Francis Pryor asks: How are Sheep Relevant to Life – and Archaeology?

sheep and archaeology

Ewes in our yard before being put to the rams. The sheep with orange marks on their heads are culls, which we send to Melton Mowbray Market.

DigVentures is pleased as punch to have an original blog to share with our readers from the one, the only, the mighty Francis Pryor. As an accomplished archaeologist, author, personality and general man-about-town, we’re thrilled that Francis decided to  tackle one of life’s great questions:

How are sheep relevant to life – and archaeology?

A few years ago, when Lisa was editing Current Archaeology, I told her that I thought I had learnt more that was relevant to archaeology from keeping sheep than from any other source. She never forgot – blast her – and so here we are.

I have a vague recollection that I uttered those words at a wine reception, which may of course help to explain them. But on the other hand there is much truth in the old phrase ‘in vino veritas’ (‘in wine [there is] truth’), which originates in ancient Greece and is even found in Erasmus (so Wikipedia tells me)! I think it might have been at the same reception that I was heard to remark that I only learnt one useful thing at Cambridge; which was how to open a Champagne bottle quietly, without a pop. But, as I find myself repeating so often in my blog , I digress.

Even allowing a little exaggeration for effect, is there any real substance in what I said to Lisa? On sober reflection, I genuinely think there is. When I made the initial remark I was thinking at a practical level: my mind was deeply immersed in trying to unravel some of the mysteries of prehistoric farming, which I had first encountered when excavating at Fengate in the 1970s.

In those far off days, the conventional wisdom was that the early British farming economy was largely based around cereals, as it was in the Near East, where it all began. But then our excavations revealed that all the fields were entered by corner entrance-ways which, having grown up on farms, I knew was a sign that they had been used to contain livestock (medieval town marketplaces also feature corner entrances). Later we discovered animal-handling systems such as sub-divided yards, drafting races and droveways, and I am now firmly convinced that most of the lowland landscape of Bronze Age, and probably Neolithic Britain too, was devoted to the keeping of cattle, sheep and beyond the fields, pigs. Cereals were certainly grown as well, but in more garden-like plots, closer to the farms and villages where people lived.

At the time our team was making these discoveries I was resident in Canada each winter, and was away from Britain for most of the academic year. These were pre-email days, when trans-Atlantic phone calls were cripplingly expensive, and when even Air Mail letters could take a week. But when I did return, usually in March or April, I then had the practical aspects of a summer’s excavation to plan and think about.

Conferences and seminars came way down my list of priorities. So, I tended to develop my own thoughts about what our team was revealing and I can well recall the incredulity with which they were often greeted in English academic circles. I honestly think some people thought I’d gone a bit potty: ‘How on earth can he be so certain about those fields and droveways? Been in Canada too long, if you want my opinion.’ Which I didn’t.

When I returned full-time to Britain in 1979, Maisie and I bought a small farmhouse out in the Fens and soon started to keep half-a-dozen sheep in the acre paddock and small yard that came with it. Thirteen years later, we bought a larger plot of land (about 35 acres) in the South Holland fens, not far from Holbeach in Lincolnshire, where we have been managing a flock of around 100 commercial ewes ever since. I think we both wanted to broaden our horizons, which is not to say that either of us was discontented with archaeology in any way. We both share an interest in experimental work, albeit informally (heavy-handed attempts to apply academic standardisation will soon snuff out its flickering flame of creativity), and Maisie’s pioneering research into prehistoric woodworking continues to be wonderfully stimulating. I am rather more of a loose cannon. I still love prehistory, but am also keen to see archaeology reach a wider audience which I do through books and (until recently), television.

Initially I thought that our sheep-keeping was just telling us important things about animal-husbandry in the past, which indeed it was. Whenever I thumb through those magnificent farmyard scenes in my facsimile copy of the Luttrell Psalter I can work out what each person is actually doing, because I’ve done those self-same tasks myself hundreds of times. And this practical experience has given me more confidence, too. I no longer seek academic approval or validation at every turn. If they don’t like it, that’s their problem. This is not actually as arrogant as it sounds, because I welcome constructive criticism and argument; it’s the petty politics and back-biting I can’t abide. I see more warmth and real sense behind my sheep-dog’s wide, staring eyes.

So to return to my initial statement, was there any real truth in what I said? At the practical level, yes. I learnt much from farming, some of which you can read about in my Farmers in Prehistoric Britain and in the excavation reports on Fengate, Maxey and Flag Fen. But it also taught me that archaeologists can look beyond the trenches; in my case that gave rise to The Making of the British Landscape, which interestingly was greeted very warmly indeed by the world outside archaeology – and it continues to sell briskly. Indeed, it is the book I am still proudest of, and it took  me five years to write. One archaeological reviewer even trumpeted that prehistorians should stick to prehistory and in my case that meant the Bronze Age. Harrumph. Myself, I think such remarks tell us more about the reviewer, than the reviewed.

In fact I would go further than that. My foray into farming taught me that archaeologists not only can, but must look beyond the trench, the laboratory or the library. After all, who are we doing our work for? Cambridge taught me very well how to do archaeology, but they also instilled a misplaced sense of the exclusivity of the subject. Somehow it was too important to trivialise or to take lightly; we were privileged to be given access to its sacred groves. In retrospect, what made those attitudes so hypocritical was that our Professor, Glyn Daniel, had been elected BBC TV Personality of The Year a few years previously. The prevailing view throughout the Department was that archaeology was an orthodoxy: you didn’t invite outsiders into its church. You gave them your views, as I said in a recent blog post, ex cathedra – from the pulpit. And indeed, the tradition still continues in many presenter-led TV and radio programmes.

Farming brought me into close working contact with a host of new people from many different backgrounds, both rural and urban. In their company, I was just one among many. There was no way that I could pull Professorial or Doctoral rank. If I had mentioned that I was an FSA, they’d have looked at me blankly. Sure, they knew I was an archaeologist and quite a few had seen me on television, but that was something I also did, just as some of them painted pictures, took photographs, shot pigeons or restored vintage tractors.

Put another way, keeping and selling sheep restored in me the sense of proportion that education had distorted so much. It showed me that archaeology is certainly important, but no more than the rest of life. So fine, let’s all do our best to spread the good news that the past matters – because it most certainly does – but please, please, don’t patronise, preach, or talk down.

And one final thing, never forget: there is indeed much truth to be found in wine – and lots of it. Cheers!

 Thanks, Francis! Well worth remembering. See you at the pub!

Want to hear more from Francis? Follow him on twitter: @pryorfrancis

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