Saturday 27 October 2012

Terrain Troubles II – The Countryside

My grumbling about the problems of getting the correct balance between figure and ground scale for terrain items a few weeks ago have led me off down a slightly different path. I do, now, have something of a solution to the original problem (of which more later) but the question which was posed in my mind was:

‘What did the Gallic countryside look like anyway?’

This has turned out to be rather harder to discover than I expected. I kind of expected to amble out into the electronic environment, or at least the scholarly one, and be overwhelmed with studies explaining the varieties and techniques of ancient farming and, at least, to be able to deduce from those what the environment looked like, and how it could be represented on the wargame table.

I have been disappointed. Perhaps I have been looking in the wrong place, but I have not been able to find anything particularly useful, certainly about Gaul. Of course, it is possibly because I am, after all, a monoglot, and pre-Roman and Roman Gaul is not a major item of interest in Anglo-Saxon parts, but it has to be said that even British agriculture of the period is a bit of a stuggle.

I did find, however, one extremely useful web site, that of Butser Iron Age Farm ( This covers quite a lot of what I wanted to know, and a few bits and pieces in Peter Salway’s ‘A History of Roman Britain have helped  to flesh out some of the rest. That is not to say that there is a definitive answer to the original question (how could there be?), but there is probably sufficient to create a suitable wargame terrain.

Butser suggests that, at least in the south of Britain (and hence, I hope, by extension, to France, agriculture was focussed on fields around settlements. Depending on where you were, the settlements could be stockade or not. It is not entirely clear if the stockades were for defence or to keep grazing animals out of some areas.

The fields could be of wattle fencing or of live hedge, and would be rather small. If you Google for ‘Celtic fields’ images, you will see a large number of pictures of small fields in various parts of the country. These suggest that field boundaries could be of banks and ditches, or of dry stone walls. I suppose that local materials were used, whatever was available, pretty much as they are today.

It would seem that quite large areas must have been under arable cultivation, as the estimate of the area required to fill a storage pit is about three and a half hectares, which is eight and two thirds acres, more or less. Salway quotes the director of Butser as saying that the problem is really to identify areas where there was no prehistoric agriculture, not where there was.

That said, the Celtic fields do not seem to be sufficient to supply the grain required by, say, an occupying Roman army, so the question of where the major source of arable land was has to remain open. Outside the enclosures around the settlements, however, animal ranching of sheep, goats, cattle and horses was a major occupation.

Within the fields, a variety of grains were grown, spelt, emmer, einkhorn, wheat and oats, barley and rye. The yields were not great, but would probably have been sufficient for some trade for luxury goods. Interestingly (or at least, it was to me) if you plough frequently perpendicular to the slope of a field, the soil slowly settles in a downward direction, giving you terraces, with a bigger one at the bottom. This is called a ‘runrig’, although I would guess that most of you already knew that.

Interestingly, the advent of the Romans does not seem to have disturbed this pattern too much. The Roman villas were generally placed to be central to (and sometimes in higher places than) the native farmsteads, and presumably served as the focus for the collection and storage of the produce. Hence, and again this is probably only of interest to me, the French word ‘ville’ meaning town, and the English ‘village’.

So, in wargame terms, what should the countryside look like?

The terrain is probably reasonably heavily settled by, effectively, small farming communities. There may be some local overlord, either in a villa once Romanized, or a local hill fort or oppodia. I have not been able to find out thus far if, in England, the diversity of settlement shapes found in medieval times operated. I mean the fact that some villages in England are focussed around a centre to keep the good arable land to a maximum, while some are linear, with each plot having its own paddock, indicating a more animal focussed farming. It is possible that this happened, but I am not at all sure.

Outside the enclosed areas, the land would have been for grazing and growing other crops such as timber. Wetlands would have been used for water meadows and for growing willow, and of course hunting and fishing would have been happening too.  Orchards would also have been kept, and grazed by pigs.

So, far from a largely unpopulated landscape, much beloved of wargamers (who prefers to fight battles on a flat plain?), we are looking here at a complex, heavily used countryside with a distinct stamp of the hand of man.

So, now, my solution to my terrain problems:

I have decided that I need to roll with the problem of the two scales. The areas of woods, settlements and fields will be marked out by pieces of felt (or, hopefully, some nifty bits of thin foam stuff that I have run across). These will be in the correct ground scale. The terrain items (houses, fields, trees) will be the correct figure scale, but mounted on the same bases as the figures (or double bases, to be exact; even roundhouses can be quite big). They will, thus, be interchangeable with figures if the units move into the areas of terrain.

I have nearly finished the first of my new tree bases, and am pondering the enclosures. If I am happy with the results, I might even post a picture here, but I would not hold your breath, because ‘nearly finished’ can still mean 'quite a long time off' in my world.


  1. Sounds like a good solution to your problems. Please do post photos when you are done. I am familiar with the 'nearly finished' stage that takes several months longer than getting to that stage took. I have some 'nearly finished' Vikings on my painting table along with several other 'nearly finished' figures. :)

  2. My terrain is very similar to this: urban areas, agricultural land, woods, marshes, rocky moors etc. all have a distinct base made, while groups of trees, stones, bushes, buildings etc. are based on 30x30mm or 60x30mm bases, and can be moved about at will to accomodate the positions of the troops. It has worked really well for me, and it was pretty quick.



  3. David,
    I went to work for our local Wildlife Trust a year or so ago. I was quite chuffed to find that one of our nature reserves - an 'ancient woodland' (that is, pre 16th century - records of it as woodland go back to 1322)contains a scheduled ancient monument - a 'Romano-British field system'.
    Obviously, I had to find out more.
    The monument consists of three hut circles and four or five fields. The fields are very small. Ok, I don't have the dimensions to hand, but I remember being very surprised at how small they were. Sufficient for subsistence for one family, with a wee bit left over as tribute for the chief or to lay aside for lean years?
    The more significant fact is that the archaeological survey shows at least three similar complexes within a few hundred yards of our monument. The nearest is within a hundred yards. A modern village (i.e. post 14th century) may well cover more.
    The area is quite hilly - the Pennine foothills, I suppose, so far from the flat terrain beloved by wargamers.
    The field boundaries show up as banks - wooden palisades would not have survived; I am sure dry stone walls would have left some trace - there is none. How substantial would the boundaries have been? Digging the bank and ditch represents a lot of effort for a family. Could they afford the time and effort for a wall or fence - or just get little Cormac, aged 7, to shoo away the cows from the crop? In time, shrubs would seed naturally on the disturbed earth and make a hedge.
    I have walked over the site and can see nothing among the normal woodland lumps and bumps; I think you need Lidar to make it out.
    So - imagination time - imagine a landsape thickly dotted with similar settlements to ours. I am no farmer, but I'm sure this is not prime agricultural land. Subsistence level maybe? A crofting landscape, with dwellings placed as close as possible to their neighbours as croft boundaries will allow. Imagine villages like those that still exist in Skye and the Outer Hebrides, where your next door neighbour is a hundred yards away. With me?
    Does this provide an obstacle, in military terms? OK, a bit of a nuisance perhaps, but surely that's the point of sub-units - companies, cohorts, whatever, to allow small obstacles like these to be bypassed without throwing the whole unit into confusion? I suspect militarily, our settlement would be no obstacle at all.

  4. Very interesting comments Chris. It just shows you that there is no substitute for getting out there and walking the landscape. Even though much might have changed since the period you are interested in, a walk in the country can make things seem very different to how you picture things from maps and wargames tables.

    My own hobbyhorse is visibility. Maybe the effect on sight lines is the biggest impact of Celtic field and settlement patterns. With reference to another time and place, John Keegan (I think, in the Face of Battle?) made reference to an eyewitness account of cavalry charging each other. Both forces appeared from nowhere and then promptly disappeared again after charging through each other. And this was in open fields in "flat" terrain like the plains south of Waterloo.

  5. Hi All,

    Thank you for the comments and encouragement; when I get sorted I will post a picture.

    My reading so far suggests that the pre-Roman landscape was fairly heavily populated - 0.8 settlements per hectare is suggested in NW Essex, although a settlement could be just a single homestead / farm.

    I think that these would not necessarily be big obstacles for units; they would flow around them in most cases, I suspect. I do agree that line of sight is an issue, potentially, and also hidden terrain items, like the ditch that disrupted the Scottish pike formations at Flodden. No-one had any idea it was there until the Scots fell into it. And then there is the hidden ground which Marlborough used at, um, Ramilles, I think.

    I have always had a hankering to give each side some terrain chance cards, mostly blank, but with some like 'unexpected ditch' to play on an enemy charge.

    To get back to terrain, I think the other angle is that of 'eye candy'. I used to scatter trees, for example, liberally over the battlefield. They had no effect on anything, but they did make it look nicer.

    Nicely painted soldiers on a nicely arranged battlefield look good, and make the wargamer feel good, I suspect.

  6. "Busier" tabletops seem to be a feature of the few French wargaming websites I've seen. There was one with lots of simple, cheap, home made terrain features (e.g. different coloured and textured cloth for fields)....looked good on mass if individually not high quality. Probably makes it easier to appreciate the problems non-dramatic terrain could pose as well as the feelgood factor.

    I like the random terrain card idea. Might "borrow" that for the SYW rules I'm working on. Puts me in mind of the Random Events Table in the GåPå rules.