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Cross-Period Research and the Foundation of a Research Strategy
Nicholas J. Cooper
This concluding chapter has two aims, the first of which is to explore and develop some cross-period research themes, which have become apparent during discussion of the individual agendas for successive chronological periods. The second aim is to flag up a series of resource management issues, the tackling of which would allow much more effective access to the resource, research upon it and dissemination of the results, and should be seen as essential to the development and implementation of a Research Strategy.
It is clear from the range of research agenda items identified in Chapters 2-11 that the East Midlands is an area with high potential for addressing a wide variety of research themes. The region boasts a remarkable diversity of landscapes including areas with well-preserved deposits, notably the Fens, the Derbyshire Peak and alluvium covered areas of the major rivers; even areas under arable cultivation, for example the claylands of Northamptonshire and Leicestershire, are revealing important results (e.g. Clay 2002). Within these landscapes, the region contains nationally – and in some cases, internationally – important sites, including those from the Palaeolithic at Creswell Crags and Glaston; the Early Neolithic settlement at Lismore Fields, Buxton; Neolithic and Bronze Age ritual areas such as Arbor Low, Aston, Irthlingborough, Lockington and Stanton Moor; extensive Iron Age settlements at Crick, Humberstone and Wollaston; Roman and medieval historic towns such as Leicester, Lincoln, Northampton and Nottingham; Anglo-Saxon churches at Brixworth, Breedon-on-the-Hill and Repton; numerous well-preserved deserted medieval villages, and some of the most significant British industrial monuments, for example those in the Derwent Valley, a World Heritage Site. Within the context of urban research, it is important to restate that Lincoln already has a research agenda in place, springing from the development of its Urban Archaeological Database (Jones et al. 2003).
Fundamental to an appreciation of the region’s landscape character and underpinning an understanding of the region’s dynamic is the impact of the highland-lowland divide. This develops from the realisation, outlined in Chapter 1, that the region represents nearly every type of landscape encountered in Britain as a whole, from coastal, fenland, clayland to upland limestone, gritstone and granite. The diversity of this resource and the variety of deposit types, from caves to palaeochannels, as well as the juxtaposition of contrasting landscapes and corresponding land uses, produces very favourable conditions for addressing a wide range of research questions.
The concluding section of Chapter 11 has already identified three important cross-period themes to which environmental archaeology can contribute, namely the environment, farming, and urban and rural life. This section attempts to encapsulate the essence of a series of research themes, which crop up in successive chronological periods, and deserve restating separately here. In addition, a number of methodological issues, which have been recognised as crucial to the effective exploitation of the archaeological resource of all periods, are presented here. Previous national (English Heritage 1997) and regional research agenda documents (Brown and Glazebrook 2000) have attempted to present a range of potential cross-period research themes; in common with the following, the intention has always been to flag their potential use and development in future research designs, rather than to be in any way prescriptive.
Cross-period research themes are considered below at three levels. According to level, those themes might be seen to follow two criteria:
The first level comprises a series of four over-arching themes; the second comprises a list of sub-themes under each one; the third sets out specific research topics, which may address one or more of those themes or sub-themes. The first level closely follows the first criterion in that it considers major cross-period research themes, which are nationally and internationally applicable, and where the region’s archaeology can make a significant contribution to understanding. This may be through extrapolation to other regions where the primary evidence is not of such high quality or where the research is less advanced.
Under each of these umbrella themes, a second level of more specific sub-themes is listed, many of which are interrelated and could go under alternative headings. Here the region can contribute to the national and international picture and begin to show a distinctive character of its own.
Settlement hierarchies and interaction
Resource procurement and utilisation: food and raw materials
Social, religious and political structure
Specific cross-period research questions
The third suggested level represents more specific research questions within each of these sub-themes, some of which were identified within the individual period syntheses and represent opportunities to develop the unique research potential of the region. Many of these could go under one or more of the above sub-thematic headings.
The East Midlands contains a remarkable variety of different environmental and topographical zones, encapsulating the range found in central southern Britain, while retaining its own distinctive character. The dynamics of settlement and agricultural exploitation on permeable versus impermeable soils is an instructive process where the East Midlands can provide important data (e.g. Clay 2002).
The region is characterised by its profusion of rivers, including the Trent, Nene, Welland and Witham and their many tributaries. The Trent is one of the most important rivers in Britain, both uniting and dividing the region; it has served as a boundary, a communication route and a source of food and power. Recently subject to a major survey with funding from the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund (Knight and Howard 2004), the Trent has the potential to address many different research questions such as the many different land uses of floodplain, confluences and terraces and their interrelationships. Additionally, the identification of route ways into the uplands, using the Dove and Derwent tributaries of the Trent, has been used to formulate a model for the movement of Group XX Neolithic polished stone axes (Loveday 2004).
The region has considerable cross-period evidence for the ways in which the land has been divided up over time. Long-distance land boundaries and associated enclosures and field systems are evident from the Bronze Age onwards, and the region boasts some of the best examples of medieval and post-medieval open field systems in the world. How these relate to changes over time in territoriality, land rights and social and political structure are potential lines of research.
There is evidence within the region for the development of proto-urban and urban settlement from the later Iron Age onwards. The region was long considered peripheral to the development of Late Iron Age proto-urban settlement, but recent discoveries, including the identification of larger agglomerated settlements, suggest that is far from being the case. The region also shows the unusual co-existence of a number of towns where occupation has been continuous from the Late Iron Age and Roman periods within a relatively well-preserved historical landscape. Building on current research there is the potential for the study of continuity and change, the development of smaller market towns and urban hinterlands.
The East Midlands possesses a uniquely wide range of mineral resources, exploited from prehistoric times onwards, including stone, flint, copper, iron, lead, coal, salt, and clay. During the Iron Age, Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods, it was a significant producer of iron, while recent research (Knight et al. 2003; Williams and Vince 1997) is identifying both prehistoric and Anglo-Saxon long-distance trade in pottery or the constituent opening materials (Mounsorrel granodiorite) from the Charnwood district of Leicestershire. The region was also one of the earliest users of brick (McWhirr 1997).
In addition to the above research themes a number of methodological issues were repeatedly raised and warrant restating here. These are essentially national problems, but the region presents an opportunity to address particular ones. English Heritage (1997; 1998b) has identified a number of issues relating to methodological and technical development (MTD) as research priorities and these are cross-referenced here using their abbreviated codings.
Frameworks for our Past (Olivier 1996, fig. 1) envisaged a management framework as developing alongside that for research to create a universal framework. Although the present volume cannot attempt to address issues of management comprehensively, it has become clear through discussion the extent to which these impinge directly on the archaeological resource and its future research potential. The most significant of these issues are summarised below. Again, some of them can be cross-referenced to the resource management issues (prefixed MR) identified at national level (English Heritage 1997).
In concluding the volume, it is necessary to look back to the opening chapter, which placed the urgent need for a Research Framework in its regional and national context, and then to look forward to the future development and implementation of a Research Strategy, which uses the core of the present volume as its foundation. The picture painted by Frameworks for our Past and overviewed in Chapter 1, of a dysfunctional profession with no overall direction or research culture, was bleak. However, even by the end of the first chapter of this volume, it was apparent that the region had both the potential archaeological resource and the human resource to turn this situation around. The long process of assessment and consultation, which eventually saw the production of the main body of chapters has demonstrated the commitment of that human resource, whilst their contents ably encapsulate the richness and research potential of the archaeology.
Important though it is, completion of the volume, however, represents only the end of the beginning. Whilst this is a better place to be than ‘the beginning of the end’ presented by FfoP, there is still much to do. Maintenance and promotion of the research framework will require continual effort from all the stakeholders in the region. The value of undertaking this process will be measured by the extent to which the volume is used to inform the project briefs and research designs that fuel the process of doing archaeology in the East Midlands. If it sits gathering dust on the shelf, then the process will have failed, but the enduring enthusiasm and dedication of the many individuals who have contributed to developing the first two stages of the framework, combined with the quality of the archaeology both known and yet to be found, would indicate that the agenda will be addressed by the archaeologists of the region, and the necessary strategy implemented to propel the framework forwards. Only time will tell.