2.9 Roman and Medieval landscape

By Kristian Pedersen and Alexander Brown

The picture from South East Scotland supports the argument advanced by Hanson (1996) that significant deforestation occurred before the arrival of the Romans. Many of these clearings persist throughout the Roman period; major changes in land-use and landscape are not inferred from the available evidence (Hingham 1986). Changes in crop types at Roman sites are known, with bread- or club-wheat present, but it remains unclear to what extent these new crops were grown (Boyd 1988). Van der Veen (1992) has painted a picture from plant macrofossil remains from archaeological sites suggesting a comparative level of agricultural techniques to that north of the Tyne basin.

It seems likely that any degree of spatial coherence apparent in the late Iron Age and Romano-British periods, in the balance between wood and farmland, breaks down by the 5th century AD. Suggestions of a hiatus in agricultural activity during the late/post-Roman period in North East England and South East Scotland may mask a more complex picture of land-use.

At Dogden Moss, evidence for a decline in agricultural indicators and woodland regeneration during the late Roman period, taken to imply a gradual abandonment of settlement, is followed by fluctuating woodland clearance in the early medieval period from c. 1450 BP (Dumayne-Peaty 1999a). At Ravelrig, a slight increase in agricultural activity between c 1550–1350 BP is followed by a sustained decline in agricultural activity from 1350 to 500 BP (GUARD Archaeology Ltd. 2014).

By comparison, the palynological evidence from the Bowmont Valley includes evidence for continuity in agricultural activity across the early medieval period, with suggestions of possible woodland conservation (Tipping 2010). The identification of possible woodland management is critical as it has important implications for earlier interpretations of land use change across South East Scotland and North East England.

Photograph of view across valley.
Across the valley of the Bowmont Water, taken near Yetholm © Jim Barton (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Historical sources from the later medieval period provide ample evidence for the important role of woodland in the medieval economy (eg Rackham 2007), but this is challenging to identify definitively in palynological records, irrespective of the availability of documentary evidence. However, recognising the inherent value in woodland would help to provide a more balanced consideration of the palynological data; woodland is likely to survive in areas of poor agricultural soils, marginal poorly settled areas or where the woodland has practical uses. Moreover, documented changes in political control of the landscape, including the northwards expansion of Northumbrian rule into southern Scotland from the 7th century AD, are challenging to resolve in palynological records. Robust chronologies and high palynological sample resolution are vital to confidently suggest links between vegetation change and documented historical events and processes.