Field system orientation (III)

Following on from my previous work on field system orientation (I)(II), I have now finished data gathering for a set of 40 field systems across England, mostly within our case study areas, using data provided by Historic England’s National Mapping Programme. These cover almost 6,000 hectares and represent in part all of our time periods of interest (albeit there is only one early medieval example and even that is reuse of part of a larger prehistoric system). They should provide a decent set of evidence within which we can search for spatial and temporal patterns in prehistoric and Roman field system morphology.

I have gathered a whole series of metrics on these field systems (including dating evidence, length of boundaries, count of boundaries, etc.), which will be drawn upon in our later analyses, but I have started by thinking through orientation further. The set of graphs in the image below show the approximate orientation of field boundaries within each of our 40 field systems. The graphs require a little explanation. They each vary from 0 to 179˚ on the OS National Grid: this means that any axis through the centre of the graph represents 90˚ not 180˚. The black line shows the total length of boundary lines for each degree (relative to the bearing of greatest total length). Each line has been smoothed in order to bring out trends rather than showing the full complexity of the field system.

As such, symmetry along any axis on the graph can be seen as representing a stronger degree of “coaxiality”, as 180˚ on the graph represents 90˚ on the ground. Tighter peaks (so long as there are only two and they fall opposite each other) also represent a stronger degree of “coaxiality”. This provides us with a simple visual aid for assessing how “coaxial” or “rectilinear” a field system is and how each compares to other field systems. In this case, by “coaxial” I mean field systems where the boundaries tend to be orientated along two alignments perpendicular to one another.


The variation seen remains to be analysed, to see if there are patterns across time and space, but some tentative initial conclusions can be drawn:

  • Many field systems show strong perpendicular symmetry. This is often also the case with those that did not appear particularly “coaxial” in plan form.
  • Some field systems show no favouritism towards particular alignments, although even these often avoid certain alignments.
  • Currently, there appears to be a bias across the dataset as a whole towards a particular coaxial alignment approximately targeted on NNE/ESE, although this needs further investigation to see if this represents a strong bias in one particular time period or spatial area.

However, we have yet to explore this dataset in its fullest detail, so further work is needed. I will try to report on any interesting patterns seen here in the future.

Chris Green