The study of field systems (collections of fields) in landscape history is concerned with the size, shape and orientation of a number of fields. These are often adjacent, but may be separated by a later feature.
Types of field system
Although agriculture was practised earlier, the earliest recognisable field systems in England are neolithic. Cairnfields, which are pre-historic in date, are found in upland areas. They contain scattered stones and boulders and originated in surface clearance for agriculture.
So called Celtic fields can date from the Bronze Age through to the early Middle Ages. These fields are typically small and rectangular. They are frequently coaxial - that is they form a system in which the boundaries of adjacent fields make a series of long, roughly parallel lines. The extensive coaxial field systems established by the Romans are described as centuriation.
Open fields were very large fields in which many individual farmers cultivated their own strips. These were a frequently found feature in the Midlands but less so in the South-east and West country. No documents survive which explain how and when the change to open fields took place, but signs of the change are apparent in some areas in the 8th, 9th or 10th centuries. The use of open fields began to decline in the 15th century. The landscape of open fields was frequently called "champion country".
In England, enclosure of open fields during the 18th and 19th century produced field systems with larger rectangular fields, often with blackthorn hedges. Adjacent areas were often enclosed at different times, leading to a change in orientation of the field systems between the two areas. The pattern of ridge and furrow will often reveal the layout of the original open fields.
In parts of England where enclosure took place early (or which were never enclosed), fields are often small and have an irregular shape, sometimes described as "pocket handkerchief".
Recent changes of agricultural practice are eliminating old field boundaries, particularly by removing hedges, to produce much larger fields reminiscent of traditional open fields.
Identifying former field systems
The boundaries of earlier field systems that have fallen out of use, can sometimes be deduced by studying earthworks (lumps and bumps), cropmarks or by using geophysics. Studying early maps will often show the field system in use at the time the map was prepared. From the mid 17th century, landowners began to commission estate maps that show the size and layout of the fields they own. However, for many English parishes, the earliest written evidence of their field system is from the enclosure maps or tithe maps. It is often possible to draw conclusions about relative age by looking at how field boundaries meet. Later boundaries will often abut, but not cross earlier boundaries.
Drawing conclusions from analysis of field systems
Fields were organised for the convenience of the farmer - both arable and pastoral. Therefore, the size of fields often gives an indication of the type of agriculture and agricultural implements in use when they were established. The shape and orientation of collections of fields provides clues about the date they were established. Field systems can give an indication of land ownership and social structure. The extent to which the field system respects other features (or not) can be used as dating evidence for the other features or the field system itself. For example, a field system that doesn't respect a Roman road is likely to predate it. Similarly, a feature that respects medieval ridge and furrow is likely to post date it.
The Rodings (the largest group of parishes in England to bear a common name) was investigated by Steven Basset. Basset showed that a broadly rectilinear field system (and other features such as roads) continued across parish boundaries thus showing that the field system pre-dated the formation of parishes. He therefore concluded that they had originally been a single estate.
- Field Systems, English Heritage, May, 2011
- Taylor, Christopher. Fields in the English Landscape. ISBN 0-460-04159-2. (However, he says the term "celtic fields" is "totally misleading and meaningless.")
- Hooke, Della (1998). The landscape of Anglo-Saxon England. Leicester University Press. p. 115.
- Oosthuizen, Susan (2006). Landscapes Decoded. University of Hertfordshire Press. p. 13. ISBN 1-902806-58-1.
- ČERNÝ, Ervín. Výsledky výzkumu zaniklých středověkých osad a jejich plužin: historicko-geografická studie v regionu Drahanské vrchoviny. 1. vyd. Brno: Muzejní a vlastivědná společnost, 1992, 143 s. Vlastivědná knihovna moravská, Sv. 74. ISBN 80-850-4840-X.
- Hunter, John (2003). Field Systems in Essex. Essex Society for Archaeology and History.
- Rollason, Pam (June 2008). "Around the Rodings". Essex Life. Archant. p. 92. Retrieved 2009-02-03. (Registration required.)
- Basset, Steven (1997). "Continuity and fission in the Anglo-Saxon landscape: the origins of the Rodings (Essex)". Landscape History. 19: 25–42.
- Muir, Richard (2002). The NEW Reading the Landscape. University of Exeter Press. p. 123.