The Memory of a Forgotten Landscape: A socio-topographical inquiry into the remains of Later Prehistoric Norfolk
Four decades of meticulous collection of metal detected finds data in Norfolk by the Norfolk Historic Environmental Record (NHER) and the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) have given rise to one of the largest regional datasets in English archaeology. It is estimated that this dataset contains approximately 1.5 million data points on artefacts spanning prehistory to the modern era. It provides a remarkably dense spatial and temporal distribution of past activity and a compelling opportunity to intensively analyse the circulation, deposition, and social significance of metals and metalwork in the prehistoric landscape. More than 70% of these finds come from arable land and not from traditional archaeological contexts, so the dataset covers enormous areas and indicates the presence of thousands of archaeological sites, many of which have never been examined in any detail. This information, coupled with the data compiled by cropmark surveys, like the National Mapping Programme (NNM) in Norfolk, provides vast potential for inferences about past landscapes. Yet questions remain as to the best ways to make use of these types of large datasets, a problem that collections of grey literature equally face.
However, the conscientious manipulation of the NHER/PAS datasets using a range of the latest techniques in GIS and statistics, including summed probability distributions for dating and geographically weighted regression to view the connections between disparate sites, coupled with the careful analysis and critique of biases in the underlying data structure, allows for a broad perspective on past patterns of life across much of later prehistoric Norfolk. It is possible to see trends occurring in both the circulation and deposition of metals in the longue-durée. This may shed light on the practice of votive deposition as a trend emerging from earlier prehistory but one that is largely dependent upon the social pressures of the current moment. This illuminates the ways in which certain features of social landscape recur again and again. The clustering and recurrence of hoards and other types of sites in certain localities across great time-spans is of particularly interest, and allows for commentary on place-making, social memory, and ritual during later prehistory.
As Cyril Fox’s famous regional study of archaeology showed, however, there is no substitute for being there, and a critique often levelled against GIS projects is that they are overly reliant on technical wizardry to see things that might not actually exist outside a computer. Therefore, a significant part of this research has involved many trips crossing the landscape on foot or by rail or by car, visiting sites much like Fox did in Cambridgeshire a century ago.
In such a way, it is possible to integrate the latest digital methods with more traditional landscape archaeology to present persuasive and novel models of the social, ecological, and geographical significance of Norfolk’s landscapes in the period leading up to the Roman conquest of Britain. Thus, this research clearly illustrates an array of methodological procedures for connecting the observations of metal detectorists to higher level discussions about the linkages between knowledge of place and knowledge of self, or identity, in the past. It also shows how large datasets can be used in thoughtful, contextual ways to learn about the past and to inform and shape future research agendas throughout the county.