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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Negotiating landscapes of rights


This interdisciplinary project examines the negotiation of rights around common resources by involving archaeologists, lawyers, historians, geographers in a series of case studies taken from around the world. By drawing on a variety of stakeholders including local communities and administrative authorities such as National Parks and County Councils (or their equivalents), it compares present and past and between regions under four key headings:

  • landscapes of memory: stratified memories of place-names, places and actions through which local people built their communities and appropriated their space, as documented in historical testimonies related to conflicts over access rights;
  • landscapes of practice: built up through long-term agro-forestry-pastoral practices whose reconstruction is possible using the methodologies of archaeology and environmental archaeology;urban commons through the heterogenous practices of appropriation and revitalisation of marginal spaces;
  • landscapes of rights: stratified acts of possession through which social relationshipsare materialised as the result of negotiation between individuals, local communities, seigneurial, colonial, imperial or state powers;
  • landscapes as heritage: common land is often rightly recognised as having natural and cultural value, sometimes without much consideration of its historical dimension. The project investigators want to explore this dimension in particular and involve local communities in this research.

Term: Epiphany 2021

Principal Investigator: Professor Chris Gerrard, Archaeology,
Principal Investigator: Dr Henry Jones, Assistant Professor, Durham Law School,

Project Description

The collective ownership of valuable resources is more universal than is commonly realised. Common land in England and Wales, for example, accounts for 4% of the land area, some 500,000 hectares. Not only that, the upland moor, wetlands and coastal areas are often of exceptional conservation value and retain an everyday purpose for communities, both rural and urban. Customary rights to land and other ‘common’ resources in the UK and across the world are traditionally claimed by demonstrating their uninterrupted and unbroken use. When these rights are called into question, claims must be re-negotiated. As a result, historic documentation can be voluminous and include both personal testimony and maps. Less well recognised is the associated archaeology and historical ecology of land use and exploitation which can provide significant clues embedded in the contemporary landscape.

The project addresses this diverse topic through five case studies focused on different places, periods and forms of evidence. The case studies are as follows:

1. NW Italy. This case study examines the processes of fragmentation and privatisation of common resources during the post-medieval period (mainly 18th-19th centuries) in the Ligurian Apennines (Sturla an Taro valley) (Stagno 2015; 2018; in press). The case study explores how access rights to common-lands and to shared resources (water, grass also in private plots, etc.) changed, and how this influenced environmental resource management and the social organisation of rural local communities. Both field evidence (for example to identify ancient woodlands) and documentary analysis (notarial acts, statistical enquiries) will be used to understand how collective resources were organised and ecological impacts on past and present landscapes. A final aim is to identify those elements which made these past environmental systems socially and environmentally sustainable.

2. NW Spain. This case study will focus on archaeological and historical evidence for transhumance in the Sierra de Moncayo where a long term Durham project has been underway for a number of years (

The use of common land here takes subtly different forms: dehesas granted under royal license where local sheep farmers could collectively or individually pasture their flocks and were sometimes rented out; boalares for pasturing plough oxen; alera foral or inter-commoning in which flocks could enter neighbouring pastures during daylight hours, and; pasture de dia y de noche which allowed for longer overstays of flocks. These privileges generate different structures (bothies, yards, byres, enclosures, terracing) which have been documented by the Moncayo Survey over the past decade (Gutiérrez 2005; 2010; Gerrard and Gutiérrez 2012). For this case study remote sensing, artefacts and structural surveys will be combined for the first time with documentary study to develop an understanding of historic pastoralism in the region.

3. NE England.(2 postgraduate placements). Large areas of common land exist in County Durham and Northumberland ranging from extensive tracts of open moorland to small village greens. This land is usually in private ownership with commoners having the right to graze livestock or take peat or turf for fuel. Under the supervision of Professor Gerrard, two postgraduates will undertake a supervised placement to gather evidence on how this land was managed during the 20th century. Undertaken in cooperation with Northumberland National Parks, Northumberland and Durham County Councils, personal testimonies, histories, questionnaires (using structures already developed:, photos and other associated materials will underpin this case study. The aim would be to compile a ‘body of memory’ for the history of commons locally and specifically to engage stakeholders.

4. Urban Commoning. The city is often conceptualised as a highly organised space, symbolic of modernity. And yet it is also a place in which this order is constantly disturbed. Protesters, such as Reclaim the Streets or the Occupy protests of 2011-12, claim a common right to the city. Community gardens have sprung up in many cities, while homeless people in doorways or tents also demonstrate a more desperate claim to have a right to urban space. (Blomley, 2004; 2009; 2013) Commons understood as process will be the focus of this case study, how methods of making and preserving commons are seen today, and how this links back to the historic commons revealed in the other projects.

5. The Lawful Commons. In legal history, commons often appear as before the law, not unlawful but without law. The process of enclosure is creative of private property through law. Recent scholarship on law and geography has re-asserted the relationship between law and place, and particularly property and place. (Graham 2010; 2012). The fifth case study provides an overview of the whole project, and an argument that the material processes of the commons are lawful, even legislative, acts. It is in the archaeological record that these processes are found, and can be found again.

While each case study will be the direct responsibility of a single Fellow, to ensure the theoretical and methodological enrichment to be derived from interdisciplinarity, all five case studies have common project milestones. Midway through Month 1 the Fellows and postgraduates will share their themes, evidence and approaches in a half-day workshop, as well as informally. Fellows and applicants will be asked to informally ‘buddy’. In Month 2 a second workshop will explore preliminary progress and results with invitations to early career researchers (PhD, PDRAs, PDRFs) from all participating departments across the Northern Bridge partnership. In Month 3 a capstone event will target a broad range of key public and academic stakeholders and share the results of the project, in particular identifying similarities and differences in content. A final meeting in Month 3 will target and discuss follow-up major grant.

The project anticipates that five Fellows will publish their detailed findings, and will encourage an interdisciplinary article organised on more conceptual lines for the International Journal of the Commons. The different kinds of ‘commons’ have chosen all share the same processes of claiming and recognising the rights of a collective group. That negotiation itself plays a key role in the continuous process of redefinition of commons. Particular themes the Project Investigators are already keen to develop are: new analytical tools; how to conceptualise commons; the management and sustainability of common resources; topographical dimensions; behaviour and interaction between ‘actors’; customs (such as perambulations); changing dialogues of rights (eg in the 20th century); conflicts and negotiation; links between the written (laws) and unwritten (customs), and; ecological aspects of commons. It is envisaged that Fellows also share an interest in the ‘materiality’ of commons, from hedge-planting to buildings; what has been called a ‘stratification of actions’ which form the back-drop of present-day circumstances.