Feeding Anglo-Saxon England: the bioarchaeology of an agricultural revolution
The medieval ‘agricultural revolution’ saw the spread of open-field cereal farming across much of Europe including England, and is regarded as one of the transformative changes of the Middle Ages. Not only did it feed a sharply rising population – by 1200, parts of England were more densely populated than ever before – but many historians believe open field agriculture to be responsible for the formation of the ‘nucleated’ village, as farmers had to cooperate and share costly resources such as ploughs and teams of oxen in order to operate this type of farming. Long-standing debates exist, however, regarding the origins of open field farming and its impact on the country’s social geography and political economy. Do its origins lie in Anglo-Saxon England, or did open field farming only make a major impact after the Norman Conquest? Did innovations such as three-field rotation and use of the mouldboard plough drive population growth, or vice versa? And finally, to what extent did the production of large cereal surpluses underpin the growth of lordship?
Historians and archaeologists have, until now, been forced to rely on a small number of ambiguous – and mostly post-Conquest -- texts, post-medieval maps and manuring scatters to infer how and when this ‘cerealisation’ of the countryside occurred. ‘Feeding Anglo-Saxon England’, a four-year project funded by the European Research Council, is using bioarchaeological data (preserved plant macrofossils, animal bones, and pollen) to generate the first direct evidence for the conditions in which medieval crops were grown. The fact that our evidence is organic also means that it can be dated directly and with considerable precision thanks to a large radiocarbon dating programme. FeedSax is unique in combining the results of stable isotope analysis of plants and animals with functional weed ecology, pollen analysis and animal palaeopathology. The results of these analyses will, furthermore, be compared with the structural evidence from excavated farms themselves to establish how changes in farming methods affected rural settlements and settlement hierarchies.
The FeedSax team is based primarily at the School of Archaeology, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Leicester who are undertaking the zooarchaeological work. In addition to generating a range of publications, an extensive bioarchaeological database will be made publicly available in the latter stages of the project.
Team: Helena Hamerow (PI), Amy Bogaard, Michael Charles, Emily Forster, Matilda Holmes, Mark McKerracher, Sam Neil, Christopher Ramsey, Elizabeth Stroud, Richard Thomas
Image: members of the Feedsax team conducting botanical surveys in the meadow land at the edge of the arable fields at Laxton, Notts., England's 'last open village'.