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Early Medieval SettlementsThe Archaeology of Rural Communities in North-West Europe 400-900$
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Helena Hamerow

Print publication date: 2002

Print ISBN-13: 9780199246977

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780199246977.001.0001

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Settlement Structure and Social Space

Settlement Structure and Social Space

(p.52) 3 Settlement Structure and Social Space
Early Medieval Settlements

Helena Hamerow

Oxford University Press

The way in which a community arranges its living space is only partly due to technical considerations: social relations also play a major role in determining the layout of settlements, as we can see from cross-cultural studies (Rapoport 1980, 9). A correlation exists, for example, between increased economic complexity and complexity and regularity in settlement structure. Thus, while hunter-gatherer settlements tend to have a fairly flexible structure, societies which emphasize concepts of property and territory are more likely to develop fixed ‘rules’ regarding settlement layout (Fraser 1968). The early Middle Ages saw profound changes in socio-political structures as early states were formed, as well as major developments in food-production strategies and technology. We should, therefore, expect to see these changes reflected, at least indirectly, in the layouts of settlements. Spatial order in a settlement both reflects and helps to regulate social order and social relations; it provides, quite literally, ‘a framework for living’ (Chapman 1989; Giddens 1979, 207; Leach 1976, 10). This presents the archaeologist with a daunting prospect, for it is far easier to explain the arrangement of early medieval settlements in terms of function or geometry than in terms of kinship structure, household composition, marriage patterns, and so on, factors which we can at best only glimpse through documentary sources. If, for example, we are to interpret the significance of an exceptionally large house or farmstead accurately, we first need to know whether power was vested in the heads of households or lineages, a council of elders, or in some form of paramount chiefdom. Despite these limitations, settlement layout is an important source of evidence for the social and economic structures of early medieval communities. The individual household appears to have been the basic unit of agricultural production in northwest Europe from the Roman Iron Age to the Carolingian/Viking periods. The economic importance and, to some degree, independence of the household is underscored by the fact that in most cases each lay within its own enclosure and had its own storage facilities (in contrast, for example, to the shared compounds of the earlier Iron Age, as seen, for example, at Hodde in Denmark: Hvass 1985).

Keywords:   Bellinge, Ellwangen, Flögeln-Vossbarg, Geest, Hodde, Loxstedt, Roman Britain, Sylt, Veluwe, Wurten

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