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The Fields of Britannia: landscape transition in the Roman to medieval periods

Professor Stephen Rippon, Dr Chris Smart and Dr Ben Pears

The Leverhulme Trust has awarded Professor Stephen Rippon a major research grant to look at the relationship between the Romano-British and the medieval landscapes. One of the most distinctive features of the British landscape is its countryside characterised by an intricate pattern of agricultural fields. Archaeological and historical research has shown that in many areas the field systems of today were in existence by the late medieval period, but when and how these fields came into being is less clear. The ‘Fields of Britannia’ project will use a range of techniques to systematically explore for the first time how far these fieldscapes originated in the Roman period. This will form an important and innovative contribution to the current debate over one of the major formative periods in British history: the nature of the transition from Roman Britain to medieval England.

The contribution that the landscape of Roman Britain made to the medieval and modern countryside will be explored through four themes. The first will be to examine the relationship between Romano-British field systems (that have been dated through excavation) and the overlying medieval and later field systems. In the far west of Cornwall, for example, we know that the present pattern of fields has remained in use since the Roman period, while elsewhere in Britain the Romano-British landscape was clearly abandoned in the early medieval period with later, medieval, field systems overlying their Roman predecessors unconformably. This project will explore which of these landscape histories was more common, and whether this varies in different parts of the country.

Another theme will be to explore the date of a distinctive type of modern field system whose clearly planned layout has led to the term ‘co-axial’ be used to describe them. Circumstantial evidence suggests that some at least may be Roman in date, and this hypothesis will be tested in the ‘Fields of Britannia’ project.

In addition to these possible examples of Romano-British field systems that have survived in use, the project will also look at whether there was continuity or discontinuity in patterns of land-use using ‘palaeoenvironmental’ evidence (plant and animal remains) preserved on archaeological sites and in natural deposits such as peat bogs (where the waterlogging has prevented bacterial decay of organic material).

Overall, at the end of the project we hope to have a far better idea of the extent to which the character of the British landscapes has its roots in the Roman period. 

Interim reports are available here:

Fields of Britannia First Interim Report

Fields of Britannia interim 2

Fields of Britannia interim 3