4.2 Issues for prehistoric periods

Several commentators now argue for a continuing emphasis on population mobility and subsistence practices into the early Neolithic, economic strategies which remained, essentially, unaltered from the Mesolithic (compare Spikins 1999 with Vyner 2003). Manby et al. (2003b), for example, note the seemingly slow take-up of agriculture within Yorkshire, suggesting that the preponderance of arrowheads on provably Neolithic sites imply a continuing emphasis on hunting at this time. When one considers the Neolithic period in its own right, our evidence suggests that the development of ceramic production was broadly contemporary with the adoption of monumental burial practices and other large feats of construction such as creating cursus monuments. The latter trend might be usefully interpreted in terms of using large-scale landscape statements to sustain social cohesion or maintain structures of authority. Yet it remains entirely unclear whether these changes were taking place in the context of greater sedentism among a growing population turning increasingly to agriculture, or whether more mobile lifestyles remained, essentially, untouched.

Palaeoenvironmental evidence, derived from the work of Hall and Huntley (forthcoming), provides a wider economic context for the trends in ceramic production and monumental construction. Their research clearly indicates agricultural activity in the region within the Neolithic period as conventionally defined. Yet it also suggests that true diversification and intensification of crops (i.e. the point at which a new form of economic organisation impacted significantly on the landscape) is deferred until at least the late Bronze Age (here it is notable that van der Veen's (1992) wide-ranging synthesis of such evidence from Northern Britain runs only from the late Bronze Age onwards). In short, when investigated in detail, the conventional notion of a 'new' Stone Age comprising pottery production and innovative forms of monumentality, and accompanied by integrated land clearance, agriculture and stock-rearing, starts to fall apart.

When we turn to later periods of prehistory, major transformations are evident in our data. Yet we struggle to understand these social processes in the round because of the attempt to fit all observations into one period or another, in the process obscuring any continuities between them. Once again, conventional chronological divisions may be concealing more than they show. For example, the invention of bronze metal production must represent an important step forward in social development, yet it is funerary practices initially (round barrows indicating individual, high-status burial) then pottery types (beakers, seemingly linking Yorkshire with a specifically continental process of development), which are far more archaeologically diagnostic of that period for Yorkshire.

Looking beyond burials and ceramics to the landscape, the database shows that landscape enclosure in the Bronze Age is much more patchily represented, and chronologically less certain, than these other elements. Some of these gaps may be due to certain data sources listing morphologically distinct features as 'Iron Age' which others see as merely 'late prehistoric', as discussed above. Importantly, the distribution of provably Bronze Age land enclosures (Figure 15a), differs significantly from that of the possibles (Figure 15b), and not just in terms of overall density. For example, the enclosures have an additional concentration on the Magnesian Limestone belt in West Yorkshire, perhaps implying that field systems here may have originated in the Bronze Age. Yet, beyond this, the distribution of evidence for production in the landscape is closely similar for both Neolithic and Bronze Ages.

The above trends can be set beside the creation of large linear boundaries at this time, notably on the Wolds, and the indications of more permanent settlement in several parts of the region. Together, they imply more intensive exploitation of the landscape and perhaps an increased population overall. Patterning of Late Bronze Age evidence aligns itself quite closely with that of the early Iron Age, a trend given further support by the fact that Bronze Age type sites such as Staple Howe can now be shown to continue well into the first millennium bc (Manby et al 2003b), something, as noted above, also supported by palaeoenvironmental evidence. What we might be seeing is the creation of large 'territorial' units, subsequently filled out by more focused field systems. None of this, however, seems to correlate in any meaningful way with transitions between Neolithic period and Bronze Age, or Bronze Age and Iron Age.

Equally significant implications can be drawn from studying the 'provably' vs. 'possibly' Iron Age data (Figures 16a and 16b respectively). The distribution of the former exhibits many of the characteristics noted previously as being typical of the Yorkshire region as a whole: a marked concentration in the eastern half, specifically the Yorkshire Wolds; another, less extensive concentration in the western uplands of the (North) Yorkshire Dales; sparse distributions in the Vale of Mowbray and in West Yorkshire; and areas of near or total absence in the North York Moors, the eastern Yorkshire Dales, the western uplands of West Yorkshire, the central Vale of York, and much of South Yorkshire. When this distribution is compared with possible activity of that period, the picture is transformed. Not only has the density of data points across the region increased almost fourfold and previously noted concentrations reinforced, further densities appear on the Magnesian Limestone belt in West and South Yorkshire, in the Vale of Mowbray and, in particular, on the North York Moors, together with localised clusters in the eastern Dales and the West Yorkshire uplands. Which pattern should be used to interpret Yorkshire's Iron Age is unclear. Presumably its real extent, as far as current evidence is concerned, lies somewhere between the two. The issue is how we approach the task of defining the true position on this spectrum of possibilities.

As implied by the previous argument, a critical issue here is the tracking of agricultural development and the accompanying systems of landholding. When one narrows the functional focus of our distributions by considering just provably Iron Age Enclosures (Figure 17a) in relation to all possible Iron Age Enclosures (Figure 17b), very marked differences in their scale, density and distribution are readily apparent. Each has major implications for the nature and development of agrarian production, and thus social organisation, at the time. In some areas, for example sections of the western Yorkshire Dales, the two distributions are virtually identical, elsewhere they are notably different. Some encounters have been assigned a period with more confidence than others, but whether this confidence is well placed is another matter. Dating on the basis of general ideas about monument morphology as seen from the air can only be confirmed by detailed investigation on the ground.


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Last updated: Mon Nov 26 2007