Cross-Period Research and the Foundations of a Research Strategy

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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.

Cross-period Research

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:

  1. Where the region can make a contribution in that it typifies other parts of Britain, and
  2. Where it shows a distinctive character of its own.

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.

  • Settlement hierarchies and interaction
  • Resource procurement and utilisation: food and raw materials
  • Communications
  • Social, religious and political structure

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

  • Rural settlement
  • Urbanisation
  • Town and country relationships
  • The development of small towns and rural markets

Resource procurement and utilisation: food and raw materials

  • Gatherer-hunters
  • Development of an agrarian economy
  • The exploitation of raw materials: from flint to steel
  • Commercialisation and industrialisation


  • Rivers as corridors and foci: from the Bytham to the Trent, considering headwaters, floodplains and confluences
  • Constructed route ways: roads, canals, railways, coastal shipping and air travel

Social, religious and political structure

  • Role of ceremonial structures through time (including monument re-use)
  • Material culture and identity
  • The nature of invasion: demographic and political change
  • Boundaries and territories
  • Burial archaeology
  • The archaeology of conflict

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.

  1. The exploitation of different environmental and topographical zones

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).

  1. A region of rivers

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).

  1. The evolution of land division

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.

  1. The origins of urbanism

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.

  1. Raw material exploitation

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).

Methodological issues

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.

  • Compatible evaluation, sampling and retrieval techniques (English Heritage 1997, MTD1and 3) are crucial to a proper appreciation of the archaeological resource. It is clear, for example, that many fieldwalking survey strategies will miss small Mesolithic sites less than 5 m across.
  • The study of formation processes, taphonomy and residuality (ibid., MTD5). It is acknowledged that the relationship between surface scatters and sub-surface archaeology particularly regarding flint scatters is poorly understood. The region presents extensive ploughzone archaeology, with much of the prehistoric record essentially held in the topsoil. In addition, the region is recognised for its extensive alluvial and colluvial deposits as well as earthwork preservation.
  • De-watering was recognised as a major threat to the regional resource, particularly in Lincolnshire, and research into assessing and managing its impact is essential (ibid., MTD8).
  • Deposit modelling (ibid., MTD10), particularly with regard to urban stratigraphy and landscapes buried beneath alluvial cover, is an essential methodological tool.
  • Developing predictive modelling strategies (ibid., MTD11), for example the potential for plateau rather than valley based Early Upper Palaeolithic sites, as recognised by Collcutt (2001; Chapter 2 Appendix above).
  • Refining archaeological chronologies through scientific dating techniques (ibid., MTD13). For example the need for definition between Early and Late Mesolithic, radiocarbon dating advances, and ceramic dating especially for the later prehistoric and mid to late Saxon periods.
  • Artefact studies (cf. study of material culture and identity above). The continued development of finds studies away from purely chronological and typological concerns, has made them integral to the understanding of changes in society. The effective exploitation of this element of the resource depends on the implementation of guidelines developed by the specialist finds and pottery study groups (Institute of Field Archaeologists’ Finds Group, PCRG, SGRP, MPRG, RFG etc) and the inclusion of recommendations from the respective research frameworks produced by those groups (e.g. Willis 1997b for Roman pottery) into project designs.
  • DNA and isotope studies (cf. ibid., MTD14) in relation to the ‘nature of invasions’, provide the potential to investigate the scale of Anglo-Saxon and Viking colonisation of the region.
  • Scientific techniques for analysis (cf. MTD6), such as lipid analysis, can be applied to residues on pottery vessels for example.

The Foundation of an Archaeological Research Strategy for the East Midlands

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).

  • The archaeological evidence from this region varies in its quality and accessibility, while visibility and sample bias mean that our understanding of the resource is incomplete. The subsoil of much of the area is not conducive to aerial reconnaissance and the potential of large areas of pasture and alluvium remains unknown. Although the major contribution of the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Funding is welcomed, there is a danger of compounding the bias of fieldwork and research towards areas which are already relatively well covered under PPG16.
  • The recognition of floodplains (not just the river itself) as a very vulnerable, but key, archaeological resource, which requires protection. The potential is particularly high in the Trent Valley, the course of which has altered considerably, leaving a wide floodplain rich in preserved organic remains (e.g. Cooper and Ripper 1994a; 1994b; Knight and Howard 2004).
  • The urgent need for completing historic land characterisation (English Heritage 1997, MR2 and 3) for the entire region. There is a rapidly diminishing resource of unploughed (2% in Northamptonshire), undrained, or otherwise undamaged landscapes, including those covered by alluvial and colluvial deposits, which require recognition and protection.
  • Subterranean archaeological resources, particularly within caves and mines, are a significant feature of the region that have yet to be consistently researched, recorded and safeguarded to modern standards.
  • The diversity of the region and its resource means that it is very well suited to pilot projects. It already has a growing reputation for strategic archaeological initiatives and projects that address research and conservation management issues at a thematic or landscape level, for example, the Raunds Area Survey, the Trent Valley Geo-archaeology project, the Conservation of Scheduled Monuments in Cultivation project (COSMIC) and the Creswell Area Management Action Plan. There is scope for the further development of such approaches and for integration with nature conservation objectives (e.g. Barnatt and Penny 2004).
  • Across the periods there is recognition of the value of existing archives and museum collections as sources of important research data, which are currently under-used. The need to prioritise the publication of certain backlog excavations is also recognised as essential.
  • The county HERs (SMRs) should be regarded as the ultimate record of the recognised archaeological resource. They require both enhancement, to include a wider variety of information (environmental data for example), and improved access, to encourage their use as research tools. The future should see the development of on-line access and web links to other databases.
  • Enhancement of the National Mapping Programme (nearly complete for the region) is integral to establishing and increasing access to the resource for research and management purposes.
  • Archaeological study of buildings (re. effective implementation of PPG15) is essential to full exploitation of this aspect of the resource (English Heritage 1997, MR5). The study of vernacular architecture, in particular, is recognised as under threat from the loss of this resource.
  • The encouragement of a research culture, through the partnership of local authorities, contracting units, universities and the voluntary sector (as well as developers) is vital in order fully to recognise and implement research opportunities and exploit funding opportunities. As part of the same resource advocated for the enhancement of public appreciation (see below), discussion networks using the web may be a key to effective communication between these sectors. The web also presents the solution to the problem of access to ‘grey literature’ and the continued support and expansion of the OASIS project, for example, presents the way forward, in tandem with the on-line access to HERs highlighted above.
  • Promoting the role of the voluntary sector is vital to the success of the Research Framework. Recognition of the archaeological resource has benefited immeasurably from the input of the voluntary sector, carrying out fieldwork which could not be undertaken by professional bodies. Individuals such as Derek Riley, Jim Pickering and Chris Salisbury have made very significant contributions to the archaeology of the region. The level of co-ordination and coverage of the sector varies across the region: Leicestershire for example has just celebrated 25 years of co-ordinated community archaeology organised by the county museum service (Bowman and Liddle 2004). Public interest in, and commitment to, archaeology is still a largely untapped resource and empowering the sector to undertake systematic fieldwork is an important way of engendering public appreciation and enhancing awareness of the archaeological resource. Local or county-wide fieldwork initiatives could easily be pump-primed through small grants available through the Heritage Lottery Fund ‘awards for all’ scheme and particularly the Local Heritage Initiative which is specifically designed to cater for such projects. Awareness of these schemes should be promoted; continued support for the Portable Antiquities Scheme is essential.
  • Besides the voluntary sector, the discipline has a considerable obligation to enhance public appreciation of the resource. In addition to museum displays and TV programmes, the web is one of the most creative (and limitless) ways of making the results of research accessible to the public. The Creswell Crags web site is a model for future developments and should become the major outlet for education, news and discussion on early prehistoric archaeology in the region. In terms of public perception, the Anglo-Saxon and Viking Ages represent poorly understood periods, which the archaeology of the region is better placed than many to illuminate, especially as they form a major part of history teaching at National Curriculum Key Stage 2.


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.

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