. Indeed, it might be maintained that a strong connection is obscured as a result of a lack of fieldwork in intervening areas such as North Lincolnshire, so rendering the association with East Anglia less obvious than it should be.

Yet, when one considers the nature of the evidence in detail, it becomes an open question whether any such divide between east–west or south–north core and periphery is real, or merely apparent. The contrasts could be a simple product of differential site visibility, and hence the amount of energy that has gone into data-gathering in these supposedly primary areas, matters which have, inevitably, then influenced the writing of syntheses. More invidiously, when such frameworks become set in stone, they can then focus further fieldwork, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy – the core is seen as worthy of more attention than the periphery and this, plus increased visibility, mean that projects gravitate there. Only more detailed source criticism will lead us out of this bind and towards a more virtuous, and valid, circle.

Finally, beneath the obstacles discussed above, any attempt to move the archaeological agenda forward faces a more basic challenge. On the one hand, progress can be made only if one dissects the analytical categories currently in use, and perhaps questions the concepts associated with them. Yet, on the other, any newly created perspectives which result from this process of dissection must then be applied to data that subsist within structures reflecting that now-outmoded conventional wisdom.

This issue is, perhaps, at its clearest and most problematic when one considers the sequential accounts that we write when describing the past, and the chronological groupings which are employed in such narratives. For the most part, these categories base themselves on either particular technological change, especially in prehistory (the use of stone in designated ways, the development of different types of metal working), or on the arrival of intrusive cultures (in Britain, for example, invasion by Rome, or migration by 'Anglo-Saxons'). Such developments may well be important in their own right, and represent qualitative change in particular spheres. But can we assume that they have any resonance with changes in other areas of human activity at the time? Using such periodisation, as if it covers all aspects of a society, can mean that the question is rarely posed, still less confronted in a systematic way. The opening section of this article put forward a plea for more accurately dated evidence covering a full range of site types for any period of interest. Yet there is more at stake here than precise chronologies and representative samples. This becomes clear when our chronological and functional categories are analysed in detail in relation to one another.


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Last updated: Mon Nov 26 2007