Trackways

Double-ditched cropmark trackways within South Yorkshire were sometimes sinuous, especially on the Coal measures and Magnesian Limestone; elsewhere such as on Sherwood Sandstone areas they could be straighter and more regular. They often made use of subtle changes in slope, as near Goldthorpe where a trackway followed a slight depression extending down into a river valley. Some trackways may have been created along more intangible traces of previous movement – different vegetation, trampled or rutted ground, and other ‘ancestral marks’ (q.v. Chadwick 2016b: 111; Giles 2007a: 109). Sometimes even double-ditched trackways were not created in a single phase but were a result of fields being added successively to one another, and trackways might have become single units only in later recuts. This too suggests that trackways were used as routes before they were ‘formalised’ with double ditches at a later date, when some might have become subject to greater social control and surveillance (q.v. Giles 2000: 179; Fenton-Thomas 2005: 58-59). Although trackways often appear to have been amongst the first features in a field system landscape, in some instances they can be seen cutting across pre-existing fields (Roberts, Deegan and Berg 2010: 24).

Trackways were not necessarily droveways, but many of them were orientated towards watercourses and floodplains and were up to 15-20m wide in places. Some were associated with livestock-related features such as funnel-shaped entrances, as at Gunhills, Armthorpe; Broom Hill, Harworth; Edenthorpe and Redhouse Farm, Adwick-le-Street (e.g. Richardson 2008: 13, 18, figs 10, 14; Riley 1980: 90, 103, maps 4, 12; Upson-Smith 2002: fig. 9). Some trackways led to what may have been large livestock corrals, as at Norton and Tickhill (Roberts, Deegan and Berg 26, fig. 32). Others were associated with enclosures with pronounced trackway entrances or pens attached to them (ibid.: 30, fig. 38), as at Brodsworth, Marr Thick, and Sprotbrough. This evidence all suggests the movements of large numbers of livestock through the landscape. Some trackways featured bulges that may be passing places, others have narrow constrictions, some of which might be ‘races’ used for the selection of livestock (Pryor 1998: 100-5, figs 52-53). At trackway junctions and gateways there is also evidence for sorting gates and other means of changing and restricting access.

On aerial photographs of some trackways the dark marks of such holloways are visible in between the double ditches, as with examples near Adwick-upon-Dearne, Barnsdale Bar and Bolton-upon-Dearne (e.g. Chadwick 2016b: 99; Roberts, Deegan and Berg 2010: 24). This is evidence of the passage of innumerable feet, hooves, and cartwheels over time, the settings for countless daily and seasonal movements. Some trackways were at least four to five kilometres long, so represented significant features in the landscape and considerable investment of labour. In traditional archaeological narratives of Iron Age and Romano-British landscapes, trackways are usually represented merely as means of getting from one settlement to another, or as purely functional features to assist with the herding of animals. The role of trackways as places in themselves is often overlooked. So too are the complex relationships between people and animals enacted within trackways, field systems, and the wider landscape. In addition to their functional role in channeling human and animal movements, it is necessary to consider the many social practices that would have taken place in and along trackways, and their consequent significant role in identity, memory, human-animal relations and everyday life in Iron Age communities (Chadwick 2007, 2008c, 2016b). People and animals would have met at passing places and junctions along them – meetings that could have been convivial; or alternatively sources of tension, even conflict.

An Iron Age inhumation burial at Bilham, Brodsworth was within a trackway but also near the funnel-shaped entrance into a ‘banjo’ enclosure possibly associated with livestock herding (Merrony pers. comm; see below). It may be that the trackway and burial were of two very different dates. It is more likely, however, that either the trackway was constructed across a known burial; or that the burial was deliberately placed within the trackway, in a location perhaps considered to be of great honour. The deceased young male might have been a cattle herder, or the community might have wished to have a known kinsman or ancestor looking out for their herds and flocks. The trackway might have been a material metaphor for a life’s journey, or a material mnemonic of a past life. Other Iron Age and Romano-British human and animal burials closely associated with trackways are known from the wider Yorkshire region and elsewhere (Chadwick 2016b: 102-5), and this suggests that trackways held great social significance and symbolic as well as practical importance.

Later Iron Age settlements, fields and communities tend to be regarded as relatively fixed and static, but the evidence from several enclosures in the region suggests that some were relatively short-lived (see above), in use for just a few decades or generations. Others, especially those on higher ground, might only have been occupied on a seasonal basis. Many people in later prehistoric and Romano-British rural communities might have spent more time moving along trackways and around fields than inside buildings and settlement enclosures. If such a more dynamic interpretative framework is followed, then it becomes clear that whilst enclosures and fields may have been in flux, major trackways might have been semi-permanent fixtures in the landscape, surviving in use over many centuries. At Adwick-le-Street, the grave of an adult Viking woman who had probably spent her childhood in Norway was dug into the fill of a Romano-British trackway ditch during the 9th century AD (Speed and Rogers 2004). This not only demonstrates that the trackway remained in use for many centuries, but also that it retained its social significance. Trackways reveal the importance of exploring the dynamic nature of landscapes, and the routine daily and seasonal movements of people and livestock.

Research questions

  • What were the economic, social or political roles of linear trackways?
  • What may we deduce from studies of trackways with respect to changes in the agrarian landscape? What can we say about any relationships or discontinuities between Iron Age and Romano-British routeways and roads?
  • Can we identify more tangible physical traces of past human and animal movements through the landscape?

Priorities and implementation

  • In places wheel ruts and/or animal hoof prints may survive within trackways, in holloways sealed by alluvium or colluvium. Where this is thought likely, excavation should proceed more carefully. This might be able to identify the size of vehicles used in the Iron Age and Roman periods. Examination of casts of Bronze Age hoof prints found at the Flag Fen basin made it possible to identify ages and sizes of livestock (M. Knight pers. comm.);
  • It should not be assumed that trackway ditches or adjacent areas will produce little material culture. Structured deposits and human and animal burials are known from trackway ditches or within and beside trackways in other regions, including South Elmsall in West Yorkshire and Easington in East Yorkshire (Chadwick 2016b: 102-4; Grassam 2010; Richardson 2011). Two inhumation burials, one dated to the Iron Age, were associated with a trackway at Brodsworth in South Yorkshire (C. Merrony pers. comm; see below);
  • Trackways entering alluvial should be targeted for detailed excavation, to determine whether they did lead out onto floodplains, but also to find possible buried animal hoof prints. Excavations in the Flag Fen basin, for example, found thousands of Bronze Age cattle hoof prints and tracks of other species, sealed beneath alluvium and peat (M. Knight pers. comm.). Lowland river valleys may offer some broadly analogous depositional environments;
  • In unpublished client reports as well as published reports, articles and monographs, consideration should also be given to thinking about likely paths of human and animal movement in and around settlements, through trackways and across the landscape. Access analyses, GIS, and Structure for Motion software can all be a means of exploring some of these spatial relationships and movements;
  • A research project examining South Yorkshire’s trackways would be an ideal collaborative venture between a university and local societies. In addition to traditional field survey, geophysical survey, and targeted excavation, a university might be able to contribute expertise with aerial photographs and lidar data. This would be especially useful on Coal Measures and Millstone Grit areas not covered by the Magnesian Limestone Project.