The Earliest Days of Farming

In the first century BC British agriculture was generating a grain surplus which was traded on the European market — the culmination of centuries of large-scale clearance and cultivation which began in the late Stone Age.

In 1976 Britain experienced the hottest, driest summer for a hundred years. The grass was scorched, crops failed, and even trees began to suffer as the water level fell away. So extreme was the drought that, for the first time this century, archaeological features deep in the subsoil beneath the lowland arable fields became visible from the air as cropmarks. Deep-rooted plants, finding water in long-buried ditches and pits, remained green while their neighbours were burned brown, and the outlines of whole field systems and settlements reappeared, briefly mapped in green on the parched landscape. The pattern revealed was of prehistoric lowland agriculture on a vast scale.

Early days

That most of these features were prehistoric was deduced from the shape of the fields: small square enclosures identical in form to surviving examples which have been dated to the Iron Age or before, at least 2500 years ago. This characteristic square field shape has been attributed to the technique of cross-cultivation associated with the primitive plough, or `ard’.

Until recently, pre-Roman activity in the fertile lowlands was attributed to an advanced culture which appeared in south-east England in the first century BC, apparently equipped with a heavy plough which could cope efficiently with the heavy lowland soils. It was assumed before this that the lowland clays of Britain remained uncultivated and probably under virgin forest until a few decades before the Roman occupation, while the farmers scratched a precarious living in the bleak hills.

However, there is no proof that such a heavy plough ever existed in pre-Roman times, and the evidence of the 1976 cropmarks has shown that the light ard could cope perfectly well with heavy soils too. This means that clearance of the lowlands could have begun as soon as the ard was introduced.

The earliest evidence of ard ploughing in Britain has survived in the form of criss-cross scratches scored into the subsoil beneath prehistoric fields. During excavation of the South Street long barrow near Avebury in Wiltshire a set of such traces was found beneath the structure, which was presumably built on a former field. The ploughing marks could be dated to about 3500BC. This is by far the earliest evidence of ploughing to have come to light in Europe, let alone Britain, but isolated as it is, it proves that the technology for extensive cultivation had been developed by the beginning of the Neolithic (New Stone Age) period.

Much more common are plough traces dating from the mid-Bronze Age (c.1500BC), and it is reasonable to suppose that in the intervening 2000 years the area of land cleared for agriculture had been considerably extended. Analysis of fossil pollen from all over the country indicates a marked reduction in tree pollen from about 3000BC onwards, and a corresponding increase in that of cereals, grasses and weeds of arable land. Cereal grain evidence of Bronze Age date recovered from Windmill Hill in Wiltshire suggests a considerable acreage of barley. Elsewhere, for example at Rams Hill near the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, there is evidence of pastoral farming in the form of animal bones (mostly cattle) and fossil grass pollen. Long ditches have been interpreted as grazing boundaries, dating to the Bronze Age, suggesting extensive ranching on cleared land. In some places these ditches cut through complexes of square-type arable fields, demonstrating that organised large-scale agriculture was no novelty, even at this date.

Iron Age farming

At around 700BC, the beginning of the Iron Age, there seems to have been a sharp increase in the rate of land clearance, judging by the pollen record. It is probable that many of the field systems revealed by the drought of 1976 date from this period.

More is known about the Iron Age than about any preceding period, but this is still very little. Pollen and crop remains indicate that Iron Age farmers grew a wide variety of crops including wheat, barley and beans — the components of the three-course crop rotation widely adopted during the medieval era. Employed in conjunction with mixed farming — for which there is ample evidence in the form of sheep and cattle bones — and consequent manuring of the fields, such a rotation would have permitted efficient cropping of the land over a very long period.

The grain crop, or a proportion of it, was stored in sealed pits which worked like modern silos — preserving the contents by excluding oxygen. Groups of these pits are characteristic of Iron Age farmsteads, and are usually the only substantial remains. The traditional building material was wood, which is biodegradeable, and after 2000 years little has survived of the structures except a rash of post holes, many of which are open to interpretation and will probably never be conclusively identified. This is unfortunate, for the structures they represent — haystacks, cornricks, granaries or pigsties — are a key to the Iron Age economy. If, for example, the existence of numerous haystacks could be proved, it would imply a considerable head of inwintered cattle, and probably restricted rough grazing on good land owing to extensive arable cropping. Current research at the Butser Archaeological Farm near Petersfield in Hampshire suggests that Iron Age farms were very efficient.

Julius Caesar’s account of his expeditions to Britain in 55BC and 54BC contains passages which indicate a flourishing agriculture, and 45 years later the Roman geographer Strabo noted that Britain was exporting grain and cattle to the Continent. This implies the consistent generation of a substantial surplus.

The Roman Occupation

We have no description of farming in Roman Britain, and no statistics. Parallels with other Roman provinces are useful, but sometimes misleading, since economic- and agricultural conditions were different. As with earlier periods, most of the information about farming techniques has to be dug out of the ground.

Romano-British remains are spectacular when compared with those of the Iron Age, mainly because of the fashion for building in stone. During the first century AD, however, the villa buildings are little more than squared-off versions of the Iron Age farmhouses, often built on the same site and presumably occupied by the same family. At this time much of the farm produce was taken to feed the army, and at this period there was little money to be made from farming.

Estimates of pre-Roman productivity are still being revised, but there is no doubt that it was remarkably high. Nevertheless, the Iron Age-type farms persisted, complete with grain storage pits, while the simple and continued in use, on square-type fields, right through the occupation: a tribute to a 300-year old technology.

When things settled down in the second century AD agriculture became more profitable. Instead of being merely a way of earning an income from an inherited holding, farming was regarded, probably for the first time in British history, as a way of obtaining a return on capital. The villas became larger and more luxurious. Under financial pressures they also became more productive.

In due course new systems evolved. The introduction of the scythe suggests an improvement in the condition or numbers of inwintered stock. The practice of storing undried grain in sealed pits was phased out in favour of raised granaries, used in conjunction with grain driers. The heavy plough finally made its appearance and was gradually modified so that cross-ploughing became unnecessary. This would account for the existence of a number of long, rectangular fields of Roman date, some apparently formed by knocking out the boundaries between adjacent square-type fields.

By the time the Romans left in AD410 all the major farm implements of pre-industrial Britain had been invented, and much of the land cleared. The villa system collapsed with the breakdown of the monetary economy, but the estates continued to be farmed, probably in much the same way by both the native British and the incoming Saxon settlers. The system of peasant farming which they developed in the ensuing centuries was to become the foundation of medieval society.

27. July 2011 by admin
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