Ancient Ways

What are Celtic Fields Systems

Stepping onto the lush green terrains of England’s countryside, one may stumble upon an indelible mark of ancient agricultural practices – Celtic fields.

Etched into the landscape with unmistakable precision, these seemingly obscure formations tell a tale of England’s rich and vibrant history. Dating back to the Bronze Age, Celtic fields provide crucial insights into the settlement patterns and agricultural methodologies of our ancestors.

The Origins and Development of Celtic Fields

Celtic fields, are an architectural legacy dating back to the Bronze Age (2500-700 BC)  in England.

These agricultural remnants are characterised by their small, rectangular patches, typically ranging from 0.1 to 0.4 hectares, intricately networked by narrow pathways and divided by low earthen ridges or lynchets.

Burderop Down, Wiltshire. Centuries of cultivation have obliterated what were once expansive "Celtic" (Bronze Age) field systems, leaving behind only isolated fragments.
Burderop Down, Wiltshire. Centuries of cultivation have obliterated what were once expansive “Celtic” (Bronze Age) field systems, leaving behind only isolated fragments. Image Credit: EH/NMR”

It should be noted that the term ‘Celtic’ is starting to be frowned upon by academia, however in this context, the term ‘Celtic’ does not imply any specific cultural or chronological order.

Read More: Ancient Trackways: Walking in the Footsteps of Neolithic People

These field systems, found in the chalk and limestone landscapes of southern and eastern England, testify to the profound influence of ancient agricultural practices on modern landscape formation.

Celtic Fields in Ancient Agricultural Practices

Celtic fields played a critical role in the agricultural routines of ancient communities in England. These plots were cultivated for growing crops, notably barley, wheat, and pulses, forming a vital part of the near eastern agricultural package imported into Europe. The minuscule size of the fields was likely a response to the limitations of the ards (primitive ploughs) used at the time, which were only effective in turning over small pieces of land.

Ariel picture of a Celtic field system
The size of Celtic fields can vary, but they are generally smaller than modern agricultural fields. Some Celtic fields are just a few acres in size.

The presence of Celtic fields also suggests a shift from the previously nomadic lifestyle towards more settled farming. These field systems indicate an increasing complexity in social organisation, which allowed for the division, allocation, and continued use of land.

Celtic Fields, Settlements and Population Structure

Apart from agriculture, Celtic fields can also provide insights into ancient settlements and population structures. These fields were often part of larger farmstead assemblages, including associated features such as roundhouses and trackways.

Read More: The Largest Pre-Historic Hillforts you Should Visit

Variations in the size, density, and organisation of the field systems can reflect different patterns of land use, population size, and social dynamics among ancient communities.

Preservation and Conservation of Celtic Fields in Modern England

Despite their ancient roots, many Celtic fields have survived into modern times due to their robust design and remote location. They form prominent features in the modern landscape, particularly in rural areas. However, these archaeological sites are often threatened by modern farming practices, urban development, and natural erosion, leading to a growing need for their preservation.

Celtic fieldss boundaries on the coast near Willapark in Cornwall
Field system at Forrabury Common. Old field boundaries on the coast near Willapark. The fields are known in old Cornish as ‘stitches’, describing the strips that developed during early Celtic farming times, and carried over into the Iron Age. Image credit: Richard Law

Efforts to conserve and manage Celtic fields involve a balanced approach between protective legislation, public education, and sustainable land use practices. Examples of these protective measures include designations under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979, and strategies for minimising damage from ploughing and other farming activities.

Celtic Fields: Echoes of England’s Past

Echoes of England’s agricultural past are imprinted on the land in the form of Celtic fields. These historical land parcels, scattered across the countryside, not only weave aesthetic beauty into the landscape, but also hold significant cultural value.

Read More: Iron Age Trackways That You Can Still Walk Today

Celtic fields are a tangible testament to ancient farming practices and societal structures, offering us valuable insights into the lives of England’s farming ancestors. So, keep your eyes open for these historical footprints during your next walk across the English countryside.

Architectural Characteristics of Celtic Fields

Originating around the Bronze Age, primarily in northern Europe including England, Celtic fields represent an age-old form of agricultural land use. Their unique size, shape, and layout have had a remarkable impact in molding the landscape of England’s countryside.

These fields usual measurement ranges from 0.1 to 0.3 ha, with the length of the plots falling between 20 and 60 meters. However, factors like geographical location, soil quality, topographical features, and local climate can influence their size.

Overwhelmingly, these land parcels were rectangular but showed some variability, reflecting a tailored approach to rural land use.

View of celtic fields in Cornwall
Celtic fields are typically small, rectangular fields demarcated by low earthen banks or stone walls. These boundaries separated one plot from another.

These ancient fields typically showcase a geometric grid layout, either parallel or perpendicular. This strategic arrangement optimised land usage and encapsulated the collaborative essence of Celtic farming. The proximity between the dwellings and the fields also throws light on the structure of early agricultural settlements.

Read More: Strip Lynchets Medieval Features in our Landscape

Among the unmistakable attributes of Celtic fields are their surrounding walls, or lynchets. Created from stones or earth removed from the field before planting, these served a dual purpose: delineating boundaries and defending against wind and wildlife. Today, traces of these protective barriers can still be spotted in parts of the English countryside.

Interacting with the Landscape and Current Identifiability

The creation of Celtic fields within England’s topography was guided by factors like the terrain, soil type, and availability of water. These fields were generally found on light, swiftly drained soils and often located on slopes to aid in drainage. It was also common to position them near rivers and streams.

Although these field systems are ancient, they’ve left a lasting mark on the landscape of England, predominantly through the construction of field walls. Lynchet walls, which are the most noticeable remnants of these Celtic fields, can still be observed frequently.

Lidar scan of celtic field system in Dorset
May not look much, but there are a ton of prehistoric/Celtic Field Systems in this LiDAR scan. They are very well preserved on the hillsides of our chalk downlands as the ploughman, and his Ox or horse teams, couldn’t get to them, thus leaving us with prehistoric agricultural remains.

With the passage of time, these old plots were frequently included in newer agricultural systems, thus extending their effect on the countryside’s appearance.

The advancement in aerial photography has provided a beneficial tool for identifying these prehistoric field systems within the modern landscape. Often, signs of their presence comes in the form of soil marks, crop marks, and subdued earthworks.

Read More: The Enclosure Act’s Impact on British Landscapes

Technological progress, such as LiDAR – Light Detection and Ranging, has been enormously helpful in detecting and surveying these Celtic fields. Today, Celtic fields are not only an integral part of England’s cultural heritage but also an identifiable feature of its countryside.

Due to thoughtful conservation and management, evidence of these early farming practices continue to shape the rural landscapes of England. They stand as a testament to the adaptability of early farming and rural communities in response to their environment.

Celtic Fields and Modern Agriculture

The effects of the Celtic field systems can be seen in contemporary English agriculture. The small and irregularly-shaped plots typical of these field systems are still a common sight across the English countryside, especially in regions like Devon and Cornwall.

The chalk hillsides in Dorset show great examples of these ancient fields, being on steep land has saved them from the plough. Permanent pasture is alive and well in these old fields.

Sheep grazing at Warren Farm. Looking north east from the farmyard. The celtic field system at Mere End Down can be seen in the background. Image Credit:  Simon Mortimer

Furthermore, the enduring presence of Celtic fields contributes significantly to local conservation efforts and biodiversity enhancement. These ancient field systems, with their hedgerow boundaries, provide important habitats for a variety of wildlife such as birds, insects, bats, and various flora. In places like the Cornish moors, the preservation of these ancient field systems is crucial to maintaining the region’s unique biodiversity.

In fact, many long-standing field boundaries are protected by law under the Hedgerows Regulations Act of 1997 for their historic importance and ecological value.

Though their physical presence has become increasingly subtle due to modern landscape changes, their impact continues to be felt in England’s rural tapestry.

The preservation of Celtic fields not only underpins the importance of heritage conservation but also reinforces our connection with nature and fuels our collective responsibility to maintain this delicate balance for future generations.