The landscape is a map drawn by history; reading the signposts to the past.

 


Reading The Signposts To The Past

Excavation is a means by which archaeologists determine the extent of an ancient site and unravel its chronology - identifying the earliest layers of occupation and those which have been deposited more recently. Through field survey, through mapping from aerial photos and by studying old maps, we can do the same for the landscape as a whole.

 

We recognise that the landscape around us has undergone many changes and is imbued with historical meaning. The settlements of today and the fields and sacred sites are built on top of precursors dating back many centuries. There are many examples in Cornwall where the imprint of these changes can be seen; where present day use of the landscape is overlying earlier signs of human activity that date back thousands of years.

 

Time depth in the Cornish landscape. The ploughed-over curvilinear banks are the remains of the fields of an abandoned Bronze Age farm on the slopes of Sharp Tor on Bodmin Moor. These are overlain by a straight bank running diagonally from right to left; this is a prehistoric pasture boundary forming part of a coaxial field system. The hedged lane is medieval in origin and the straight-sided fields above this were laid out in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service
Time depth in the Cornish landscape. The ploughed-over curvilinear banks are the remains of the fields of an abandoned Bronze Age farm on the slopes of Sharp Tor on Bodmin Moor. These are overlain by a straight bank running diagonally from right to left; this is a prehistoric pasture boundary forming part of a coaxial field system. The hedged lane is medieval in origin and the straight-sided fields above this were laid out in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

Rosemergy, West Penwith. The distinctive pattern of small irregular fields is prehistoric in character. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service Rosemergy, West Penwith. The distinctive pattern of small irregular fields is prehistoric in character.  Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

The surviving character of today’s landscape reflects human interaction through time. In parts of West Penwith, for example, the present day field systems are laid out over the lines of field boundaries first built in later prehistory. Steep valley sides covered in ancient woodland were probably not cleared in prehistory and will have been used as a source of fuel, coppice wood and timber. Rough ground on the moors and cliff tops was used for grazing; some still is, but some areas have been brought into agriculture over the last few hundred years.

 

A useful way of understanding the development of the landscape is provided by Historic Landscape Characterisation. This defines a number of categories of landscape character and interprets the activities that have produced each category and shaped the landscape through time. The West Penwith field systems which are prehistoric in character are formed by a network of small irregular fields, in complete contrast to the rectangular, straight-sided fields which characterise the areas of rough ground taken into agriculture in more recent times.

 

The curving irregular fields formed by the enclosure of medieval strip fields typical of much of Cornwall’s Anciently Enclosed Land. These fields are at Escalls, near Sennen. Cornwall County Council Licence 2007. © Geosense 2005 The curving irregular fields formed by the enclosure of medieval strip fields typical of much of Cornwall’s Anciently Enclosed Land. These fields are at Escalls, near Sennen. Cornwall County Council Licence 2007. © Geosense 2005

Historic Landscape Characterisation tells us that the greater part of the Cornish landscape was cleared and farmed in prehistory and this ancient landscape, termed Anciently Enclosed Land, has formed the farming heartland to this day. Most Anciently Enclosed Land takes its character from the laying out of communal strip fields in medieval times. The irregular sinuous character of medieval strip fields has been preserved by the enclosure of these strips between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries.

 

During the medieval period roughly a third of Cornwall was covered by Upland Rough Ground. This land had been cleared of trees and settled and farmed in early prehistory. Deterioration of the upland soils led to the abandonment of many of these ancient farms and rough ground, during later prehistory and the medieval period was exploited as a source of summer grazing and for fuel.  Large areas of rough ground were broken into agriculture from the eighteenth century onwards. This land is characterised as Recently Enclosed Land. The stimulus for this expansion in agriculture came from the wealth and increased demand resulting from the growth of the Cornish industries from this time. Many of the recent enclosures were the smallholdings of industrial workers, but the most widespread farming settlements of this period are new farms which generally have large rectangular fields with dead straight sides.

 

Straight-sided fields typical of Recently Enclosed Land around Hingston Downs, Calstock. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service
Straight-sided fields typical of Recently Enclosed Land around Hingston Downs, Calstock. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

Start of page^