Winter Seminar 2016

Celebrating the Medieval Settlement Research Group’s 30th Birthday

Winter Seminar at the University of Leicester, 10 December 2016wp_20161210_14_50_43_pro

2016 marked the first thirty years of the MSRG in its present incarnation (it originated as the Deserted Medieval Village Research Group in 1952) and it seemed a good idea to the committee to celebrate this milestone in the life of the longest-established special interest group in the country. We thought it would be interesting to look both backwards and forwards at the development of medieval settlement studies and with this in mind we asked five eminent specialists to tackle different aspects during the afternoon. Between fifty and sixty members and friends gathered to hear five talks in what is often perceived to be the spiritual home of the MSRG, the university of Leicester, and to partake of birthday cake at the mid-afternoon break.

Professor Chris Dyer kicked off the afternoon proceedings with an affectionate look at the history of the MSRG from its earliest days as the Deserted Medieval Village Research Group reminiscing about the long-running excavations at Wharram Percy and how experts would drop in to offer advice, and how it became a place where new ideas could be tested and interpretations changed regularly. By 1986 the belief seemed to be growing that the group was too focussed on Wharram and it was in that year that the DMVRG merged with the Moated Sites Research Group. The early years of the MSRG saw it functioning as both an academic forum and a pressure group, with hindsight too many things to do and too few people to do them. It took over fifteen years for the Group to create its own logo and only in the last years of what are now called the noughties did our annual publication move from being an annual report to a peer-reviewed journal. Chris mentioned some other areas where MSRG had not been as successful as had been anticipated, balancing these with the Group’s positive achievements and its influence, an indication that MSRG is in a sound condition; and he took the opportunity to highlight the efforts of Robin Glasscock who was retiring after more than forty years as treasurer.

Dr Gabor Thomas in the first of two complementary presentations looked at developments in pre-Conquest settlement studies over the last decade, singling out the emergence of national syntheses (Hamerow, Loveluck, Rippon) and bio-archaeological research. He stressed that the picture of Anglo-Saxon settlement was considerably more diverse than thirty years ago, with increasing regionality in such aspects as farming practice and rural production. Site characterisation was revealing that clear-cut differentiation between, for example, high and low status settlements, the secular and the monastic, and between permanently and temporarily occupied sites, was too simplistic.

Dr Mark Gardiner in his assessment of post-Conquest settlement flagged up the publication of long-running, large-scale projects at Wharram, Raunds, Whittlewood and Shapwick, contrasting their completion with the present absence of anything comparable that is on-going. And while MSRG’s own publication of Medieval Settlement Research (2012) was a landmark, it was time for new syntheses utilising the information from these large projects. He then picked up three excavations from the last ten years – Botolph Bridge near Peterborough, Eldbottle in East Lothian and Mullamast in Co. Kildare – that had produced significant new information, and listed six themes which required research in the years to come.

Professor Sam Turner turned our attention to landscapes of the Mediterranean – Naxos, one of the Greek islands, Silivri in Turkey and elsewhere – where landscape characterisation has been coupled with optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating of cultivation terrace sediments. Stressing the delays inherent in acquiring results from conventional OSL dating methods he gave an overview of a new portable OSL reader developed by SUERC in Glasgow which promised the opportunity of rapidly acquiring complete dating profiles through earthworks and argued that the approach could be used for British medieval landscapes, not just lynchets, but also field banks and perhaps ridge and furrow. This approach had the potential for writing landscape history from the soil.

Finally, Professor Carenza Lewis took us on a wide-ranging assessment of the future from the limitations on research from garden villages and towns and the infilling of historic settlements to a vision of future settlements including one on Mars. These apart, she identified a range of questions for future assessment: the role of individuals in shaping the identity of communities and their settlements; the impact of external events such as disasters; on determining share resources and the effect of holding such things in common; about the sustainability of communities and how this is manifest in the record; on recognising local answers to global problems; and what are the modern benefits in undertaking settlement research. What of the approaches in the future? Carenza stressed the importance of the landscape scale of enquiry, the need for interdisciplinary approaches, of large data sets for analysis, and of mass participation and citizen research with settlement studies returning to their grass roots.

All in all, there was much to think about, and we can only speculate about what our successors will be saying when they celebrate MSRG’s fiftieth anniversary in 2036.

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MSRG ODE

MSRG’s 30
That’s a good ol’ age to be
Young enough to challenge
Matured to nod sagely

A group of many members
Some active others merely there
Some with fieldwork blisters
and others with less hair

A Group that’s made a big mark
In a variety of fields
erudite and vocal
in intellectual yields

We’ve generated knowledge
we’ve nurtured some great minds
we’ve encouraged younger scholars
we’ve published lots of times

From Beresford to John Hurst
those lords of Wha’ Percy
to the famous C C Taylor
and even Gardiner and Christie

There’s presidents aplenty
Have shone out a beacon
From Dyer, Stamper, Rippon
to Silvester, Everson

many names awash with knowledge
And with greying locks as well
Still knocking round the corridors
To cast their wordly spell

Plus figureheads of wisdom –
Hey, please, pray, do not mock –
Editors and Treasurers
Like Turner and Glasscock

Or Prof Carenza Lewis
And Alan Aberg too
This MSRG’s been mighty
A truly rich Who’s Who!

Conferences and seminars
Both Spring and in Winter
Plus field visits by keen members
Whom mud will ne’er deter

From scrutising sites of Mid Ages
Like moat or monastery
Hedges or field systems or
A passing DMV

And from early modes of publishing
To inform the members wide
So grew the Group’s Annual Report
With staples down the side

First typed up by young Dyer
On those photostatted sheets
Plus record cards and indexes
To put Group on its feet

But now of course it’s grander
Research reports, reviews
A journal of high standard
Thanks to Lewis, Turner and – you.

So there’s so much here to celebrate
As this fine Group hits 30
Not just names past and present
But the future ones plenty

To keep the Group in fine fettle
To nurture knowledge new
To build on these three decades
Yet with so much still to do

So, Happy birthday, MSRG
From groupies everywhere,
Keep on going, flourish,
Be bold and get out there!

NC Dec 2016

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