Fields and land division

Aerial photography has been key to identifying Iron Age landscapes in South Yorkshire, with much pioneering work undertaken by Keith St Joseph and especially Derrick Riley (Riley 1975, 1977, 1978; St Joseph 1969, 1977). Riley outlined three basic categories of fields and field systems (1980: 13). His most famous were the so-called ‘brickwork’ fields, named because of their regular co-axial appearance and found on the Sherwood Sandstone areas of South Yorkshire and north Nottinghamshire. Riley also identified fields ‘nucleated’ around enclosures and those more ‘irregular’ in pattern – these two forms were more common on Magnesian Limestone and Coal Measures areas. He noted that Roman forts and the lines of Roman roads were superimposed across some blocks of fields (ibid.: 25-6); and suggested that the nucleated and irregular fields pre-dated the brickwork examples. He thought the latter at least might be pre-Roman in date.

Riley (1980: 26) and Hayes (1981: 117) believed that the comparatively large size of many brickwork fields was too great for arable agriculture, and that due to poor grazing and lack of water sources they were probably pasture, perhaps for sheep. Branigan suggested that the brickwork fields were primarily for pastoral agriculture, with sheep kept not for meat as Hayes had suggested, but to supply an expanding Roman wool industry (Branigan 1989: 164). He thought that the apparent uniformity of the brickwork fields in plan was due to them being established by Roman surveyors almost like centuriation, with the fields part of extensive, centrally managed Roman estates, and the enclosures housing the estate workers. The many fallacies and assumptions underpinning such arguments have been outlined elsewhere (Chadwick 2008a: 104-9; 2008c: 224-6; 2013: 18-20, 25).

An overview of Romano-British field systems and rural settlement in England used the terms ‘cohesive’ and ‘aggregate’ to describe the differing field patterns across the wider region (Taylor 2007: 59, 62-66). Based on more detailed analyses, Deegan noted several inconsistencies with Riley’s scheme, not least of which being that the ‘brickwork’ fields were not arranged in a truly brickwork pattern – the short ‘cross’ boundaries were rarely staggered in alternating strips (Deegan 2007: 5-6; Roberts, Deegan and Berg 2010: 20). Riley’s ‘nuclear’ fields were illustrated with cropmarks from Hesley Hall, near Rossington Bridge (Riley 1980: 13, fig. 3); but Deegan argued that the enclosure concerned might have been a different date to the surrounding boundaries. Finally, it has become apparent that Riley’s ‘irregular’ category is rather an unsatisfactory grab-all type.

Deegan in contrast proposed just two main types of field system. Her ‘strip’ fields consisted of long boundaries at least 400m long and up to 100m apart with short cross boundaries, arranged in ‘bundles’ of four or more strips (Deegan 2007: 5, fig. 6.5; Roberts, Deegan and Berg 2010: 20-2). These correspond broadly to Riley’s brickwork fields and extended between Adwick-le-Street and Bentley, and north of Adwick upon Dearne near Barnburgh. The implication is that the ‘strips’ were laid out as long boundaries and then subdivided by shorter cross boundaries. It is a broader category that accounts for how the fields were probably created (q.v. Widgren 1990: 22), but the term ‘strip’ fields may cause confusion with the later medieval fields of the same name. It might also imply that there was greater centralised planning and a shorter and simpler developmental chronology. In contrast, ‘mixed field systems’ were much more variable in size, although sometimes fields of similar sizes seem to have clustered together (Roberts, Deegan and Berg 2010: 22).

Most blocks of brickwork or strip fields were terrain sensitive, avoiding river valley bottoms and following subtle ridges or promontories of slightly higher ground on low-lying Sherwood Sandstone areas, the gently undulating Magnesian Limestone and the broad, shallow valley of the River Don north of Doncaster (Deegan 2007: fig. 6V.5; Roberts, Deegan and Berg 2010: 22). Many long boundaries were orientated towards rivers (Deegan 1996; Robbins 1998). On Magnesian Limestone areas such as near Scabba Wood, Sprotbrough for example, several sinuous long boundaries and trackways sometimes acted as ‘axial spines’ for later land allotment and division. It has been proposed that their sinuous course might have been dug along the lines of geological bedding planes (Roberts 2008: 197; Roberts, Deegan and Berg 2007: 7), though there is no archaeological evidence for this. Alternatively, and more likely, they followed the edges of cleared parcels of land and existing woodland. In other instances, meandering lines of boundaries and trackways may also have reflected the irregular routes taken by livestock moving through the landscape. GIS-based analyses undertaken on a few case studies have revealed that fields of similar area were sometimes clustered together (Roberts, Deegan and Berg 2007: 20, fig. 25).

Many major boundaries were aligned roughly north-south and east-west, as at Lundwood, Adwick-le-Street, Barnburgh, Scawthorpe and Scabba Wood (Chadwick and Robbins 1998; Deegan 2000, 2001a, 2001b, 2007; Meadows and Chapman 2004), or on NNE–SSW orientations. This is similar to broad alignments of later prehistoric co-axial field systems identified elsewhere in Britain (English 2012; Green 2013, 2016; McOmish, Field and Brown 2002), although some areas of these field systems, such as those south and south-east of Doncaster, are less strongly aligned on such perpendicular bearings, with a possible slightly greater emphasis on east-west boundaries (Green 2014).

Recent lidar analyses of Edlington Wood identified systems of low stone earthwork banks, even with possible evidence for ploughing and hand-dug ‘cord rig’ (Buckland et al. forthcoming), though the latter is less certain. These rectangular fields appear to have had a longer north-south axis, unlike the fields detected through lidar at Birklands and Belhaugh Hays in Nottinghamshire (Malone 2017), which are much more like the predominantly east-west longer boundaries of the cropmark brickwork or strip fields at Barnby Moor and south of Rossington. This may imply different dates of construction and/or use; or different agricultural practices. It may even reflect social factors, perhaps even identity (see below).

Higher locales on the Magnesian Limestone and Coal Measures may not have been enclosed, though this is hard to ascertain due to later agriculture and erosion. Fields might have occupied the land between hilltops and ridgelines, and valley bottoms. Areas of co-axial brickwork or strip fields that appear uniform on large-scale plans have been shown to be more complex and not created in a single phase. At Edenthorpe and Armthorpe, individual fields, blocks of fields and trackways were added accretively to one another over time – there were different periods of ditch maintenance and re-cutting, in addition to changes in orientation and emphasis (Chadwick 1995, 1999, 2008c, 2013a; Richardson 2008). Even apparently simple sequences of ditch infilling probably reflected the thoroughness of frequent cleanings rather than short periods of use (Chadwick 1999: 161; Magilton 1978: 62).

It is impossible at present (and may always be) to establish if the fields within specific blocks of field systems were in use for arable or pasture at the same time (cf. Hayes 1981: 116-7). The size of the bounded field areas also need not reflect the areas that were in actual pastoral or arable use. In Sweden for example, prehistoric and early medieval boundaries did not define cultivated areas themselves, which were smaller plots within them, evidenced by clearance, lynchets or traces of fencing (Petersson 1999, 2008; Widgren 1990). These were only detected through the stripping and excavation of internal areas of fields. Land allotment, land division and land use are not the same as land use (Chadwick 2008b: 3-5). In South Yorkshire, the internal areas of fields have invariably been truncated by medieval or later ploughing. At Balby Carr, a rare waterlogged fenceline of oak stakes broadly followed the alignment of the ditched field boundaries (O’Neill 2005, fig. 5), although it was not clear if this fence was within a ditched field. The stakes themselves were sampled but unfortunately have never been analysed in detail or dated.


The dating of areas of fields is still problematic given the generally low levels of even Romano-British material culture outside of enclosures, the fact that artefacts tended to be deposited in particular areas (see below), and the usually poor preservation of organic material such as bone or wood that might be suitable for radiocarbon dating. At some sites such as Holly Grove Farm and Barnsley Road, both at Goldthorpe (Merrony 1993; Scales and Weston 2015), and Nether Moor Drive, Wickersley (Marot 2017) no dateable artefacts were recovered, not even worn Roman greyware. Given the relative scarcity of Iron Age ceramics (see below), a lack of Iron Age pottery need not necessarily indicate an absence of Iron Age activity (Chadwick 1997, 1999; Magilton 1978), and even where Romano-British pottery is found in upper ditch fills, this may only date the silting up of ditches, not their original digging. Trying to rigidly separate ‘Iron Age’ field systems from ‘Roman’-period fields is probably futile.

Radiocarbon dating has therefore been key. Radiocarbon dating of wood and bone from field ditches at Balby Carr returned three dates between 370 BC–AD 260 (Daniel and Barclay 2016; Jones 2007; Rose and Roberts 2006); indicating that the fields were probably later than the initial unenclosed settlement, but perhaps broadly contemporary with the enclosed phase. There was also one statistical outlier of 800–540 BC that may result from residual charcoal. Later Iron Age pottery sherds were also recovered from a series of narrow, sinuous gullies excavated at the Zone D2 site at Balby Carr, probably spade-dug slots designed to drain water from within a field (Cumberpatch 2008a: 13-14; Muldowney 2008). During the Finningley and Rossington Regeneration Route Scheme (FARRRS) across Potteric Carr, a date of 210–50 BC was obtained from alder cones at the base of one ditch (Daniel 2017: 7-8). A waterhole truncated by a later ditch yielded a date of 160 BC–AD 80 from waterlogged plant remains at the base of the feature, along with sherds of an unusual Roman mica-rich dish dating to the mid to later 1st century AD (ibid.: 17). Alder charcoal higher in the waterhole sequence returned a date of AD 20–130 indicating infilling during the late Iron Age or early Romano-British period. Later Iron Age pottery was also recovered from a linear ditch at Stainforth Marina (Strafford 2014). Pottery of late Iron Age date was also recovered from the primary fills of two ditches at Goldthorpe Industrial Estate, whilst charred wheat from the primary fill of the outer ditch of a field corner enclosure was radiocarbon dated to 46 BC–AD 76 (Ross 2014: 9, 20). As the enclosure was constructed at the intersection of two field system ditches, the latter must have been earlier. Mid-1st to mid-2nd century AD pottery was also recovered from some field ditches.

The Iron Age dates from Balby Carr, Stainforth, Goldthorpe, and FARRRS at Potteric Carr indicate the progressive enclosure of some areas from the later Iron Age onwards – in these instances this was of low-lying alder carr, damp pasture and sedge fen. The fields at Potteric Carr and to some extent at Goldthorpe Industrial Estate were also noticeably less regular in form than many co-axial brickwork examples – several at Potteric Carr were trapezoidal in shape; though in this area and at Balby Carr the earlier fields and enclosures seem to have been gradually incorporated within a more regular landscape. Most dateable ceramics recovered from excavated field system ditches, however, are of 2nd and 3rd century AD date (Roberts 2008: 193). This is evidenced at sites such as Gunhills, Armthorpe (Richardson 2008), Stainforth Marina (Strafford 2014), Rossington Grange Farm (Roberts and Weston 2016), and FARRRS (Daniel 2017). Although as noted above this Roman pottery does not always date the likely inception of the fields, it nonetheless suggests possible agricultural expansion during the Romano-British period. In the absence of any real evidence for the intensification of production (either arable or pasture), then it may be that extensification was being practiced (see below). The former raises output per unit area of land by increasing labour, soil fertility or other resources; whilst in the latter output is increased by enlarging the area under cultivation or pasture without a significant associated increase in labour or other inputs (van der Veen and O’Connor 1998: 127-9).

Many of the landscape changes in South Yorkshire during the later Iron Age and Romano-British periods suggest extensification rather than intensification, with areas of open heath or communal grazing gradually enclosed over time. Some Roman period landscapes were possibly more ‘open’ with less trees than even some contemporary farmed fields (Smith 2002). Areas adjacent to forts and vici may have seen more changes, particularly increases in livestock numbers, but overall much of the archaeological evidence does not suggest markedly more intensive, centralised modes of production implemented during the Roman occupation. There have been no large Roman-British crop processing facilities excavated, for example.

The palaeo-environmental evidence for the Roman period is complex. Along the River Trent in Nottinghamshire, there were some episodes of flooding and deposition of alluvial silts (Knight and Howard 2004: 117-120; Rackham 2000: 115). There might also have been late Roman flooding for areas beside the Rivers Don and Idle in South Yorkshire (Buckland and Sadler 1985: ch. 5; Dinnin, Ellis and Weir 1997: 124, 147). Loss of woodland and deeper ploughing with increased cultivation might have caused higher levels of surface run-off and soil loss (Didsbury 1992; Riley, Buckland and Wade 1995). Stimuli for the extensification or intensification may have been population increase, and growing demand for agricultural produce driven by the garrisons along the northern frontier and burgeoning centres such as the vici at Doncaster and Castleford. There might have been added need for meat, hides and draught animals, particularly by the military (q.v. Allen et al. 2018); and an increase in the cropping of winter wheat for tax payments.

It is notable that to date, no co-axial field systems of Bronze Age date have been identified in South Yorkshire, though some of the small irregular or nucleated fields surviving on the gritstone uplands may originate in this period (Barnatt 2008; Cockrell 2019). This is unlike areas of south-central and south-eastern England, where many so-called ‘Celtic’ fields on the chalk downlands, or large-scale systems across areas such as the Thames Valley, had their origins in the Bronze Age, even if some of them were subsequently reworked and altered during the Iron Age and Roman periods. This may imply that large-scale land division (but not necessarily land allotment) using formal boundaries such as ditches, banks and hedges did not take place until the Iron Age. Perhaps Neolithic and Bronze Age communities in the region were still quite mobile (T. Cockrell pers. comm.); but this must remain a supposition at present due to the lack of evidence. It is possible that if Bronze Age ditches and gullies were shallower and not as regular as Iron Age and Romano-British ditches, they did not survive millennia of later cultivation. There is some limited evidence, however, of later field systems respecting earlier features – at Goldthorpe Industrial Estate, one of the principal ditches of a later Iron Age and Romano-British field system that produced Iron Age and early Romano-British pottery sherds curved around a Bronze Age stone cairn (Ross 2014: 9-10, fig. 6); and field ditches at Rossington Grange Farm seem to have used Bronze Age barrows as markers (Weston and Roberts 2016: figs 2-3).

At the other temporal end of their construction and use-lives, it is difficult to assess when many of the fields went out of use and/or were abandoned. It was proposed that post-medieval field systems were usually very different in plan to the later Iron Age and Romano-British co-axial brickwork fields in Nottinghamshire, with little evidence for continuity of boundaries into the post-Roman and earlier medieval periods (Unwin 1983). Whilst this conclusion may be generally true for many parts of South Yorkshire too, there are exceptions. At Armthorpe, many of the co-axial field system ditches were slighted by boundaries that have to be post-medieval or at the earliest medieval in origin, yet some field boundaries at West Moor Park East were on the same orientation as early modern fields (Gidman and Rose 2004), suggesting the latter followed the alignment of existing earthworks. Some field boundaries may have survived as hedges and/or banks and ditches for considerable periods, although this need not indicate direct continuity. Rather, the weathered traces of earlier occupation would have influenced later generations of ditch diggers and hedge layers. At Goldthorpe Industrial Estate once again, two corn-drying kilns produced radiocarbon dates of AD 331–533 and AD 422–561 from primary fills (Ross 2014: 15). A charred cereal grain from the fill of an adjacent field system ditch returned a date of AD 540–644. The positions of both corn driers respected the field system – one was situated in a field corner, the other was parallel to an existing ditch (ibid.: figs. 8a, 9). The ditches and any associated banks and hedges must therefore still have been extant features in the post-Roman period.

There are some intriguing potential wider narratives with all this evidence. There were many apparent continuities between the later Iron Age and Romano-British field systems and patterns, which might indicate an inherent resilience, resistance to change, or even cultural continuities (M. Giles pers. comm.). On the other hand, some areas of South Yorkshire appear to have been transformed, particularly during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, and after this there is also possible evidence for over-exploitation and abandonment in places. There is much scope for those writing reports and interpretative accounts alike to explore some of these bigger themes.

Tenure and land use

There is little direct evidence for the agricultural regimes undertaken within the fields, other than palaeo-environmental analyses (see below). Some might have been used for arable cultivation, others may have lain fallow for several years. Tenurial rights of access and inheritance may have meant some fields were effectively abandoned for years or even decades (q.v. Chadwick 2008a: 207; 2008c: 224; Giles 2007a). Fields may have rotated between arable, fallow and pasture, and manure would have been needed to maintain soil fertility. In Iron Age Scotland and the Northern Isles there was careful stockpiling of midden material, which was then introduced into the soil (e.g. Guttmann 2005; Guttmann, Simpson and Davidson 2005). In the study region, this could also have been achieved through folding animals onto the fields.

In general terms, it has been noted that the archaeological patterns of a pastoral area are different from those produced by mixed farming where arable production is also important. Mixed farming regimes require the separation of livestock from areas of cultivation, which can mean more complex patterns with stock enclosures around settlements from which droveways lead through areas of fields to pastures beyond (Ramm 1980: 31). Pastoral areas have sparser settlement and simpler patterns.

The South Yorkshire field systems ranged from more mixed or irregular, nuclear and ‘ribbon’ arrangements to co-axial and ‘brickwork’ groupings. The mixed or irregular, nuclear and ‘ribbon’ arrangements of fields in South Yorkshire were more likely to have been associated with mixed farming regimes – this may have been the case with areas around Adwick upon Dearne, Barnburgh, Goldthorpe, Sprotbrough and Adwick-le-Street. Mixed farming may thus have been taking place on the Magnesian Limestone and Coal Measures areas (Deegan 2007). In contrast, co-axial brickwork or strip fields more probably resulted from a greater emphasis on large-scale animal husbandry (Chadwick 2008a: 207-10), and areas around Rossington and Edenthorpe may have been predominantly for livestock, though it is likely that arable farming also took place within them.

At Redhouse Farm, Adwick-le-Street, the Roman road between Doncaster and Castleford passed only c. 60m away from an Iron Age and Romano-British enclosure (Area 7 E1). Sealed beneath the agger of the road were a series of furrows. Some were deep, stone-filled features that were probably part of Roman road construction practices (Meadows and Chapman 2004: 14). Another group of smaller furrows were likely late Iron Age or very early Roman ploughing pre-dating the road, which was probably constructed in the 70s or 80s AD. Soil micromorphology indicated that the deposits found underneath the road were buried soils (Upson-Smith 2002: 57; Usai 2004: 25-30), but unfortunately not whether these were cultivated.

Research questions

  • Can we characterise different types of field systems in different landscape zones and environments? Do we need to adopt a more standardised terminology for describing field systems?
  • What were the economic, social or political roles of field systems?
  • What may we deduce from studies of field boundaries with respect to changes in the agrarian landscape?
  • How may agricultural changes have impacted upon settlement patterns? Can the relationship between sedentary and mobile economies be clarified, and how did this vary spatially and over time?
  • How may diet and land-use have varied over time and between different ecological zones?
  • What were the reasons for variations in the form, shape, and size of field systems and fields? Were functional or social factors (or both) important?
  • Can we say anything about power and identity (centralised or communal) through comparing the coaxial field systems of South Yorkshire with other field systems and landscapes elsewhere, such as the more linear enclosure groupings typical of East Yorkshire?
  • Can we determine the extent and nature of pastoral or arable regimes in the past, in either blocks of fields, or even individual fields? Were some enclosures and fields inhabited or utilised year-round, and others seasonally or even more episodically?
  • What was the nature of land tenure and/or ownership during the Iron Age and Romano-British periods? Do we have a life-history of a farm/field systems, and how might we achieve this?
  • Can the dates of field system inception, and disuse/abandonment, be established with any greater accuracy? Can we use GIS to help identify continuities and discontinuities of field boundaries over time?
  • Lowland areas can be particularly sensitive to climate change. Does this explain why many of the field systems apparently went out of use during the 3rd century AD? Is this supposition correct?

Priorities and implementation

  • Not all parts of South Yorkshire have been fully mapped to NMP standards using available aerial photographs, satellite imagery and lidar. Coal Measures and Millstone Grit areas need more detailed future work;
  • The GIS-based analyses undertaken as part of the Magnesian Limestone project proved useful in examining field sizes (Deegan 2007; Roberts, Deegan and Berg 2010). Such analyses could be expanded across South Yorkshire to examine relations (if any) between field size, shape, soil quality (q.v. Reader 2008), slope, aspect, altitude, date and other factors;
  • Linear field and trackway ditches need to be more intensively sampled on excavation projects, both to retrieve more artefacts and 14C/OSL samples for dating purposes, but also for potential palaeo-environmental information through pollen and soil micromorphology analyses;
  • On sites where extensive use of modern fertilizers has not occurred, then the use of phosphate analysis, soil aDNA analysis and soil lipid analysis (see above) might provide evidence of livestock presence and/or manuring (Costello 2018; Milek, Oehler and Anderson 2018; Rawlence et al. 2014);
  • The use of soil micromorphology and other scientific techniques to examine soils in field system ditches might provide some information on land-use;
  • Evaluation strategies are designed primarily to supply information to inform the planning process. That is important, but sometimes these projects never progress further than evaluation and watching brief stages. Even small-scale projects, however, could potentially provide important information for wider landscape stratigraphies and developmental histories;
  • Where appropriate, developer-funded reports on settlement sites should include basic GIS (Geographic Information System) viewshed and sight line analyses, orientated from features such as enclosure entrances;
  • Unpublished excavations of field system sites need to be published as a matter of urgency (see below).