1.2 The Yorkshire Project

Yorkshire is clearly an area well-suited to the development of a regional framework. It comprises a topographically coherent unit limited by the Pennines, North York Moors, North Sea and Humber Estuary, encompassing eight distinct landscape blocks linked by three river systems draining into the Humber (Figure 1). In addition, the region embodies a variety of landscape contexts and natural/environmental resources, ensuring that many periods and diverse types of human activity and adaptive strategies are represented here. These components have had both a marked effect on the resources and environmental conditions encountered by those inhabiting the region over time, and have also biased archaeological visibility and influenced recent research traditions here (see section 3.2). Secondly, alongside its geographical setting, the region has a strong sense of its own political and cultural identity (Addyman 2003, 11). An important objective of many recent archaeological initiatives is to help people to access 'their own' past: Yorkshire's citizens would expect a resource assessment to be carried out for their region, and for it to be based on this entity as a whole rather than on any subdivision.

Archaeological fieldwork has taken place here over an extended period of time, running from antiquarian pursuits in the 16th century up to commercial fieldwork in the present, and it covers all periods. Interest remains vibrant, in part simply because many of its inhabitants see themselves as coming, first and foremost, from Yorkshire. Despite this earlier work, however, important gaps remain in geographical and chronological coverage. In addition, archaeological fieldwork has tended to focus on certain core areas characterised by exceptional archaeological preservation and/or visibility. Hence different parts of the region have generated their own distinct traditions of investigation, posing problems for the definition of common research interests. A truly regional agenda must view the whole of Yorkshire in the round, acknowledging the existence of distinct foci but aiming to redress such imbalances and then transcend them.

Regional assessments completed elsewhere include that for East Anglia (Glazebrook 1997; Brown and Glazebrook 2000) and the East Midlands (Cooper 2006), while other projects are well-advanced in north and north-east Wales, the West Midlands and north-east England. As always, limitations in the resources made available influenced the data-gathering strategies which these projects adopted. Hence many used period-based, research seminars to summarise the implications of Sites and Monuments Records (henceforth here SMRs – now renamed Heritage and Environment Records: HERs) on a county-by-county basis, then pulled them together to generate perspectives on the region as a whole. Although some projects employed SMR data quantitatively, few attempted to integrate these different holdings or to analyse them spatially. Most also considered the data mainly by period, rather than by type (although see Cooper 2006, ch. 12, for a concerted attempt to draw out lessons on a thematic basis). Finally, only one attempted to assimilate recent commercial work into its remit, and none were able to incorporate, in any systematic way, the implications of the archaeological material held in their museums.

Our own project also attempted to define the intellectual and social value of this region's existing resources, and then to assess them in relation to current research objectives. However, it started with one big advantage over those mentioned above. A body – the Yorkshire Archaeological Research Frameworks Forum – was formed some years ago to represent all parties interested in archaeology here, and that Forum had sponsored a conference leading to the publication of The Archaeology of Yorkshire: an assessment at the beginning of the 21st century (Manby et al. 2003a). Thus an up-to-date, qualitative statement of thinking about the region already existed, allowing us to by-pass a research seminar series and to broaden our remit accordingly: our aim was to set these views beside a more quantitative evaluation of Yorkshire's archaeology.

Storing existing data within a single database would be needed to allow comparisons to be made across the whole region. In addition, we wanted to include functional as well as chronological elements in our system in order to generate thematic, as well as period-based, discussions. Finally, we wished to extend our data gathering to include commercial sources and museums (see discussion on the importance of commercial fieldwork and its grey literature, and of the wider potential of museum archives). In these ways, our endeavours have managed to be a little more ground-breaking than some other projects. At the present time, our proposed research assessment and agenda is being considered by Yorkshire's archaeological community. After consultation and amendment, it will then form the basis for developing a strategy to deliver these research objectives. The assessment, agenda and strategy will published thereafter, probably along the lines employed in other regions. This article, however, seeks to draw out some of the conceptual and methodological issues which have arisen thus far in seeking to progress this process.

What follows first outlines our project's approach to putting the disparate records of archaeological sites and find spots of varying spatial and chronological resolution into a coherent framework (section 3, 'Methodological Challenges'). It endeavours to show that, with some ingenuity, data from diverse sources utilising a variety of storage systems and terminology can be drawn together into a common database. Furthermore, the resulting distributions can be set against a series of 'underlays' to help understand the variety of factors that have influenced the collection of data. In this way, gaps in coverage can be systematically identified and a coherent strategy put forward to fill them.

Section 4 ('Intellectual Challenges') makes explicit the challenges which the results of such an exercise pose for conventional accounts of social and economic development. We argue that the chronological divisions embedded in our data storage systems, and hence in our descriptive syntheses for both prehistoric and (proto)historic contexts, frequently fail to take proper account of the full range of archaeological evidence available to us. This is a product, in the main, of data structures continuing to employ increasingly outmoded, culture-historical labels that more recent archaeological theory and archaeological practice have found it useful to transcend.

The final section (5. 'Underlying Social and Economic Themes') is deliberately more speculative in tone and contentious in content. Although it arises out of what we perceive as the problems associated with using the region's archaeological resources for research dividends, as described in the preceding discussion, it was not developed inductively from that detailed analysis. Rather, it constitutes a set of personal suggestions for alternative approaches which, we contend, would better correspond with the emerging structure of the archaeological record and which would produce more inclusive, interesting and wide-ranging insights into Yorkshire's past.

Before tackling these detailed matters, however, it is necessary to discuss an important, preliminary matter. As noted above, our project aimed to surmount the technical difficulties involved in gathering data from diverse sources, to confront conceptual problems which arise in matching this data against general research aims, and to suggest alternative approaches to its interpretation. Yet the issues that arise in the course of fulfilling such aims are of more than just local or national relevance. For example, regionalism is an aspect of the organisation of archaeology in many other countries, both within Europe (for example in Scandinavia, especially Norway and Denmark, and around the Mediterranean with Spain, Italy, France) and beyond (for example in the balance between federal and state legislation and procedures in the USA). This poses general questions for how structures at the regional level should relate to those above and below them. In addition, today, there are increasing resonances between many different countries in the way in which archaeological data is generated in the field, and in how its analysis is approached subsequently. Finally, most countries now acknowledge the need to store archives in a coherent way, and endeavour to make them accessible to a variety of audiences. Hence the problems tackled here have lessons for the discipline of archaeology as a whole, not just the Yorkshire region. These matters are therefore considered first.


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Last updated: Mon Nov 26 2007