Option 2: Environmental Change & British Landscape Development 11,500 BP – 1700 AD/CE

Dr Richard Grove


Confronted by bewildering evidence of rapid environmental changes, we often find it difficult to distinguish natural from anthropogenic causes. Fortunately, opportunities exist for understanding the complexities of human and natural environmental interaction in Earth’s existing landscapes. The Anglo-Saxon landscape referred to an unspecified area with a common character ~ perhaps just the observer’s familiar neighbourhood. Objects, artefacts and other landscape features provide reference points, readily appreciated from the sixteenth century by the Dutch school of landscape artists.

Landscape therefore acts as to document its own evolution and its inhabitants; landscape elements represent signatures of past and present events and actions. Depending on their clarity and the interpretations we make of them, landscape analysis provides not only a record of the interaction of human societies with each other and Earth’s natural systems but also empirical evidence from which to derive an understanding of the mechanics of interaction and the basis for future predictions.

British Landscapes are amongst the richest and most diverse of any on Earth’s surface and the compact size of the British Isles ensures dramatic contrasts, over short distances, in ways in which human and physical forces shape the land. Within a land area of only 150,000 km2 lies a physical landscape evolved over the past 2.39 billion years of geological time and increasingly modified by human agency for the past 30,000 years. Many parts of the British Isles record almost continuous human settlement from the end of the last Ice Age ~ embracing inter alia the Neolithic (uppermost Stone Age), Iron & Bronze Ages, Roman and Anglo-Saxon settlement prior to the Norman Conquest and Medieval and Modern periods.

Academic Aims

This Option examines forces creating Landscape, the extent to which their signature is represented in British landscapes and the way in which these may be discovered and interpreted by the informed student. We draw on principles of investigation familiar to the student’s home landscape, from which we can make sense of less familiar elements in the “alien” British landscape. The meaning of Landscape and our individual impressions and definitions will inform initial discussions.

We examine British landscapes through representative time “slices” of the past 11,700 years, marking the Post-Glacial period in which interrelated developments occurred after landscape burial under a major Ice Sheet. Emphasis will be placed on the mechanics of landscape development and the recognition that this implies a state of dynamic equilibrium, with forces constantly at work capable of transforming its condition.

Change may occur imperceptibly, swiftly or catastrophically in human timescales. Landscapes may be damaged or obliterated; survival of evidence of their former existence is partial or absent. Disturbance, opening new spaces and opportunities, is a vital agent for development.

All of this makes the task of understanding the evolution of our modern landscapes difficult but challenging and we should also be aware that we are in the midst of contemporary processes whose outcomes are yet unknown. The evidence itself influences our interpretation and students are encouraged to evaluate critically its nature and sources.

Academic Programme

Keynote Lectures and Seminars provide a general review of the principal themes. Students will explore their more detailed aspects in tutorial essays, choosing one topic per week according to individual interests from options identified below.

Week 1: Landscapes of the Post-Glacial period and early Human Settlement

Illustrated Lecture : The Landscape legacy of the Late Quaternary Ice Age in Britain
Seminar : Our perceptions of Landscape
Tutorial : Climatic change & biophysical landscapes. Neolithic Revolution. Bronze & Iron Age Landscapes

Week 2: Landscapes of Conquest, Conflict & Cultural Assimilation

Seminar/Tutorial : Roman Britain & Romano-British landscapes. Anglo-Saxon Britain.

Week 3: The Norman Conquest and Settlement

Seminar/Tutorial : Castles & fortifications. Landscape impacts of Feudalism. Medieval Warm Epoch.

Week 4: Late Medieval – Early Modern Rural and Agricultural Landscapes

Seminar/Tutorial : Deserted Medieval Settlements. Agricultural Revolution. The Little Ice Age.

Week 5: Landscapes of Early Industrialisation

Seminar/Tutorial : British Landscapes of Production. Early Modern Towns. Industrial Archaeology.

Preliminary Reading List

The following list identifies some general texts, intended as useful introductions and background. It is not exhaustive but students will benefit undoubtedly from some reading prior to arrival in Oxford. More detailed reading lists accompany the Tutorial essay titles distributed during the Summer School.

Bell, M. & Walker, M.J.C, 2005 (2nd Edtn.), Late Quaternary Environmental Change : Physical & Human Perspectives, Harlow:
Pearson (ISBN 0-13-033344-1)

Behringer, W, 2010, The Cultural History of Climate, translated by P. Camiller, Cambridge : Polity Press
(ISBN 978-0-7556-4529-2)

Cunliffe, B., 2013, Britain Begins, Oxford: Oxford University Press. (ISBN 978-0-19-960993-8)

Hetheringon, R. & Reid, R.G.B., 2010, The Climate Connection : Climate Change and Modern Human Evolution. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press. (ISBN 13 978-0-521-14723-1)

Pryor, F., 2010, The Making of the British Landscape : How we have transformed the land , from Prehistory to the Today, London :
Penguin Books. (ISBN 978-0-141-04059-2)


© Dr Ken Addison, Oxford Academic Summer School Tours Ltd: for 2024

St Peter’s College Summer School at Magdalen College, University of Oxford