Living on the Edge

 1998-99 Interim report

It is one thing to be able to identify the traces of prehistoric occupation in a place like Gardom's Edge, but quite another to determine what form that occupation may have taken and how it changed. There is no reason to assume that the manner in which people inhabited and thought about the land around them was necessarily a constant.

Our work to date suggests a series of profound changes in the ways that people encountered and used the area. The periodic, perhaps seasonal, use of the shelf by the scattered Neolithic groups who built the first enclosure may not have marked a total and dramatic break with the past. Sporadic finds of microliths suggest the use of a patchwork of forest and open ground by many generations of hunters and gatherers in what we call the Mesolithic. Created by natural agencies or through more purposive acts of clearance, areas of open ground may have attracted game and they provided a context for camps and seasonal activities.

This probably remained the case during the Neolithic, change perhaps marked by the use of the area in cycles of stock husbandry. Where game and other wild resources had once brought people to the area, now it was the requirements of moving and feeding cattle and other stock which animated the cycles of movement and residence followed by scattered groups. These continuities in the pattern and tempo of life hint at continuities in the ways that people thought about themselves and the land around them.

Despite certain changes in subsistence, it is possible that Neolithic communities recognised concepts of ancestry, identity and tenure that stretched far into the past. It may have been these values and relations that were renewed and reworked at tombs like Minninglow or Five Wells on the limestone, or when people came together at the enclosure on the edge.

Just how long this pattern persisted is difficult to determine and this remains one of the key questions that we are trying to address. It may be that the use of the shelf remained relatively seasonal for some time after the enclosure was constructed, perhaps for much of the Neolithic. It may have been in that context that some of the other monuments that we see today were constructed and visited - places like the earthfast boulder with rock carvings or the great barrow on the edge. On this issue at least, much remains uncertain.

Site of Bronze Age building with associated bank

Although dating is imprecise at present, there is no doubt that the passage of time saw changes in the character of occupation. At Gardom's Edge, as elsewhere on the gritstone uplands, the close relationship between many barrows, ring cairns, stone circles and cairnfields suggests that areas of settlement, cultivation and pasture were established at least as early as the Earlier Bronze Age. Although reasonably fertile, the light sandy soils of the area were relatively stony, and boulders frequently needed to be cleared into heaps before cultivation.

In certain areas, excessively stony areas and lines of boulders were barriers to cultivation, thus individual bounded fields may have contained several cultivation plots. Other parts of the area have heavier clay soils which, with a few exceptions, appear to have been avoided for cultivation. Subtle evidence for circular houses lies scattered amongst the fields, taking the form of slight platforms and stone banks.

Site of Bronze Age building with associated bank.

Cremation pit in Bronze Age building.

Pit containing cremation inside Bronze Age building

It would be easy to take this evidence as indicative of permanent settlement, and this is a view which is common in the literature. However, the situation was actually a little more complex than we sometimes suppose. Artefacts and radiocarbon dates indicate that many of the settlements and fields on the Eastern Moors were used for more than a thousand years.

Although work is still at an early stage, this impression appears to be confirmed on Gardom's Edge itself. Even clearance cairns convey a sense of duration in their structure, suggesting that many developed over long periods of time as soil eroded and as new patches of ground were taken into hand cultivation or used for stock.

Under these circumstances, the question that arises is how was such a protracted form of occupation possible? Given the nature of the soils in the area, it is highly unlikely that the shelf was capable of supporting people who practiced some form of intensive, short fallow, agricultural regime. Rather more likely is a pattern of sustained occupation which saw people rely heavily on stock and on crops that were grown on long fallow cycles. Immediate areas of cultivation and pasture probably moved with the seasons and at the timescale of generations.

The distribution of cairns, boundaries and other structures on the moor suggests that this pattern of sustained occupation was nonetheless bound by convention. Played out over many centuries, the keeping of stock and the cultivation of crops shifted back and forth within landscape divisions that continued to be respected over many generations.

Exactly how and when this situation changed is yet another of the questions that we are trying to address, and this brings us to features such as the large, linear stone bank that runs approximately east/west across the moor. Probably built in a series of stages over a relatively short period, the bank overlies a number of cairns and a small enclosure. It is therefore quite late in the landscape stratigraphic sequence for the area as a whole, and appears to reflect a concern with dividing up the land in a way that may have broken with tradition. Whether the creation of this bank went in step with changes in the use and perhaps the perception of land is something that we are currently trying to establish through excavation and through soils and environmental analyses.

With luck (a vital archaeological resource when working in the uplands), we also hope to be able to date the development of this feature. This will be crucial. While much of our evidence is likely to date to the various phases of the Bronze Age, it is likely that occupation and related activities continued into what we now recognise as the Iron Age. Although the climate may have deteriorated around the turn of the first millennium, pollen evidence suggests that farming may have continued in more favourable areas into the Later Iron Age. Soil deterioration and loss through erosion appear to have led to the eventual abandonment of many of the farmsteads in areas like those parts of Gardom's Edge that are currently under excavation.

Analyses of soil samples, environmental data and artefact assemblages from three years of excavation and survey are currently underway and these will be augmented by more evidence from fieldwork over the next two years. In order that you can get a sense of the current state of play, we have included descriptive accounts of many of our excavations on particular features. These are very much interim statements which will almost certainly require revision once further fieldwork and analysis has been completed. However, we hope that these statements give you something of a flavour of the evidence that we are currently working through.


Linear stone bank