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The production and consumption of cereals: a question of scale

By Marijke Van der Veen and Glynis Jones


In their paper Understanding The British Iron Age: An Agenda\ud for Action, Haselgrove et al. (2001, iv) identify regionality\ud and the nature of socio-economic changes as two of\ud the five key areas of future research on the British Iron\ud Age. As farming formed the basis of all societies in this\ud period, and as most settlements were farmsteads and\ud most people were farmers (ibid., 10), any assessment of\ud regional differences and socio-economic change will\ud have to include an assessment of farming practices. At\ud a basic level this concerns an assessment of the scale of\ud agricultural production (e.g. ability to produce a surplus,\ud intensive/extensive cultivation regimes) and of the level\ud of specialisation (e.g. crops versus animals, farming\ud versus non-farming settlements). It goes without saying\ud that the success of such assessments hinges on choosing\ud the right methodology and the right scale of analysis\ud and interpretation.\ud To date, much discussion of intra- and inter-regional\ud variation in Iron Age crop production has focussed on\ud the level of specialisation, namely the identification of\ud producer and consumer sites. A model developed by\ud M. Jones (1985) and applied to sites in the upper\ud Thames valley was the first apparently successful\ud attempt to identify settlements which produced their\ud own crops (arable or producer sites) and those which\ud received crops that had been grown elsewhere (pastoral\ud or consumer sites). This pioneering work brought\ud archaeobotanical data into the forefront of mainstream\ud archaeological debate and has stimulated much of the\ud more recent research in this area. The model aimed to\ud facilitate easy comparison between sites and monitor the movement of arable produce across the landscape,\ud and the results allowed M. Jones (1996, 35) to suggest\ud the existence of ‘neighbourhood groups of agrarian\ud sites engaged in a common network of plant production\ud and consumption’. While the main assumptions\ud underlying the model and the method of constructing\ud the diagrams were criticised early on (G. Jones 1987;\ud Van der Veen 1987; 1991; 1992, chapter 8), the model,\ud and the conclusions drawn from it, are still widely used.\ud In this paper we argue that the problems associated\ud with M. Jones’ model are such that it cannot be used to\ud distinguish between producer and consumer sites, and\ud that recent explanations of differences between\ud archaeobotanical assemblages at sites in the upper\ud Thames valley (Campbell 2000; Stevens 2003) are also\ud flawed. Here we briefly summarise M. Jones’ model, and\ud the criticisms it has received, and review the more recent\ud interpretations of the observed site differences. We then\ud approach the problem from a different angle, proposing\ud levels of analysis and interpretation more appropriate to\ud the data available and the questions posed. Finally, we\ud put forward our own interpretation of the patterning\ud observed.\ud As the model is based on the interpretation of charred\ud plant remains, our arguments inevitably involve detailed\ud consideration of the formation processes at work. In\ud this paper we try to put our case without recourse to\ud complex archaeobotanical jargon, to keep the paper\ud accessible to a wider readership. Some basic features of\ud cereals and relevant terminology do, however, need to\ud be explained first.Peer reviewed.Publisher Versio

Publisher: Oxbow Books
Year: 2007
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