The Prehistory of the East Midlands Claylands: aspects of settlement and land-use from the Mesolithic to the Iron Age in central England, by PATRICK CLAY
Leicester, School of Archaeology and Ancient History. Leicester Archaeology Monograph No 9, 2002. 153 pages, 36 tables, 38 black and white figures. ISBN 0 9538914 3 7 £17

The midlands claylands have traditionally been an area of little perceived prehistoric activity, and one that many writers and researchers have unjustly characterised as a largely forested backwater, with limited resource exploitation or settlement occurring until the late Iron Age. However, fieldwalking by community archaeology groups during the 1980s revealed flint scatters, providing evidence to challenge the previously held view of minimal clayland settlement and land-use.

This is the theme of this book; a journey of discovery through the claylands of the East Midlands, examining patterns of prehistoric exploitation. This journey is guided by a series of questions that place the search for the use of clayland areas within a wider framework of changing patterns of human land-use and material culture throughout prehistoric Britain.

Following the introduction and statement of the aims, the remainder of the first chapter provides a summary of the survey area (4200 sq. km) and survey data (SMR data, mainly earthworks, crop marks and artefact scatters). The second chapter looks at the county Sites and Monuments Records (SMR) for the eight counties that feature in this study; although the focus is principally on Leicestershire, Rutland and Northamptonshire, small parts of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Bedfordshire and Warwickshire are also included. Data are analysed in relation to geology, and identified “core areas” (defined as the areas where prehistoric groups lived, and their immediate environment) are also considered in relation to: altitude, distance to water source, drift geology, aspect, and land-use capability. Data are sub-divided by period, and are available in a series of appendices at the back of the book.

Despite the vast amount of information generated, the analysis of the SMR data indicates that there is a lack of core areas in the claylands for all periods until the late Iron Age. However, where material has been recovered, there appears to be no discrimination against clay soil areas. In an effort gain a better understanding of these patterns of clayland usage, the next two chapters focus on the analysis of information from a number of more detailed case studies. Chapter 3 reviews the data from the Medbourne Area Survey (29 sq. km), where survey included fieldwalking, cropmark evidence and limited test pitting and excavation. A brief comparison with the results of the Raunds Area Survey is also included. In both of these surveys, evidence suggests that there is no clear avoidance of the Liassic clay soils on the valley sides, although less material was recovered from the boulder clay of the plateau areas. In particular, these surveys recorded an increase in recovery of late Neolithic / early Bronze Age material, in contrast to the SMR data. However, the material collected from these surveys represents only a 10-15% sample from the areas walked. To test the extent to which the trends identified in the Raunds and Medbourne data were representative of other clayland areas, an even more detailed survey is reviewed.

The material from the Swift Valley (discussed in chapter 4) comes from an 11% sample of a 9.25 sq. km area, in which each field walked was subjected to a 100% collection strategy. This was carried out by the Lutterworth fieldwalking group. The underlying geology was principally boulder clay. As with many of the other surveys, cropmark and earthwork evidence was included. The results from this survey also showed that claylands were not avoided, with core areas of settlement present from the late Mesolithic onwards. In contrast to the Medbourne Area survey, there is more evidence of activity on boulder clay (as opposed to Liassic clay). It is suggested that this may relate to other factors, such as proximity to water, rather than the geology itself.

In the final chapter, the results of these studies are compared with those from other similar surveys across England. In general, the density of lithics, and ratio of cores and retouch, are broadly comparable, when the variation in survey methods are considered. What is clear from all of these surveys, is that patterns of landscape exploitation are complex and show a high degree of variability from area to area. In the case of the clayland landscape, this variability between periods and different geology suggests that the early perceptions of this as an unexploited area are inconsistent with the material recovered from fieldwalking. However, it is also clear that some clayland areas were not consistently used throughout prehistory.

At the beginning of the book, a series of questions were set, relating to the use of different clayland sub-soils within different periods of prehistory, and corresponding to our shifting understanding of changes in human / land exploitation and management from the end of the Mesolithic to the Iron Age. The book follows each of these questions through to the final chapter, when the clayland data were compared with similar data from around England. Where sufficient information from this study existed, these initial questions were thoroughly discussed. What was missing however, was a more detailed integration of questions relating to overall social and political change, with an understanding of the changing nature of the local landscape over time. Clearly, this was not within the scope of the study, and it is acknowledged that there is a paucity of environmental information from this region during these prehistoric periods. With a growing interest in past environments, and increasing recognition of the importance of the collection of this data within developer-funded projects, hopefully, these questions can be answered in the future.

This one comment aside, this was is enjoyable book, and one that I feel makes an important contribution to the archaeology of the East Midlands, and to prehistoric landscape studies in general. As a further passing comment, it is interesting to note that data held by the county SMRs failed to identify core areas over much of this study region, in contrast to the more localised case studies. This should be borne in mind by those embarking on research, or involved in development-led excavations, particularly in this area, which archaeologists have for so many years avoided.

Perhaps most importantly though, this book is the result of research that has taken as its starting point, many years of voluntary, local amateur fieldwalking material, and woven it into a complex series of discussions of land-use and shifting patterns of human subsistence and activity. In and of itself this is an admirable endeavour. However, one must also see this work as providing a thorough background and setting a research agenda, for the understanding and interpretation of the results of future developer-funded, and voluntary fieldwork within the clayland landscape of the East Midlands.

Jim Williams
English Heritage

Review Submitted: October 2003

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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