Settlement Patterns and Landscapes

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The archaeology of settlements has grown progressively in its scope and methodology over the long history of the discipline, so that the modern study possesses a wide range of topics and approaches. The general public is still naturally fascinated by images and reconstructions of monumental, nondomestic sites, such as burial mounds, temples, and fortified centers, which were the main focus of pioneer research into archaeological landscapes during the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries a.d. Even in those times, however, more everyday insight into the landscapes and settlements of ordinary people came with unusual archaeological discoveries, such as the wonderfully preserved, volcanically sealed small Roman town of Pompeii or similarly preserved, but water-sealed Swiss prehistoric lake villages.

Indeed, most modern research into past communities and their surroundings is focused on the farms, villages, and even field systems of ordinary people in the past, who were, for the most part, agriculturalists and herders. This aspect of settlement archaeology really took off in the first half of the twentieth century in Europe, as in many other regions of the world, and for interesting reasons is still relevant today. On the one hand, there has been wider public education, the increased involvement of amateurs in archaeology from all social classes, and the influence of trends in the study of history toward a greater concern with the everyday life of people of all social classes. This trend has been coupled, on the other hand, with the wide impact of such technical developments as aerial photography. (In this respect, both world wars were major stimuli for European landscape archaeology.) Together, these factors all have contributed to making contemporary settlement archaeology a very "democratic" field of the discipline.

Typically, investigations into where and how people lived in the past begin with the intensive study of the layout of domestic residential sites. This is followed by the plotting of systems of settlements across the countryside, with special emphasis on their relationship to the natural environment and land use and the combination of the two in social and economic terms. In parallel, environmental archaeology (the study of animal bones, plant remains, and the physical environment of the past) provides a direct link between the debris found on settlements or in palaeosols (fossil soil horizons) connected to other monuments and contemporaneous landscapes, and the type and degree of human impact.

Some researchers turn to settlement archaeology in the search for cross-cultural regularities—preferably with a very exact or even mathematical form, in the light of a global science of human settlements. The internal form of domestic settlements (intrasite study) should express in constructed space the workings of the social group it housed. The analysis of settlement systems across the landscape (intersite study) should reveal strong, regular settlement patterning correlated with quantifiable environmental variables and with the attempt to define rather abstract laws of human motion in space (e.g., site catchment analysis, discussed below) and a patterning of a geometric kind reflecting a very ordered spatial patterning of human settlements at the regional scale (locational analysis inspired by developments in human geography).

These aims are part of modern approaches to past societies, but for many archaeologists they seem too mathematical and deterministic as a way to view human behavior. In fact, they developed and became most popular in the 1960s, when many social scientists were attracted to searching for laws of human society that might parallel the laws of natural science and mathematics and that could be found through applying the new science of computing. A similar fascination with the "geometry" of settlement forms a strand in archaeology's cousin discipline of geography, a topic that was at its most popular in the 1960s in a field of study that was termed the "new geography."

Modern scientific analysis of human behavior in space, as it applies to archaeological studies, has even more powerful computerized applications to test for patterns within and between settlements or in relationship to different aspects of the natural environment. These are largely scientific spatial techniques adopted from geography since the 1990s, primarily a method of rapidly evolving computerized mapping called GIS (Geographic Information Systems).

A different approach within contemporary settlement archaeology begins with a contrasting perspective. Rather than using modern technology to detect abstract patterns in ancient settlement systems, which may not have been apparent to these past communities, this alternative method tries to reconstruct how past peoples built their settlements and lived in their landscapes, following ancient ways of seeing the world that doubtless diverged significantly from our own. This equally important type of study can be linked to a shift of interest within the humanities since the 1970s. This view has moved away from the modernists' hard scientific approaches and reliance on mathematics and computing toward more "humanistic" or "human cultural" insights, often termed the "postmodern movement" in the social sciences. How does this approach work in practice? At the individual site level, house and settlement plans are studied as reflections of ancient ways of seeing or categorizing the social world. At the landscape and regional level, an attempt is made in the study of settlements and other monuments to recover the "mental maps" or "sacred geographies" portraying the wider landscape in peoples' minds that were part of a past peoples' shared culture.

Although at times the enthusiasts for scientific, computerized settlement archaeology and those who favor a more anthropological and cultural form of investigation seem to be pursuing incompatible approaches, there is actually no reason why the two cannot work alongside each other. One could use GIS not only to compare the location of ancient farms with varying soil types, exposure to sunlight, and dominant winds but also to pursue human visual or aural experiences of the countryside (the ways past people imagined, visualized, and even heard the world around them).

intrasettlement archaeology

Analysis of past settlement sites generally relies on combining various methodologies. Very rarely are such sites totally excavated, especially if they are larger than single farmsteads. Thus, inferences are made by linking windows of detailed information from dug sectors (if available) with wider site coverage, utilizing surface artifact survey, aerial photos, and a battery of geophysical and geochemical techniques. The primary aim is to define the boundaries of domestic activity and its varying character across the site and in each period of occupation. A secondary aim is to define the forms of economic activity carried out at the site. Third, and usually most difficult, is the attempt to reconstruct the social organization and mentalities or worldviews of the site's residents.

A significant theoretical and methodological stimulus has been research into the social logic of space with "access analysis," pioneered by Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson. The ways in which individuals navigate around a settlement or within a house can tell much about public versus private spheres of life, the physical separation of people of different social or political classes, and the attitudes to gender in a society. Often, the preserved plans of structures and communities form maps that reveal the fossilized traces of these past social norms. Examples from the study of early-farming periods in the Near East and later prehistoric Sicily illustrate the increasingly sophisticated approaches being developed to push our interpretative frontiers in these more challenging directions. In these cases growing family privacy and household economic specialization can be followed through the careful analysis of the dynamics of settlement plans.

intersettlement archaeology

We can make a useful distinction in most cases between the relationship of a settlement to its immediate landscape and its relationships with neighboring and more distant settlements. By the 1930s, and increasingly in later decades, archaeologists and geographers investigated the location of domestic and other sites with respect to the qualities of their surrounding physical landscapes. The focus was on geology and soils, with the aim of testing whether past peoples selected habitation places because of the proximity of certain types of cultivable or grazing land and mineral or other resources. By the later 1960s a series of studies by human geographers and anthropologists had suggested that the characteristics of landscape exploitation by humans around settlements were similar to those of the territorial behavior of many animal species. Moreover, such exploitation was constrained by the economics of daily travel to fields or pastures remote from home.

During the course of the twentieth century, geographers found that clusters of rural farming and stockbreeding settlements in medieval and early modern times were serviced by regularly spaced "central places" that provided administrative and commercial functions. In some elaborate state societies these service centers might be ordered in hierarchies, each level with its own spatial logic. The fundamental idea behind the study of the extent of territory exploited from individual farming settlements without service roles, that travel time is a major consideration for daily work in the fields (the "friction of distance"), is also important for focal communities. Take the examples of market towns and Roman forts. In the former case it can be shown that peasants prefer markets that are accessible within a day's return to their homes, a two- to three-hour journey each way, thus producing rural towns at intervals of 20–30 kilometers or less. The same intervals might be reproduced in military control centers, allowing a fort under attack to be reached by a relieving force from adjacent bases that lay within a day's march.

The study of an individual site's "territory," in cases where the main daily activity was agricultural and pastoral exploitation of the immediate hinterland, took off in the 1970s as "catchment analysis." (The term derives from the area of land draining into a particular river and hence reminds us that rural settlements usually live by bringing in products from a defined block of surrounding countryside.) When the method was invented, its originators were keen to demonstrate that past peoples were practicing a very rational form of economics in deciding where to place their settlements. Criticisms rightfully were raised from the 1980s onward that we should not ignore alternative social and symbolic explanations for settlement location, but we can surely combine these approaches without sacrificing the usefulness of one type of territorial analysis of a past settlement in its landscape.

Catchment analysis seeks to determine the types of resources accessible at increasing distances from the domestic habitations of communities that are thought to have obtained their livelihood mainly through exploiting the site's hinterland. This method may reveal that a group of sites in a particular region and period all lay in a highly rational location to maximize efficient use of particular types of land or landscape. Equally, the same locations may be revealed to have been chosen with defensive, religious, or other noneconomic factors as the primary concerns and thus perhaps were less than desirable in terms of quick access to arable fields or meadows for grazing flocks.

Anyone who has worked for years among farming communities of varied cultures will be struck by the farmers' intimate and detailed knowledge of the properties of every field and hillside in their landscape. These communities have a keen sense of the advantages and disadvantages of the local terrain for bringing in a successful subsistence crop or salable product from their cultivated plants and domestic animals. Yet settlement archaeologists today are also correctly aware that they must balance the rather easier task of reconstructing the daily toil of past farmers and herders, and its effects on the form and placement of settlements, against the ways in which religious and social ideologies may have been marked in the landscape. As previously noted, with the assistance of GIS there now exists a more adaptable form of catchment analysis. Basic parameters, such as environmental and climatic conditions or prevalent technology, can be enriched through considering the interplay of neighboring settlements, relations to strategic or religious monuments or landscape features with symbolic value, and such factors as intervisibility of domestic, religious, and strategic places and related forms of landscape perception. In this context intervisibility refers to the ways in which ancient people could observe and thus visually participate in events, ceremonies, and symbolic links to different parts of their spatial world, and be observed themselves by other people.

A great deal still can be achieved through the continuing study of the systematic patterning of basic rural communities of the hamlet or village class across past landscapes. When we observe, for example, how a region fills up with settlements in the long term, the size of communities and distances between them form patterns that often are the same in widely differing cultures and from very different time periods. A significant threshold is crossed again and again when we note the crystallization, out of networks of such primary nucleations (concentrated groups of people in a single settlement node), of so-called corporate communities of the village-state or proto-city-state type. These seem to mark a common giant step from small rural settlements with similar political standing to the emergence of the "state."

This neatly brings us to the "central place" theories in archaeological settlement studies. Developed in the first half of the twentieth century by geographers, this concept goes well beyond the simple observations that most rural settlements cluster around market towns where various important services are available and that such foci tend to be within easy reach of most rural dwellers. Some geographic theorists, inspired by the desire to find a set of human behavioral laws and mathematical patterning comparable to the laws of physics and the geometry of many aspects of the natural world, have suggested that there is a detectable tendency toward highly elaborate and overlapping regular designs in the layout and spacing of district and regional foci of political and economic control. It has become apparent, however, that the extremely complex geometry that illustrates the theoretical schemes for central places by such human geographers as Christaller, Loesch, and others rarely agrees with geographical reality. It is therefore not very surprising that although settlement archaeologists have tried to find parallels in premodern societies, they have found that archaeological central places are spread in a regular pattern over past landscapes only in very simple terms.

For example, administrative centers in the European Iron Age can be classed into giant, medium, and small-scale foci; each part of Europe had different combinations of these foci, and the patterns often changed by phase. Strong uniformity can be identified in the scale of territory focused on each distinct level of a center, and in some regions where all types are present, they seem to be nested within each other like Russian dolls. Quite basic methods can highlight such structures. One method involves drawing Thiessen polygons. In a particular region, sites considered to be administrative or market centers of equivalent status, each with surrounding rural communities for which they provide varied services, are taken as a set of spatial points, the aim being to suggest the likely boundaries of the regions they dominated. Lines are drawn between all adjacent centers, and at the midpoints a putative boundary is sketched in at right angles to the communicating line. Connecting all these midpoint boundaries leads to the creation of polygons around each center, taken to be a reasonable approximation of the division of control over rural settlements. The advent of GIS has refined such spatial tools, since this computer technology can replace a simple distance boundary between two centers with a more realistic one based on the calculated walking times, allowing for the variable terrain being crossed.

total landscape history

So far we have examined the internal plans of settlements, the way their occupants moved out to exploit a site's environment, and the dependency relationships between central places and the lesser rural communities they serviced. But also, how does one find, map, date, and interpret the vestiges of past settlements? It might seem relatively simple. Particularly in western Europe, beginning with the antiquarians of the Renaissance and continuing for some five hundred years, scholars and amateur enthusiasts have been traveling the countryside, noting evidence of ancient humans. By the nineteenth century, registers of ancient sites were being made on a national and parish basis, together with the first legislation to explore and protect them. Today these records contain not only the localized observations of many generations of skilled observers and the locations of finds reported to museums but also more recent evidence such as thousands of sites revealed through aerial photographs. Moreover, through redevelopment in town and country, accidental discoveries have been made. With such a history of research, the uninitiated might think that we would have a fairly complete picture of all the premodern settlements and other monuments.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In the 1960s a new form of settlement archaeology developed in the United States, which was to be transported and elaborated in most countries of Europe in the 1970s and 1980s—the regional surface field survey. In its more rigorous form, such a study involves teams of field walkers stretched out in close parallel lines, scouring a landscape field by field. They look not only for the obvious surface evidence (often recorded by previous survey), such as barrows, banks, and architectural debris, but also more particularly for the minutiae of everyday past life, such as potsherds, stone tools, fragments of glass, and coins. Normally, the most common surface artifacts are pots and lithics. Where such intensive surface studies have been carried out, the results generally have been to increase the density of known sites many times over. Because people living in ancient settlements deposited artifacts across the landscape as they exploited the hinterland of their homes, these painstaking methods also began to document the "offsite archaeology" resulting from such behavior. Such items include household rubbish spread across fields through fertilizing and flint tools discarded during hunting trips.

Regional surface survey has rapidly filled in the countryside with a density of sites, especially domestic settlements—an entirely unexpected result. Furthermore, the scientific plotting of finds across these sites and their laboratory study enables the archaeologist to date the periods in which people were active at these sites. Through rigorous analysis it is even possible to distinguish times when only a part of the settlement was in use or when the site was merely a temporary habitation or a nonresidential focus of rural activity.

Additionally, such surface techniques have proved invaluable in the intensive study of previously known sites, especially large ones. As archaeological techniques have become more painstaking and deliberate, the time frame required for total excavation of an ancient urban site, even a village, has grown beyond an archaeologist's lifetime. Increasingly, sites are being dug only if they are otherwise about to be destroyed through land development, and larger sites often can be protected from such a fate. The result is that for most nucleated settlements, there is no real prospect of total excavation. In this case, surface and nondestructive sub-surface prospection or geoprospection can come into play (i.e., ways to probe for information below the soil without digging). In a few short seasons of work, a city 1–2 square kilometers in extent can be gridded and a detailed collection made of its surface finds and architectural remains. Often this can allow for a general overview of the main phases of activity and their localization over different parts of the settlement. Sub-surface geoprospection (e.g., resistivity, magnetometry, and radar) can reveal such details as street or house plans, public buildings, defense walls, and industrial zones. With resistivity, electrical currents passed through the soil outline walls as strong resistance features and ditches as weak while magnetometry heavily magnetized patches of soil are detected as areas where hearths, kilns, or other industrial activities may have taken place. Finally, with georadar, sound waves passed into the soil can show at different depths the presence of archaeologyical layers, walls, and other solid divisions.

Excavation and total surface and sub-surface prospection, together with the reassessment and renewal of anthropological and historical models for intrasettlement analysis (social and economic, symbolic, and religious activities) continue to enrich understanding of the nature of life within past settlements. This encourages cross-cultural comparisons and contrasts, with reliable empirical and theoretical foundations, for human settlement behavior.

Despite the increasing intensity of surface survey, the resultant filling in of the landscape with past activity traces does not seem to be reaching the point of decreasing returns. This prompts the realization that even in Europe we are still at an early stage of understanding the degree of detail that is retrievable in reconstructing settlement and land use history at the microlevel (parish or commune). In just a handful of tiny landscapes within Europe have truly exhaustive investigations of individual parishes been undertaken, with the perhaps predictable result that yet another level of detail has become visible for landscape research, beyond that of intensive survey.

One example is the complete survey of the parish of Shapwick in southwestern England undertaken by Michael Aston and Christopher Gerrard. There, every field was walked for surface traces, shallow test pits (shovel testing) were widely deployed in areas where surfaces were obscured by vegetation, the gardens of village residents were sampled by test excavation, all parish toponyms from maps and villagers' memories were studied down to the intrafield level, and major excavations were carried out at the locations of the most significant settlement traces. An immensely detailed prehistory and history of the parish represents the outcome, from hunter-gatherer vestiges up to the long and complicated development of the modern village settlement (fig. 1). Another excellent example involves massive clearance by rescue excavation of large parts of the district of Oss in the Netherlands, where generational changes in household numbers and their domestic location can be followed through meticulous excavation by Harry Fokkens and his project team (figs. 2, 3). Until such studies are replicated in all the major landscape types across Europe, one cannot begin to imagine that we have correctly determined even the main lines of settlement and land-use evolution.

major themes in the evolution of european settlement systems and landscape use

One can highlight several themes in the development of settlement analysis, at the present time, some of which show the influence of abundant results from intensive field survey and the rise of micro-analysis of the landscape. In terms of intrasettlement studies, attention is being drawn to the material evidence that might help us recognize certain forms of internal social organization of a particular settlement. The relative importance of nuclear or extended families and wider real or fictitious social divisions (clans, moieties, and so forth), together with linked issues having to do with public and private space, feature prominently in current research. They stand alongside older, established types of analysis that looked at the physical segregation of elite groups or craftspeople and the evidence of communal planning (streets, defenses, public spaces, and communal buildings). Techniques such as access analysis are providing insights into the social behavior of past societies and the way it can be traced in the built environment. Patterning in the distribution of artifacts or ecofacts (animal bones, seeds, and the like) across settlements is used to indicate where different tasks were performed and whether different social classes had varying diets. It is also possible to trace links to other communities (through the exchange or importation of food or industrial products and access to prestige items). In line with a heightened interest in the symbolic world of past communities, the deep penetration of settlements by ritual activities has been much researched, with a growing consensus that many aspects of everyday life in rural communities did not respect our own division between functional and symbolic forms of behavior.

In the long term, there remains strong evidence at the most general level, from settlements and from other contexts, notably burials, that increasing levels of social stratification in Europe developed over time, with perhaps limited social distinctions for most communities in Mesolithic and earlier Neolithic times. This was followed by growing social inequality in the later Neolithic and especially into the Bronze Age. By the Iron Age social hierarchies commonly were associated with elaborate settlement hierarchies and large-scale political units.

Research at the intersettlement level has given rise to various intriguing models that, in many ways, mesh well with the broad trends in social organization just outlined. In most, but not all, parts of Europe, hunter-gatherer settlement systems emphasized mobility and flexibility of exploitation of the landscape. The Neolithic and Early Bronze Age frequently seem to be represented by small and short-lived rural sites, relocated again and again in relatively small areas of countryside without fixed land boundaries. Some scholars see this pattern as having more in common with preceding hunter-gatherer attitudes to settlement and landscape exploitation than with subsequent ways of using the land. In many regions the later Bronze Age and the Iron Age are associated with more permanent and often larger domestic sites, which are associated with the rise of increasingly elaborate land divisions. These trends toward greater fixity of settlement and property divisions (both within settlements and in the countryside) are compatible with more rigid, hierarchical forms of sociopolitical organization.

The potential interactions between modifications to the form of human settlements, formally structured landscapes and social and economic power, offer exciting opportunities to comprehend fundamental processes within European history and protohistory. For those who object to this kind of social evolutionary approach as harking back to the way in which the scholars of the Victorian era saw themselves as standing at the top of a pyramid of such social development, one can point out that this cycle of elaboration very probably is reversed in the post-Roman centuries, followed by the commencement of a new evolutionary cycle. Indeed, many parts of Europe seemed to evidence shifting settlement patterns in the Early Middle Ages, before the High Middle Ages reinvented fixed nucleated settlements and firm land divisions once again.

In line with earlier comments on the preoccupation of archaeological research with symbolic representations in the past, the landscape around settlements and the relationships between settlements are being investigated in ways that extend well beyond purely economic and social factors. To what extent are settlements and monuments placed to achieve a visual effect to impress outsiders or to mark sacred points or routes in the landscape? Through the tool "Viewsheds," GIS computer methods allow us to map what could be seen from a certain ancient site and how visible the site was to others. What activities in the hinterlands of settlements were related primarily or significantly to symbolic goals instead of or in addition to the functional needs of food, industry, and defense? Much research is being carried out on these new aspects of the landscape, but some caution is required to ensure a proper balance is maintained in our urge to find new perspectives.

Historical ethnography warns that in the vast majority of recorded historical societies, the great majority of the population are primarily concerned with ensuring a secure food supply and the economic stability of their families and with fostering positive social relations within their communities. Much less time and attention were paid to ritual behavior and symbolic representations, although they were never overlooked entirely. Naturally, the lifetime quest for a good income and social success often called on supernatural assistance through rituals and frequently achieved symbolic expression.


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John Bintliff