As with all other periods, there is a constant need for syntheses that bring together the latest evidence in a clear and coherent manner, but much more than in earlier periods, the syntheses of this period need to draw on a wider pool of information, especially that provided by an enormous archive of contemporary documents and by a vast number of surviving buildings and other structures. On its own, archaeology can only, realistically, give answers to certain questions, but working in conjunction with other disciplines it can provide both deeper insights and corrective views.
Cemetery studies in this period are often difficult because of the need to heed the sensibilities of the current religious groups who control them, but where excavation is possible, these studies are essential to our understanding of past populations – their densities, age structures, diet, health and through emerging DNA profiles an unprecedented idea of folk groupings and movements. There is a need for dialogue with religious groups as to what sampling and study would be acceptable. More targeted research aims might aid this endeavour
Agriculture is the mainstay of the rural economy and varying farming regimes are often at the root of variations in regional landscape character. Archaeology can provide data on field shapes and sizes, plough types and techniques, crop and livestock species, and the processing of agricultural products.
Many other industries were carried out in a rural context – milling, potteries, iron works, tanneries, potash works etc – and more research is needed to understand them, to see how they appear in the archaeological record and to see how they differed from their urban counterparts.
The development and hierarchy of roads and other ancient routes require further study, including their origins, their characteristics and their role as determinants of landscape units. Water transport was also important in this period and needs further study, including the identification and characterisation of riverside docks, bridges, fords, etc. The navigability of individual waterways is under researched.
A big gap in previous frameworks is the absence of anything about churches and other religious structures and features. Churches and their associated land parcels are a major part of the medieval settlement pattern, as well as being one of the major pivots of medieval social life. There is a need to systematically record the evidence of the structural development of parish churches when the opportunities arise.
The churchyards also need further study in terms of their size, shape and the placing of the churches within them. Also their relationship to other landscape features such as manor houses, guildhalls, greens etc. needs more consideration.
Rural monastic establishments require further study, in particular the smaller ones and those of the more minor orders. There is a tendency to believe that they conform to standard layouts, but this is not always the case. Such studies should consider the entire monastic precinct as the unit of administration, rather than focusing just on the church and cloister. Further study of the relationship between monastic houses and their estates and land-holdings is required in order to better understand their role in the medieval landscape.
The origins and development of the different rural settlement types need further research, along with their hierarchic, topographic and functional backgrounds. The origins of the dispersed settlement pattern that is seen in much of this region needs further exploration, as does the question of its ‘archaeological visibility’ in earlier periods; what are its implications for social organisation and landscape development across the medieval period? Excavated sites should always be considered in relationship to their landscape setting as the layout of rural settlements tends to be heavily influenced by their farming regimes.
The ‘Gipping Divide’ in central Suffolk and other sub-regional divisions – how true are these, can we further define them, and how can we explore their origins?
The relationship between rural and urban sites also needs consideration. Rural markets and fairs show an overlap in function with towns and their are even ‘non-towns’ such as Lidgate in Suffolk which had burgesses and burgage plots but did not have a formal market.
More conclusive evidence is required for the origins and development of church-and-hall-complexes.
More should be done to clarify the dating of moated sites and to elucidate the variety of forms and sizes.
Settlement change, evolution and abandonment requires further study, particularly with reference to the evolution of greens and green-side settlements. Are there regional variations? Changing climatic and environmental conditions throughout the medieval period are not fully understood and evidence through palaeoenvironmental sampling should be sought to address this.
Surveys should be undertaken of coastal grazing marshes and the earthworks within them. Surveys should be undertaken of ancient woodlands, heaths and valley-bottom pastures. Important considerations are the locations of these in the landscape, edge definition and internal divisions.
Unfortunately there is a widespread disconnect between archaeologists and historic buildings specialists, resulting in a lack of coherence between above- and below-ground remains. Syntheses of the above-ground and below-ground evidence for structures needs to be encouraged.
The form of farms and farmsteads, the range of building types present and their functions need research. Also non-farmstead farm buildings such as sheepcotes, remote hay barns, pounds, etc. need more study and identification.
We also need to record, map and analyse construction methods and materials across the region. The region has a nationally significant number of medieval timber-framed buildings, but it is also important for early brick constructions. Flint is the main building stone of the region but in the more western parts of the regions there is also a significant use of stone, e.g. limestone, clunch [hard chalk] and carstone, whilst in the east septaria [mudstone nodules] and crag are sometimes used, with sarsen in the more southerly parts. The extent and nature of earth buildings (cob and clay lump) in this period is poorly understood. A potential bias in preservation needs to be considered in that higher status and better-built buildings are more likely to survive than lower status poorly-built structures. Similarly, different roofing materials needs to be considered – thatching was widespread, but differing materials and methods were used; clay tiles are also widespread, but stone ones occur in Cambridgeshire and wooden shingles are often overlooked.
The dendro-dating of buildings is needed to refine chronologies, both overall and relative. Further research is required on infill materials used in medieval timber-framed buildings, which not only have an important role in influencing regional building methods and trends, but also provide potential for the study of medieval cereal types.
The number of archaeologically explored medieval houses is still surprisingly small. There needs to be greater awareness within the profession of the very minimal footprint that many medieval buildings may have. These ephemeral traces can be easily removed during the machine stripping of a site, and a different approach is needed to ensure that any such evidence is not lost. More subtle methods are required to identify and record these feint traces. We also need to think more about predicting the locations of building land to be aware of the limitations of evaluation trenches in terms of their ability to provide a clear overview of the archaeology present on a site. We need to consider whether it is possible to develop methods to identifying buildings by proxy where they leave no clear trace. The employment of geochemical and micro remains analyses to identify house sites should be considered.
Where building recording is part of the planning process, the recording of individual sites should be accompanied by a process of synthesis, collating and considering the results of the surveys. Syntheses are required of the significance, economic and social importance of classes of historic buildings within an area. Fixtures and fittings in buildings (and their archaeological visibility) need to be recorded. These range from integral features such as staircases and doors to portable features such as late medieval coffers in churches.
Many of the region’s minor/rural castles are still not well understood in archaeological or historical terms; their place and significance in the wider landscape also needs assessing.