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Estuarine Archaeology. The Severn and Beyond
Archaeology in the Severn Estuary 11. Exeter, The Severn Estuary Levels Research Committee, 2001, 213pp, c 90 figs & plates, ISSN 1354-7089 (£5 or £8.50 p&p)

While writing this review I am sitting on a train travelling on the Great Western Main line from London to South Wales and am reminded of the importance this railway has played in the development of industrial South Wales and Bristol over the last 200 years. In a similar fashion the Severn Estuary and Bristol Channel has played an equally important role throughout the history of human activity in the area and so it is fitting and appropriate that this volume is a timely reminder of the progress that has been made into our understanding of the history of the Levels both during the Prehistoric past as well as the more recent Medieval period.

This volume was put together after the anniversary conference to celebrate 10 years of working on the Levels. The contributions to the volume are wide ranging in both time (from the Ipswichian (last) interglacial to the Medieval periods) and space (from the Severn Estuary eastwards to central Europe). The contents include retrospective views of the main trends in research during this time period (Allen, Bell, Rippon and Coles) as well as a number of other contributions on new aspects of work. Contained within the 14 contributions there should be something to suit everyone’s taste including palaeoenvironmental reconstructions, Neolithic to Medieval landscape studies to wood and maritime remains.

The volume beings with Turner, Allen and Rippon giving us a brief overview of works in different parts of the Levels that range from Gloucester to Cardiff and Bridgewater. What is interesting in their paper is the admission that despite a number of important finds (eg the Barland’s Farm and Magor Pill boats) there has been a failure to connect with the general public and to put over the importance and excitement of discovering the archaeology of the area. One wonders now whether this has been redressed to some extent by the discovery of the Newport Boat or whether the more remote Prehistoric past will remain a mystery to most of the general population.

Following this general introduction Allen looks in detail at the geological development of the Levels from the last interglacial into the present interglacial (the Holocene). Here he demonstrates what can be done with the judicial use of borehole records to model sub-surface stratigraphy. His contribution also demonstrates the need for geologists to utilise information from archaeological investigations when attempting to model past landscapes. Perhaps one of the most surprising points he makes is how different was the geological history of the last interglacial to that of the present interglacial. It is interesting to consider that the preservation of the archaeological record in the area is a result of the very different Holocene sequence development and had the conditions of the Ipswichian prevailed in the present interglacial we might have found little preserved in the area now occupied by these important records.
Haslett et al. use molluscs and foraminifera to model changes in the estuarine landscapes. They are able to demonstrate how the landscape changed as sea level rose and postulate changes in the distribution of different types of inter-tidal zones with changes in sea level and patterns of sedimentation. This draws our attention to the potential of the clay-silt dominated parts of the record which is often overlooked by archaeologists and the fixation that many have with peat beds! Another paper dealing with the environment of the estuary is a wide ranging review of sea level, vegetation history, faunal evidence and animal husbandry and fishing by Bell. He also attempts to look at dryland/wetland relationships in the archaeological records (a topic of considerable importance to those attempting to understand region patterns of human activity).

Another paper based on evidence from the Levels is Locock’s contribution on prediction and evaluation in the area on the basis of a number of case studies from developer funded projects (a hot topic of discussion amongst those responsible for curation and development control of such landscapes). He reviews the common methods of investigation (trenches, boreholes etc.) and demonstrates how they have been applied on the various projects. This raises the notion that there is potential overlap that might be usefully developed between elements raised here and points made by Bell where he attempts to define the range of site types commonly occurring in the Levels. For the successful application of the range of techniques available to use we need to be sure what our targets actually are and hence the necessity to examine the site categories as defined by Bell and how these categories of site can best be targeted by the methods available. We also need to have considered a range of questions such as what the recovery of one flake in an evaluation test pit means in terms of developing strategies.

Finally Brunning examines the archive of wooden artefacts and structures from the Levels and demonstrates the importance of this archive and the challenge that this material presents to us as archaeologists now and in the future.

Moving away from the estuary Long examines sequences in the Thames and Romney Marsh areas of SE England. This is an interesting comparison because of the relative scarcity of detailed published information on the archaeology of the wetland areas in these areas of SE England. Further a field Maier and Vogt describe the reconstruction of Neolithic landscapes from Western Lake Constance based on pedological and archaeobotanical data.

Other papers in the volume may be of less direct relevance to those with an interest mainly in the Prehistoric past. For example Horton and Edwards present a very detailed paper on quantitive palaeoenvironmental reconstructions but really fail to spell out the (considerable) implications of their work for the archaeologists. Here a case study with archaeological relevance would have been very useful. Others such as Rippon (historic landscapes), Goodburn (historic woodworking in the Thames) and Gregory (Danish Maritime archaeology) all present important contributions that many of those interested in the broader aspects of wetland archaeology will find fascinating.

Finally two points keep appearing throughout the volume. Many of the contributions in this book stress the importance of multi-disciplinary work and the need for specialists from a range of disciplines to co-operate in project work. Although to many of us working in such environments this is blindingly obvious to others less familiar with wetland archaeology we can never make the case often enough. Secondly the importance of the general public (often our ultimate paymasters) and the difficulties of putting over our work (particular in the Prehistoric period) are of prime importance and something that we often fail to achieve. With this in mind Van de Noort’s paper on archaeological reconstructions is an important contribution.

Overall this volume is an important addition to the literature on the Levels. Anyone with an interest in the Levels would be well advised to pick up this volume and follow the work of those involved over the last decade and to look forward to the next 10 years as Coles does in summing up at the end of the volume.

Martin R. Bates
Department of Archaeology
University of Wales Lampeter

Review Submitted: May 2004

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

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