Privacy hedges date back to the Iron Age

January 2, 2013 - 06:04

The hedge that separates you from your neighbour wouldn’t be what it is today if it wasn’t for the fences and embankments built by Iron Age Northern Europeans.

Vestiges of a fortified village on an islet in Borremose in Northeastern Jutland, Denmark. The village is thought to have been inhabited between 400 and 100 BC. A distinctive ring around the village shows that it has been well-shielded against enemies and animals. (Photo: Lie Helles Olesen, fortidensetfrahimlen.dk)

The hedge around your house is much more than just a random shrub with green leaves. It’s a symbol of private property and marks the boundary between what’s mine and what’s yours.

The idea to enclose and define with straight lines is actually an ancient one.

Some of the first archaeological evidence of landscape boundaries dates back to England around 1,500 BC, but 500 years later it also appears in the rest of Northwestern Europe.

“From being a predominantly open landscape with large commons with scattered trees and bushes, the landscape became dominated by linear demarcation lines. People started to enclose their fields and suddenly started building embankments and trenches around their houses and villages,” says PhD student Mette Løvschal, who works at Aarhus University’s Department of Culture and Society – Section for Prehistoric Archaeology, where she is using archaeological finds and anthropological theories to try and solve the riddle of when, how and why we suddenly started enclosing what was ours.

“The chessboard-like landscape that we see today from aeroplanes hasn’t always looked the way it does today,” she says.

Boundaries spread across Europe
One of two semicircular Caesar’s lilies that surround a small village from the Early Iron Age (500-250 BC) in Western Jutland. The photo was taken shortly after the settlement was discovered in 2008. (Photo: Esben Schlosser, Ringkøbing-Skjern Museum)

The first man-made lines of demarcation are found in the south of England and date back to around 1,500 BC.

Around the year 1,000 BC, this tendency to enclose fields started to spread to the rest of Northern Europe – Belgium, Holland, Northern France to Northern Germany, Denmark, Scania and all the way to the Baltic countries.

In the Iron Age, around 500 BC, people also started to fence in their houses and gather in small villages, which were protected from enemies with party hedges and embankments.

“The next couple of centuries saw a massive boom of fences,” says Løvschal. “Suddenly, people had all sorts of fences, for instance fences made out of large poles and palisades, embankments, moats, large ditch systems and Caesar’s lilies. They experimented with all these forms of demarcation."

Fences start to indicate power and property rights

The archaeologists can also see that around 300 BC, the hedges not only provided functional protection by keeping enemies and animals away from homes; the hedges also became symbols of power:

Suddenly, people had all sorts of fences, for instance fences made out of large poles and palisades, embankments, moats, large ditch systems and Caesar’s lilies. They experimented with all these forms of demarcation.
Mette Løvschal

”At the fenced farms we see that some farms have a significantly larger and stronger fence than others,” she explains. “For instance, in Hodde in Western Jutland (150 BC), one of the farms stands out by being placed highest up in the terrain, but also by being the farm with the longest stables, the finest ceramics and the largest fence.”

All farms become fenced

The archaeologist explains that one generation would build large palisades and fortifications, and then the next generation would tear them down. This shows that the power structures were rather inconstant.

The findings of fences from 300 BC to around year 0 testify not only to changing and unstable power structures; the demarcated sites also played an important role in our understanding of property rights.

Whereas the fences used to mean that the owner claimed the right to use an area, from around year 0, the demarcation started becoming a sign of ownership of the land or the fenced house.

In other words, the delineation went from signifying that somebody was using the land or was simply keeping animals in this area to showing who owned the land, regardless of whether or not they used it.

In many ways, these kinds of demarcation lines are inextricably linked to our identity, which is exemplified in conflicts about municipal and national borders. One of the things I want to show with my research is that it hasn’t always been this way.
Mette Løvschal

”The fences were thus given a new meaning and a standardised shape and size. The hedges were no longer just scattered about the place to fence in cattle. The fences took on a detached form and their main purpose was no longer to keep animals away,” she explains.

“Whereas at one point only a few farms were fenced, eventually all farms became fenced. This shows that to claim ownership of one’s house, you had to mark it with a fence.”

Violent times made Northern Europeans flock together

The reason why these fences emerged in the first place is probably because Western Europeans had good reason to entrench themselves: the period between 500 BC and year 0 was marked by heavy conflict and looting.

“The population density had probably increased and the climate had worsened. This resulted in an increased pressure on the resources in the Celtic society,” explains Løvschal.

Before 1,500 BC, people just moved to a new location if the local area became drained of food. But now weren’t all that many new places to move to.

We can use our modern society to gain more knowledge about the past, but the past can also tell us something about why we think the way we do today.
Mette Løvschal

“A lifestyle emerged in which people remained in the same place, fertilising and cultivating the land, which left them feeling more closely tied to specific locations,” says the archaeologist.

So Iron Age people invested their time and effort in getting the best out of the land they had already seized. It was therefore profitable for them to build a fence or an embankment that could protect against robbers and wild animals and separate the property from the neighbour’s land.

Theories about modern man tell us about the past

The researcher’s project represents a new trend which involves using new methods for extracting more information from archaeological finds.

Løvschal’s study covers classical archaeological excavation plans, aerial photos and scans of soil surfaces from all of Northwestern Europe.

On the theoretical level, she uses cognitive theory and anthropological studies of various cultures’ and societies’ relationship to demarcation, which is slightly different to the way that archaeology is normally conducted.

Facts

Caesar’s lilies consist of broad ‘belts’ of 5-8 rows of closely-spaced, open holes. Pointed stakes were sometimes put in between the holes to form a fence.

The Roman general Caesar also met this type of defence when he conquered present-day France, hence the name.

“I look at how people and communities use boundaries today and then I try to transfer it to the past. This is, however, something that needs to be done with care,” says the researcher, pointing out that although anthropology can provide lots of answers, it’s rarely possible to draw a perfectly straight line from modern cultures to those of ancient people.

Line of discretion dates back to ancient times

“Today, we take borders and fences for granted. We all know that we are supposed to stop at the line of discretion at the bank, and that there’s a hedge between you and your neighbour. This hedge includes some common rules that should be respected on both sides,” explains Løvschal.

“In many ways, these kinds of demarcation lines are inextricably linked to our identity, which is exemplified in conflicts about municipal and national borders. One of the things I want to show with my research is that it hasn’t always been this way.”

She argues that a better understanding of why and how demarcation lines came into being could teach us more about ourselves:

“We can use our modern society to gain more knowledge about the past, but the past can also tell us something about why we think the way we do today,” says Mette Løvschal, who expects to complete her PhD project in the autumn of 2014.

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Read the Danish version of this article at videnskab.dk

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Translated by
Dann Vinther

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