About the project

The 'agricultural revolution' of early modern Britain is well known: farming practices were rationalized, intensified and technologized and, perhaps most infamously, this process saw the rapid enclosure of most of England’s remaining open field systems. Less well known but equally significant is the transformation in arable farming that occurred several centuries earlier, which witnessed the first creation of those same open field systems, and which again fed a rising population – a population which had reached unprecedented levels by the 13th century.

Painting of a plough team at work

This early medieval agrarian revolution entailed nothing less than the cerealisation of England, in a pattern which also affected much of Europe: the expansion of cereal cultivation was the bedrock of demographic and economic growth. How, when, where and why this transformation occurred are some of the most abiding questions in British agricultural history, but more than 100 years of landscape-historical study have brought us to an impasse.

Manuscript illustration of medieval ploughmen

We need a new approach.

Enter Feeding Anglo-Saxon England (FeedSax), a new project targeted to address these longstanding conundrums from a bioarchaeological perspective. Funded by the European Research Council, and based at the Universities of Oxford and Leicester, the project will run for four years (2017-2021). The research team, led by Prof Helena Hamerow (PI), will apply a suite of bioarchaeological analyses to track developments in English farming between the 8th and 12th centuries.

FeedSax publicity photograph

For the first time, direct evidence from the plants that grew in those medieval fields, and the animals that ploughed and grazed there, will be brought to bear on these time-honoured questions using five main approaches.

  1. Archaeobotanical analysis: analysis of crop stable isotopes and arable weed seeds, primarily from ten case study sites, will be used to reconstruct methods of cereal cultivation.

    Photograph of archaeobotanist working at a microscope
  2. Analysis of botanical and settlement data: a dataset including over 4000 archaeobotanical samples from around 300 sites, along with settlement data and plans from published and unpublished excavation reports, will be used to address geographical variation across the whole of England.

    Photograph of a reconstructed Anglo-Saxon hall
  3. Radiocarbon dating: an extensive programme of AMS dating (of seeds and bone) will be combined with Bayesian analysis to give the required precision when tracing the spread of innovations such as the mouldboard plough and crop rotation.

    Photograph of some charred plant remains
  4. Analysis of animal bones: analysis of pathologies in cattle limb bones will elucidate the spread of the mouldboard plough, while analysis of stable isotopes in sheep will establish whether they were grazed mostly on arable.

    Photograph of an animal bone
  5. Pollen analysis: a database of existing pollen records for early medieval England will be compiled and new pollen cores will be taken, to generate the first detailed palaeoecological models of land-use change for this period.

    Image of pollen grain Photograph of coring being undertaken in a lake