Early Agriculture

Pages 20-26

A History of the County of Shropshire: Volume 4, Agriculture. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1989.

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Agriculture began to be adopted as the predominant mode of subsistence in Britain some time after c. 3500 B.C., (fn. 1) replacing the way of life that hunter-gatherer communities had practised over the previous six or seven millennia. (fn. 2) How the change came about, whether for example it was through colonization, indigenous development, or acculturation (the transference of ideas, beliefs, traditions, and sometimes artefacts by contact between societies), remains obscure. In what is now Shropshire little data has yet been found to contribute to the discussion, though there is enough to indicate that small communities of hunter-gatherers occupied the area before the introduction of farming. (fn. 3) Woods then covered most of the land, apart perhaps from the highest hill tops, (fn. 4) with thick, wet alder carr and willow on the flood plains and in the river valleys and broad leaved species, especially lime, dominant on the higher, drier ground. (fn. 5)

Evidence of Neolithic man's activities and his impact on the environment comes from three main sources: pollen sequences that show vegetational changes, the archaeological investigation of sites, and stray finds. Together they show that over much of Britain there was patchy clearance of woodland in the later 4th millennium b.c. as the pioneer farming communities began to establish themselves, herding animals, especially cattle, and growing cereals, mostly wheat and barley. It was at that time that the first permanent settlements began to be built, along with enclosed fields, and funerary monuments. The equipment necessary for farming, such as axes, sickles, quernstones, storage pits, and pottery containers, also appears for the first time. (fn. 6) In the Shropshire area early Neolithic activity was apparently fairly restricted. The pollen evidence from Crose Mere, Baschurch Pools, and other sites suggests that clearances were small in scale and relatively short lived, and that, while they may have altered the forest structure locally, with birch and ash increasing as the amount of lime decreased, the total tree cover was not substantially reduced. (fn. 7) The archaeological evidence seems to tell the same story for very few sites of this period are known. Settlements at Sharpstone Hill near Shrewsbury and at Bromfield may possibly belong to the early (3500-2900 b.c.) rather than the middle Neolithic. Neolithic pits at Bromfield contained grains of barley (Hordeum vulgare) and seed from ivy speedwell (Veronica hederifolia L.), a common weed on cultivated ground. Hazel nuts were also found at Bromfield, evidence of the part that woodland resources continued to play in the economy. (fn. 8) Hunting too probably remained important. (fn. 9) Even less is known of activity in the county in the middle Neolithic period (2800-2400 b.c.), to which a possible occupation site at the Roveries near Bishop's Castle can perhaps be assigned and some of the flint implements found in south Shropshire. (fn. 10) In the succeeding late Neolithic and Beaker periods (2400-1800 b.c.) the pattern of land use was changing, and by c. 2000 b.c. agriculture had expanded in various parts of the country, especially upland areas. Specialized practices seem to have developed, notably short range transhumance involving the movement of pastoralists and their animals to upland summer grazing. (fn. 11) Such a pattern is suggested, for instance, by evidence from Trelystan, just across Shropshire's western border near Welshpool, where the excavator of one of four barrow groups on the Long Mountain suggested that the hill provided summer grazing for the barrow builders whose settlements probably lay on the lower land. (fn. 12) Occupation of that date on Pontesford Hill is also indicative of upland exploitation. (fn. 13)

The arrival of metal working c. 2000 b.c., and the start of the period traditionally called the Bronze Age, had little immediate effect on farming. Nevertheless evidence, particularly from burials, indicates a highly stratified society in which prestige goods, often changing in fashion, were important. Prerequisites for the development of such a society would seem to be the evolution of landownership and the control of resources. (fn. 14) It is thought that in middle and late Bronze Age Britain more land than ever before was under cultivation, with extensive farming of areas little used today, such as the North York Moors and Dartmoor. (fn. 15) Numerous round barrows on the uplands of south and west Shropshire, such as the Long Mynd, (fn. 16) and 'Celtic fields', such as those on the sides of Caer Caradoc near Church Stretton, (fn. 17) indicate the extent to which man was using the higher land in the area at that time. The pollen evidence from Crose Mere, Whixall Moss, and Baschurch Pools confirms the importance of the Bronze Age, rather than the Neolithic, for the expansion of agriculture in the area, with major long term clearances being made for the first time. (fn. 18) Nevertheless it is likely that especially on the wetter, heavier soils very extensive woods remained uncleared throughout the Bronze Age. (fn. 19)

In the early 1st millennium B.C., the late Bronze Age, signs of stress appear in society, caused perhaps either by climatic deterioration (fn. 20) and the resulting difficulty in farming the higher ground or by soil exhaustion brought about by heavy exploitation over several centuries. Upland areas, particularly those under arable cultivation, were abandoned, while settlements began to be enclosed-defended it seems-by palisades, ramparts, and walls. In some parts of the country boundaries were created which defined large territories, perhaps associated with a new emphasis on pastoralism. In some areas pit alignments, that is rows of closely spaced pits running for hundreds of metres or more, seem to have been used to divide the land. (fn. 21) Several such alignments are known in Shropshire, though of unknown date. (fn. 22) The emergence of the bulk salt trade from the Worcestershire and Cheshire areas in the early 1st millennium B.C., evidenced by finds of briquetage salt containers from sites including Sharpstone Hill, (fn. 23) may have been at least partly due to the pastoralists' demand for salt. It would have been needed both as licks for the animals and to preserve their meat. (fn. 24)

About 650 b.c. iron began to be exploited more extensively than before, an innovation which traditionally marks the beginning of the Iron Age. Within 300 or 400 years iron was in common use in a way that bronze had never been, with even basic farming equipment and tools being made of iron rather than wood or other less durable materials. (fn. 25) That may have had a considerable effect on the speed with which agricultural tasks could be performed, and in turn on the amount of land that might be worked. In fact, according to the pollen evidence, in the Shropshire area the Iron Age saw intensive campaigns of woodland clearance, with large-scale fellings first of broad-leaved woods and probably slightly later of the alder and willow woods on the lower flood plains. Palaeo-environmental data from a number of sites in the Severn basin have shown that such vegetational clearances in the mid 1st millennium B.C. were sufficient to cause extensive erosion and a consequent increase in flood-plain alluviation. (fn. 26)

By c. 800 b.c. hill forts were being built, striking testimony to the wider changes affecting society. About the 4th century B.C. there was what seems to have been a process of centralization; many hill-top sites were abandoned, whereas those that remained had heavy new defences added in the form of additional ramparts, ditches, and outworks. Shropshire's uplands have one of the highest concentrations of hill forts in the country. Few, however, have been investigated archaeologically. The basis of their economy therefore remains uncertain, especially the degree to which their inhabitants were personally engaged in farming the forts' hinterlands as opposed to drawing goods, rents, or tributes from a tenant or subject population in a wider territory. (fn. 27) Excavations at the Wrekin yielded carbonized grains of wheat, lesser amounts of barley, and some wild oats and hazel nuts. A cow bell was also found. (fn. 28) It appears likely that, at least for upland Iron Age communities, stock rearing remained of primary importance, the uplands being largely devoid of boundaries other than occasional and often major territorial ones which seem to have served to divide the grazing lands. Such may be the purpose of the dykes cutting across Stapeley Hill near Chirbury. (fn. 29)

A different landscape and economy was found on the lower lands, especially on the well drained soils along the Severn and its tributaries. Similar contrasts between upland and lowland have been noted in other parts of the country. (fn. 30) Along the rivers, as aerial photographs show, farmsteads were numerous, each surrounded by its own fields in which both arable and pastoral farming was practised. (fn. 31) The grain produced was stored above ground in structures supported on four main posts, rather than in underground storage pits. (fn. 32) Usually the farmstead was surrounded by a substantial ditch, and probably a bank and palisade as well; the scale suggests a defensive function, further evidence, with the hill forts, of the unsettled nature of the times and the competition for resources. At Sharpstone Hill Site A an unenclosed settlement with associated field system was replaced c. 800 × 300 b.c. by a small square enclosure, c. 35 × 40 m. internally, which contained at least one round house. Nearby, at Site B, a larger enclosure was increasingly well defended after the later 1st millennium B.C., at first by a palisade, then by a single ditch, and finally by a double ditch. (fn. 33) Until more sites have been examined, however, it is difficult to talk of typologies, chronologies, hierarchies, or the farming economy, and studies elsewhere have stressed the complexity and variety of systems that may lie behind site-types superficially alike. (fn. 34) Generally it seems probable that during the Iron Age expansion of settlement and possibly aggressive competition led to greater economic specialization and so to more clearly defined farming regions.

Roman military power had reached the area by c. A.D. 52, (fn. 35) the conquest rapidly and permanently altering the local power structure. The hill forts were either abandoned or taken-the gate and internal buildings of that on the Wrekin were burnt, never to be rebuilt (fn. 36) -and it must be assumed that the native aristocrats either professed allegiance to Rome or were replaced. Otherwise, compared with much of Britain, the conquest had relatively little effect on the Shropshire area. Perhaps most remarkable is how little apparent change there was in the organization and farming of land, at least as evidenced by the construction of villas. Fewer than ten are known in Shropshire, and the enclosed 'native' farms seem to have continued in use as before. (fn. 37) It must be stressed, however, that the evidence is slight, and that those conclusions are somewhat at variance with orthodox opinions. Those maintain that the Roman conquest introduced or strengthened the impetus to produce a surplus, either by necessity through the exaction of taxes or by choice as people sought to acquire the means to pay for new types of luxury goods. (fn. 38) The likeliest explanation for that variance may be geographical, that the Shropshire area was on the western edge of what was anyway a peripheral province of the Roman empire, and that there, even in the 1st and 2nd centuries, Roman administration, organization, and influence was less effective than in more central areas.

The only towns established were Viroconium Cornoviorum (Wroxeter) and Mediolanum (Whitchurch). (fn. 39) In fact there were probably fewer large nucleated settlements in the county in the Roman period than in the late Iron Age when several of its hill forts may have had a population of a few hundred. Modern excavations of Viroconium have produced firm evidence about the food processed and consumed in the town. Most of it was presumably produced locally. Cattle provide the one possible exception, and it has been suggested that the cattle trade may have been the town's economic basis, rather as Oswestry's was at a later period, funnelling the trade between the highland and the lowland zone. (fn. 40) Excavation of 1st-, 2nd-, and 5th-century levels at Wroxeter has shown that cattle bone, always in the vast majority, increased over time at the expense of sheep, a trend visible on many other Romano-British sites. (fn. 41) Two other gradual changes were noted: an increasing proportion of the cattle bones were those of immature animals, probably reared specially for meat; and both the cattle and the sheep increased in size. Moreover there was a greater genetic difference between animals of the 1st and 2nd centuries than between those of the 2nd and 5th. Those facts suggest that the native stock was improved or replaced in the 1st and 2nd centuries by imported animals. Pork was also eaten in Viroconium, and red deer bone was present at all dates but in very small quantities.

Archaeological investigation has also revealed the main crops sold and consumed in Viroconium. (fn. 42) Wheat was the dominant cereal; the main species were spelt wheat (Triticum spelta) and emmer wheat (T. diococcum). The compact bread wheat T. aestivo-compactum was also present, but in small quantities that may cause its use to be underestimated: in such free-threshing wheats (unlike the glume wheats, spelt and emmer) the ears do not have to be parched before threshing and casual depositions are thus fewer. Barley occurs less frequently than wheat, and is the six-rowed hulled type (Hordeum sativum or H. sativum hexastichum). Rye and oats were relatively rare. Weed seeds found in the town are typical of those from cereal fields. The only other field crop represented was the pea (Pisum sativum). Also noted were hazel nuts, blackberries, and elderberries, which may also have been gathered for sale or consumption.

Some time after the formal end of Roman rule Viroconium and Mediolanum fell into disuse, and it seems that the few villas did also. Generally it is likely that the end of Roman rule had relatively little impact on farming in the county, and that there was essentially a continuity in rural settlement and farming patterns and practices from perhaps the middle of the 1st millennium B.C. to some time after the middle of the 1st millennium A.D.

What forms of landownership obtained and how estates were organized before the Norman Conquest necessarily remain speculative. Nevertheless there are clear indications that in Shropshire, as elsewhere, some, if not all, settlements were grouped in units of administration or lordship. Domesday Book records 25 instances, mostly on the estates held by Earl Roger in 1086, of manors with berewicks, outlying and subsidiary settlements. Two other manors had 'members', and three more manors were said to be berewicks of other, unspecified, manors. Lege, probably Longnor, was subject to an unnamed 'head manor'. (fn. 43) Manors with berewicks were spread fairly evenly across the whole county apart from the Clun area, where their absence may not be significant. Such estate organization is found in most of pre-Conquest England. It shared characteristics with arrangements described in considerable detail in Welsh law tracts of the 12th century and later, the central concept of which is the support of head settlements by a hierarchy of subsidiary ones owing rents, tributes, or services. Such 'multiple' estates may have origins in pre-Roman Celtic times. (fn. 44) By 1086 it appears that in Shropshire that form of estate organization was disappearing, not least in the face of Norman manorial reorganization. How widespread it had once been, and when it had evolved are questions impossible to answer. No hint of local estate hierarchies is given, for instance, in the few Saxon charters dealing with lands in Shropshire. (fn. 45)

An intriguing, and unanswerable, question concerns the relationship between estate organization and the fundamental change in the rural settlement pattern and farming systems that occurred at some stage in the 400 years preceding the Norman Conquest. Nucleated settlements began to replace dispersed farms, and a part of the land associated with such settlements began to be subdivided in some fashion among those who had (or thus acquired) a share in it. That seems, on the available evidence, to be the context in which open fields began to evolve, though there is no documentary evidence for the process and the archaeological evidence that is available is slight. Medieval ocurrence of the name 'old field' as at Bromfield, Chetton, Coton, Madeley, and Smethcott (fn. 46) may indicate remaining memories of the original open-field nuclei in those places. (fn. 47)

Little is known of late Saxon Shropshire beyond the image of it preserved in the Conqueror's survey of 1086. It appears likely that a growing population and demand for food-perhaps the pressures that had generated the emergence of nucleated settlements and open fields-continued to mould the countryside, bringing new land into cultivation and reordering the methods of cultivation on the older-settled lands. The landscape that Domesday Book records was an ancient one, formed by man's exploitation of it over several millennia. Nevertheless it was a landscape that was in the middle of a period of unusually rapid change in the face of intensified land use. As has been seen that was but the most recent of a series of major changes over the previous 5,000 years in how the land was cultivated. Those changes, resulting from the interplay of environmental, social, and technological developments, were just as dynamic as those in later, better documented times.


  • 1. Dates thus expressed are in calendar years. Uncalibrated radio carbon dates appear as 'b.c.'.
  • 2. T. Darvill, Prehistoric Brit. (1987) is cited frequently below on general points. The bk. has a thematic bibliography providing an up-to-date guide to the diverse literature on prehist. Brit. Dr. Darvill is thanked for his comments on this article.
  • 3. e.g. W. Britnell, 'A barbed point from Porth-y-waen, Llanyblodwel', Proc. Prehist. Soc. 1. 385-6; T.S.A.S. lix. 198-210.
  • 4. Environment in Brit. Prehist. ed. I. Simmons and M. Tooley (1981), 105, 202.
  • 5. Palaeohydrology in Practice: A River Basin Analysis, ed. K. J. Gregory, J. Lewin, and J. B. Thornes (1987), 226-8; Archaeological Aspects of Woodland Ecology, ed. S. Limbrey and M. Bell (Brit. Arch. Rep. International Ser. cxlvi), 23- 55; inf. from Dr. A. G. Brown, who is thanked, on unpubl. work in the Perry catchment area. Mr. J. B. Innes is also thanked for help.
  • 6. Darvill, Prehist. Brit. cap. 3; Simmons and Tooley, Env. in Brit. Prehist. cap. 4.
  • 7. Gregory, Lewin, and Thornes, op. cit. 228-32; S. Twigger, 'Differential Human Impact in later Prehistory: Vegetational Clearances in N. Salop.', Circaea, iv. 21-6; P. W. Beales, 'Late Devensian and Flandrian Vegetational Hist. of Crose Mere', New Phytologist, lxxxv. 133-61; D. Pannett and C. Morey, 'The origin of the Old River Bed at Shrews.' Bull. Salop. Conservation Trust, xxxv. 7-12; P. H. Rowlands and F. W. Shotton, 'Pleistocene deposits of Ch. Stretton and its neighbourhood', Jnl. Geological Soc. cxxvii. 612-17.
  • 8. S. C. Stanford, 'Bromfield-Neolithic, Beaker, and Bronze Age Sites, 1966-79', Proc. Prehist. Soc. xlviii. 288; W. Midlands Arch. News Sheet, viii. 14; ix. 13-14; x. 21-2; inf. from Dr. Darvill.
  • 9. Darvill, Prehist. Brit. 53-4.
  • 10. T. C. Darvill, 'The Neolithic of Wales and the Mid West of Eng.' (Southampton Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1983), 319- 422.
  • 11. Darvill, Prehist. Brit. 105.
  • 12. W. Britnell, 'Two Round Barrows at Trelystan, Powys', Proc. Prehist. Soc. xlviii. 183-91.
  • 13. Prehistoric Man in Wales & the West, ed. F. Lynch and C. Burgess (1972), 345-53.
  • 14. Darvill, Prehist. Brit. 85-106; Simmons and Tooley, Env. in Brit. Prehist. 240-9.
  • 15. Darvill, Prehist. Brit. 105.
  • 16. Inf. in S.M.R.
  • 17. Clwyd-Powys Arch. Trust, air photo. colln. 87-MB99, 100.
  • 18. Gregory, Lewin, and Thornes, Palaeohydrology in Practice, 228-32, 242; Environmental Archaeology: a Regional Review, ii, ed. H. C. M. Keeley (1987), 113.
  • 19. Below.
  • 20. Simmons and Tooley, Env. in Brit. Prehist. 256-61.
  • 21. Darvill, Prehist. Brit. 106, cap. 5.
  • 22. e.g. SA 600, 2269; T. Rowley, Landscape of Welsh Marches (1986), 30.
  • 23. E. Morris, 'Prehist. Salt Distributions: Two Case Studies from W. Brit.' Bull. Bd. Celtic Studies, xxxii. 336-79; Darvill, Prehist. Brit. 129-30.
  • 24. J. Clutton-Brock, Nat. Hist. of Domesticated Mammals (1987), 67.
  • 25. Darvill, Prehist. Brit. 153-5; S. C. Stanford, Arch. of Welsh Marches (1980), 85.
  • 26. Gregory, Lewin, and Thornes, Palaeohydrology in Practice, 239, 242. See also Simmons and Tooley, Env. in Brit. Prehist. 267-71.
  • 27. Darvill, Prehist. Brit. 133-44.
  • 28. S. C. Stanford, 'Wrekin Hillfort Excavations 1973', Arch. Jnl. cxli. 74, 80-3.
  • 29. SA 3967, 4122; cf. G. Guilbert, 'Ratlinghope/Stitt Hill: Earthwork Enclosures and Cross-Dykes', Bull. Bd. Celtic Studies, xxvi. 363-73 and pl. II.
  • 30. Gregory, Lewin, and Thornes, Palazohydrology in Practice, 264; Aspects of Iron Age in Central S. Brit. ed. B. Cunliffe and D. Miles (1984), 78-85; Pragmatic Archaeology: Theory in Crisis, ed. C. F. and V. L. Gaffney (Brit. Arch. Rep. Brit. Ser. clxvii), 95-9.
  • 31. e.g. G. Webster, The Cornovii (1975), 90-2.
  • 32. Stanford, Arch. of Welsh Marches, 108.
  • 33. Webster, op. cit. 92.
  • 34. Cunliffe and Miles, Aspects of Iron Age, 73.
  • 35. Webster, op. cit. 28-9.
  • 36. Arch. Jnl. cxli. 85.
  • 37. Stanford, Arch. of Welsh Marches, 154-5.
  • 38. Romano-Brit. Countryside: Studies in Rural Econ. and Soc. ed. D. Miles (Brit. Arch. Rep. Brit. Ser. ciii), 25-7.
  • 39. SA 2702.
  • 40. Inf. from Mr. P. A. Barker, who is thanked for his comments on Wroxeter.
  • 41. B. Noddle in Integrating the Subsistence Econ. ed. M. Jones (Brit. Arch. Rep. International Ser. clxxxi), 211-38, and in Husbandry in Europe, ed. C. Grigson and J. CluttonBrock (Brit. Arch. Rep. International Ser. ccxxvii), 105-24. Miss Noddle is thanked for commenting on the bones from the excavations of Mr. Barker and Dr. G. Webster.
  • 42. Mr. M. Charles is thanked for inf. on work done by himself and Mr. M. Monk.
  • 43. C. P. Lewis, 'Intro. to Salop. Domesday', Salop. Domesday, ed. A. Williams and R. W. H. Erskine (forthcoming). Dr. Lewis is thanked for sight of his unpubl. wk.
  • 44. e.g. Medieval Settlement, ed. P. H. Sawyer (1976), 15-40; Wendy Davies, Wales in Early Middle Ages (1982), 43-7; cf. N. Gregson, 'The multiple estate model: some critical questions', Jnl. Hist. Geog. xi. 339-51.
  • 45. H. P. R. Finberg, Early Charters of W. Midlands (1972), 147-50.
  • 46. T. Rowley, Salop. Landscape (1972), 137; V.C.H. Salop. xi. 42; S.P.L., Deeds 3666.
  • 47. Origins of Open Field Agric. ed. R. T. Rowley (1981), 89.