Context 145 - July 2016

22 C O N T E X T 1 4 5 : J U LY 2 0 1 6 ROBERT HUXFORD Lessons from medieval settlements Why study the origins of fields, villages and towns? Because 21st-century development is influenced by decisions that were taken perhaps 200 or 2,000 years ago, or even more. The pressures of the 21st century, the pace of life, the lack of time and resources seem to have brought to the planning system and practice in the built environment a worrying degree of superficiality. We appear to be content with a veneer of knowledge.We satisfy ourselves with basic physical descriptions: of shape, of style, and of surface. But where is that deeper understanding?The explanations? The knowledge of how and why? When it comes to the historic environment, advances in archaeological science including mapping, statistical and scientific techniques such as dating and ground investigation mean that there is an ever-deepening understanding of the past.We need this if we are properly to understand today’s world and how it is changing, and to make a success of modern development in towns, cities and villages.This year’s spring conference of theMedieval Settlement Research Group, convened by Professor Carenza Lewis (late ofTimeTeam) at the University of Lincoln, 29 April–1 May, had plenty of understanding on offer.The conference title was ‘Medieval settlement: recent archaeological research in rural settlements in eastern England’. Much of the research on settlements to date has focussed on deserted medieval villages; but according to Carenza Lewis, these villages are not typical, tending to be smaller, founded later, lacking a church, or on marginal land.This is why it is important to look at sites that remained in use – currently occupied rural settle- ments (CORS). Lewis has been leading a programme of community archaeology in eastern England, and the conference offered several presentations on the projects and the discoveries. The projects involve volunteers digging numerous holes across a village, one metre square and one metre deep.The soil is taken off in 10-centimetre layers and carefully examined. Finds (mainly shards of pottery) are dated, and the results recorded on digital maps. A picture emerges of where and when the village developed, and how intensively different parts were being used at particular times. The presentations talked of numerous types of pottery such as Nottingham splash ware, and more curious items such as ampullae (small vessels for holding water or oil used in the blessing of fields), or a gypsum plaster and lime floor of a particularly posh 12–14th century building. It is surprising howmuch of everyday life of the village is apparent from these pits. One, dug near an inn, contained a concentration of clay pipes.One can imagine a 17th-century scene of people with a pipe and pint hanging around the back of the pub. Some things don’t change. Well over 50 villages have now been examined in this way, with over 2,000 test pits dug, by thousands of volunteers. Lewis has aggregated the results and used the results to obtain estimates of population change across East Anglia. Her estimates of the impact of the Black Death were recently reported in national newspapers. Typically, the finds of shards fall by around 45 per cent in the period, and in some villages by as much as 71 per cent, indicating that the population fell by the same amount. Former open fields of South Kilworth nucleated village, Leicestershire, with ridge and furrows still visible