CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship - Summer 2010
CRM Journal

Book Review

An Archaeology of Town Commons in England: ‘A very fair field indeed’

By Mark Bowden, Graham Brown, and Nicky Smith. London: English Heritage, 2009; 136 pp., paperback, $36.00

An Archaeology of Town Commons in England: ‘A very fair field indeed’ is the first attempt to survey and understand the English town common as a valuable historic landscape. Although couched in the language and geography of British heritage preservation, its goals and content parallel similar efforts in American historic preservation. This is a timely project, since vernacular landscapes are becoming ever more recognized as a worthy cause for preservation. Most importantly, the history and social context offered by this book provide valuable insight on historic American landscapes, particularly those in the New England area where town commons are prevalent.

The survey was launched under the auspices of English Heritage, whose projects on historic studies and preservation in England cover a broad range. After noting the growing threats to the survival of urban commons in 2002, English Heritage went on to investigate the archeological content and historical value of these unusual landscapes. With the passage of the Commons Act in 2006, this cause received a substantial boost. The new legislation provides for better, more sustainable management of these spaces through creation of “commons councils” that unite commoners and landowners in regulating land use and reinforcing existing protections on the land (p. 78). By consolidating new and vital information on one of England’s greatest but least-studied cultural resource types, Bowden, Brown, and Smith’s book offers vital historic research in support of these preservation goals.

The self-proclaimed intent of An Archaeology of Town Commons in England is “to investigate, through a representative sample, the archaeological content and Historic Environment value of urban commons in England and to prompt appropriate conservation strategies for them” (p. 79). In a fairly short, concise manner, the book successfully accomplishes this goal by offering a general history and archeological summary of urban commons, their various uses and development, and some of the challenges involved in their preservation. Using archeological resources as a point of departure, the narrative moves from the right of estover and the varied definitions of “commons” to charming anecdotes of unlawful sheep fleecing, irate cricket fans, and the creation of park areas to refocus male attention away from “public houses” (p. 59). Beautiful color photographs, drawings, maps, and aerials appear on almost every page, illustrating various elements of the text. Above all, the book both recognizes and clarifies the value of archeology in improving public understanding of landscapes and promoting better-informed (or “sympathetic”) land management and conservation efforts (p. 82).

One of the key distinctions made by the authors throughout the book is between open spaces as “wilderness” versus “public parks” (p. 57). Indeed, as towns began to grow and inhabitants struggled to maintain their link with a “retreating rural world” in the 18th century, the commons became increasingly utilized as public park, rather than wilderness, areas (p. 9). In view of the vast open spaces characteristic of many American landscapes, examination of this concept is highly relevant for preservation work on both sides of the Atlantic.

As an organization dedicated to both public enjoyment and preservation, the National Park Service frequently encounters this very conflict. Indeed, many of the differences and even dangers involved in interpreting an area as either “wilderness” or “park” are shared between American and English landscapes. For instance, the designation of a public space as “wilderness” makes it vulnerable to exploitation, and can inhibit its enjoyment by the public or endanger wildlife, trees, and other natural resources located within it. The book’s comprehensive history of the urban common illustrates this classic “tragedy of the commons,” whereby activities like mining, sport, and livestock grazing can not only conflict with each other, but can negatively affect historic features and public enjoyment of a space as an aesthetic landscape. Thus, the construction of penal institutions and athletic complexes on a number of urban commons has played a defining role in the subsequent perception and use of those landscapes (p. 62).

The task of writing any survey as broad as this one is naturally fraught with myriad challenges, including clarity and organization. Particularly for those less familiar with British landscapes, it would have been helpful to include a short summary of the surveyed sites at the beginning of the book, including some general statements illustrating the geographic extent, context, and average size of commons in England. In addition, despite the presence of a handsome map of surveyed towns on page 4, no mention of methodology is made until the final few pages of the text. This is also the first place that the authors offer any explanation for the sample selection process and investigative approach used in their survey, details that would have been helpful to clarify much earlier.

Lastly but perhaps most importantly, although this book may prompt conservation strategies, its potential to serve as a framework for building such strategies could have been strengthened by devoting more text to the issue of urban commons preservation. Although the gazetteer at the back of the text is helpful in illustrating the geographic range of commons and their need for preservation, a mere eight pages of narrative are devoted to the present and future use of these landscapes. This oversight is likely to leave many readers lacking in guidance on how to apply their newfound knowledge.

Still, An Archaeology of Town Commons in England is highly informative, and successfully documents the diverse historic resources that characterize this unusual landscape type. In surveying the history of urban commons for the first time, this book completes an essential piece of the English heritage literature. As spaces intended for use as fairly vague, open land and therefore convenient for a variety of uses, the value of urban commons has, up until recently, been easily taken for granted and overlooked (p. 76).

Yet the importance of the urban common is similar to that of many American vernacular landscapes, whose development has both shaped and supported the adjacent towns and cities. As interest in cultural landscapes has grown in recent years, so the true value of the spaces between built environments has become increasingly recognized. Guided by this shift, historians have begun to accord rolling agricultural fields with the same aesthetic worth and historic meaning as the farmhouses and towns they abut. Thus, the landscape of the urban commons tells the tale of a local, shared history without the self-conscious air and carefully planned past of more designed or urban landscapes. For this reason and many others, this book promises to be informative and relevant to casual readers and veteran archeologists alike, both in England and beyond.

Emily Donaldson
Montpelier, Vermont