4.3 Issues for proto-historic and historic periods

The foregoing arguments question the utility, or otherwise, of current definitions of prehistoric periods. Yet the issues raised extend beyond that, resurfacing, albeit in somewhat different guise, when one investigates subsequent periods. Comparison between Iron Age (Figure 18a) and Roman (Figure 18b) distributions suggest some complementarity. Thus, on the northern scarp of the Wolds, Roman points form two very marked, east–west, linear alignments and Iron Age data fill the space between them, as well as occurring to the south – a possible instance of the growth of Romano-British settlements along the communication network, with the countryside in between retaining its earlier organisation (see also Halkon 2003 on corresponding evidence in the Foulness valley). Elsewhere, however, there are significant changes. The sudden increase in Roman sites along the Howardian Hills, for example, seems genuine, rather than a question of classification. Equally, comparison of Roman and Iron Age land enclosure suggests a shift in focus from the Wolds to the Vale.

Overall explanations for such patterning are still couched mainly in traditional terms: the army and the forts it occupied, or the roads it built. Ottaway (2003) acknowledges, and welcomes, recent attempts to move beyond these interpretative frameworks derived, ultimately, from classical sources – hence his consideration of urbanism, religious practices and mortuary behaviour. However, this process has far to go. We require a much wider consideration of Roman–native interaction which can transcend culture–historical frameworks based on military events and political needs underpinned by the personal motives of individual emperors or of Iron Age tribal leaders. Because such reconsideration has made little progress, present interpretative structures struggle to deal with the increasing amount of evidence indicating a significant change in the character of occupation across most of the region from the end of the 2nd century AD (Roskams 1999), i.e. at a point in time well beyond the formal start of the Roman period.

Frameworks provided by documentary sources have had an even more fundamental influence on early medieval models for Yorkshire, where evidence such as Bede's account of the development of Deira and Northumbria still dominates. This factor is one reason social development is still divided between a 'British' west and an 'Anglo-Saxon' east (Loveluck 2003). For later periods when, we assume, such identities have been subsumed beneath an overarching regional political structure, explanation is based on the notion of Christian practices percolating down through society (Hall 2003).

Early medieval distributions from the project, even when plotted as a single category, are sparser than almost all their earlier counterparts. However, there is enough qualitative evidence, in the form of burial practice, monastic institutions, and the developments of towns and other trading centres, to clearly suggest increasing social stratification through this period. Archaeological identification of the settlement structures and landscape contexts that underpinned this progression and sustained that society remains, however, dogged by simplistic attempts to match sites with place-name evidence and documentary references. Loveluck's (2003) suggested solution – integrated early medieval research projects combining landscape, settlement and other material aspects of the archaeological record – is constructive, but appears a long way off.

Such an approach is already being operated with Moorhouse's method of investigating medieval landscapes of later centuries. Thus the latter's work in the Dales (2003) moves from buildings to settlements to fields to the landscape resources in an all-encompassing fashion. He also explicitly seeks to avoid a potentially misleading distinction between sophisticated arable regimes in the east, and more simple non-arable ones elsewhere. This is all welcome. Yet his approach also argues that we should work inductively, from a detailed and long-term consideration of particular parcels of land, led in the first instance by documentary evidence and articulated around the documented unit of 'the township'. Only then, he suggests, will we be able to reintegrate settlement and landscape histories.

In essence this procedure continues culture–historical perspectives, and it remains unclear, to us, how such frameworks, and the pointillist approach that they embody, can come to terms with some of the broad-brush patterning in our data, other than as an accumulation of descriptive accounts. The shortfall becomes obvious immediately one considers the medieval distributions. As with earlier periods, each is fundamentally influenced by past collection processes, current curatorial or land-use practices, and geomorphologically determined site visibility. That said, there is evidence for real changes within the Middle Ages (Figure 19), for example of limited activity on the North York Moors and Wolds and, in contrast, a concentration of data-points in the Howardian Hills.

When individual functional categories are considered, further patterns emerge. Thus sites related to water transport imply that small rivers were exploited as much as larger ones. Elite (Figure 20a) and military (Figure 20b) distributions are very similar, suggesting that the distinction between constructing an aristocratic building and digging ditches for defensive reasons is more apparent than real. For certain analytical purposes, then, these two site types should be amalgamated (as is already embodied in the moated manor house, ubiquitous across east Yorkshire). Such amalgamation might be relevant in other periods too, for example late prehistoric hill-forts, seen by some as a product of the need for protection, by others as an attempt to make monumental claims on the landscape.

However, the most striking patterning in medieval data concerns the difference between the distribution of purely agricultural functions (widespread across the whole region: Figure 20c), and those related to the articulation, exploitation and consumption of the surpluses generated by farming, for example storage/exchange, and to forms of non-agrarian production (generally confined to the east, for example the 'elite' and 'military' distributions discussed above). The apparent paucity of these superstructural sites in the west of Yorkshire in general, and in the Dales in particular, obviously demands further interpretation. In this case, one might conjecture that older and larger institutions, in particular royal and monastic establishments, retained their dominant position in the west, requiring fewer collection centres, less competitive emulation in architecture, and so forth. In contrast, lower-order feudal powers elsewhere seemed to have vied with each other for control on a local basis further east. If true, such a distribution of elite authority would have important implications for the nature of the region's transition into the modern period, given that the west of Yorkshire was pivotal to the later Industrial Revolution.

Turning, finally, to that Early Modern period, attitudes towards industrialisation may have changed during the latter half of the 20th century, moving from a generally negative to mainly positive stance which viewed the change as ushering in the birth of modernity. However, beyond this, industrial archaeology has concentrated throughout on data collection, and then been content to interpret it in relation to increasingly outmoded, simplistic functionalist interpretations (Cranstone 2003). Such approaches tend to portray the process of change in terms of the unilinear development of certain, main industries – from cotton to, successively, coal, steel, engineering and shipbuilding, cars and electrical goods, and now today's pharmaceutical and petrochemical industries. Further, this evolutionary process is seen as being driven forward by innovative factory owners with so-called 'British' aptitudes using centrally organised, newly mobile wage labour.

Such a focus necessarily marginalises other, equally important sectors, thus ignoring the majority of the data we have for the period, and also influencing future fieldwork and analysis – another self-fulfilling prophecy. A detailed consideration of a full range of industries suggests that their early modern development is a much more hit-and-miss affair, as reliant on continental inventions and advances as 'home-grown' talent, often based on technological progress generated by inventors who occupied social lacunae, and using a workforce whose social structure owed much to pre-industrial economic structures (Casella and Symonds 2005). A much tighter, and explicit, definition of early modern economic relations would allow us to confront this diversity directly, and thus to understand its complex relationship with the medieval society which went before.


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Last updated: Mon Nov 26 2007