Field Archaeology of the Salisbury Plain Training Area by DAVID McOMISH,
DAVID FIELD & GRAHAM BROWN
The Salisbury Plain Training Area has, even for those of us living in Wiltshire, a little of the mystique that the Dark Continent once had for the Victorians: largely unknown, dangerous, but full of interest and known to have concealed within it ancient ruins and traces of lost civilisations. While it would be unflattering and wrong to pursue the analogy and see McOmish, Field and Brown as the Livingstone, Stanley et al. of their day, the volume does bring to light an enormous amount of material not previously published, and which fills a considerable ‘black hole’ in the study of Wessex from prehistory to the present (or nearly present) day.
The volume is similar in size and layout to the recent English Heritage thematic volumes on causewayed enclosures - The Creation of Monuments (Oswald et al. 2001) - and on flint mines - The Neolithic Flint Mines of England (Barber et al. . 1999) - and not a parish by parish survey of the old RCHM(E) model. The latter was useful to the field archaeologist, but publication on that scale is gone and this volume, although geographical rather than confined to one subject, clearly should be judged against those two recent works rather against their more detailed predecessors. As the authors note in the Preface, their intention was ‘not to produce an inventory of sites on the Training Area. Instead it provides a commentary on the totality of the archaeology on the Salisbury Plain Training Area’ (p. xii). The preface, contrary to many, is well worth reading as it explains the long and arduous process of the survey and research which underpins this volume; a truly inspiring catalogue of hard and thorough work over more than a decade by, without doubt, some of the best practitioners of field survey in the country. All the available aerial photographs were studied, all the major earthwork complexes were surveyed, and many more new sites discovered and subsequently surveyed (mostly before Global Positioning Systems were widely used, necessitating the use of more time-consuming, traditional locational techniques); 3000 hectares were walked in strips at 100m intervals, and so on and so on.
The Neolithic and Bronze Age chapter covers the major monument types of long barrow, round barrow, henge and causewayed enclosures, although as there is only one certain henge and one certain causewayed enclosure within the SPTA (at Weather Hill and Robin Hood’s Ball respectively) those sections are necessarily brief. While much of the discussion of the long and round barrows centres on their physical characteristics the topography of these monuments is also considered. There are useful tables of long barrow length and of internal features, and many of the beautifully hachured standard RCHM(E) plans. In terms of topographic location the authors favour terrestrial rather than celestial factors in influencing orientation of long barrows (p.22) and suggest that the majority of burial monuments (presumably long and round barrows, although that is not made explicit) were sited in regard to low lying land including river courses and spring lines (p. 27). An important addition to the results of the modern physical survey is the summary of antiquarian work on these monuments. It is from a study of this that most of the information about internal features of the long barrows has been derived (and one of the authors is publishing much more detail on this in a forthcoming study (Eagles and Field forthcoming). The result of both the modern survey and the study of the antiquarian reports is to highlight both how diverse these early monuments are, but also how little is currently known about them. The hints of the existence of crematoria, for instance (p31) - an extremely rare feature to be found with long barrows in southern England, - suggest that more research here could radically change how we view early burial practices in Wessex.
The great sweep of later prehistory, from the middle of the second millennium BC to the Roman Conquest, a period which has left some of the best-known traces on this landscape in the form of field systems, linear ditches and hillforts, of course features largely in the volume with thirty-five pages including stunning colour aerial photographs as well as the usual hachure and other plans. The relationship of field systems and linears is summarised clearly: ‘In all surviving instances, the linear earthworks can be seen to cut through fields, thus post-dating them’ (p. 62.) although later re-use of the fields is acknowledged. This is interesting, particularly given the previous publication, by Bradley et al. . (1994), of work on the linears in at least some of the same areas, in which research, including excavation, seems to show clear cases of the opposite sequence: ‘in almost all instances the fields are later than the ditches. This has been confirmed by excavation at a number of locations in the Upper Study Area’ (Bradley et al. . 1994, 138). As the Wessex Linears Project appears to have shown that the apparent sequence of field observation could be contradicted by the results of excavation it is perhaps surprising that this apparent difference between the two projects is not explored and the sequence suggested by the present authors defended specifically against the possible charge of field observation not being necessarily as reliable as excavation. McOmish et al. . presumably have very good reasons for having reached the conclusions which they have and in very many instances the cutting of fields by the linears is certainly depicted as so absolutely clear that there seems no room for doubt (as in the example they give, in Figure 3.3), but a fuller discussion of whether the two projects are in conflict over this or not would have been interesting and useful.
One small item of note which is worth drawing attention to, in relation to the linears, is that the survey has identified a type of feature which appears to have been unnoticed, or at least unreported to date. At several places on the Plain the survey noted considerable hollows, sometimes more than a metre deep, which appeared to underlie linear ditches at intersections and which shared a common type of topographical location – usually on false-crests and visible for considerable distances. It is suggested that these are early territorial markers or meeting places. To add a new type of site to our knowledge of prehistory in southern England cannot be a small achievement for any project.
Later prehistoric settlement morphology is well covered, with useful illustrations of both small enclosures and hillforts, and a tantalising taster is provided of the Late Bronze Age / Early Iron Age midden at East Chisenbury in the form of location plan and layout and photographs of features under the midden and finds from it. The summary for evidence for dating of the hillforts is also very welcome.
The remainder of the volume is largely concentrated on the Romano-British period and later, but even the most blinkered prehistorian could not fail to be impressed by the extraordinary detail of the Romano-British rural settlements. It is difficult to conceive of a method more appropriate than hachured plans to illustrate these extensive earthworks, which, all over the Plain, represent an extraordinary survival of the village life of nearly 2000 years ago. It requires no particularly great leap of the imagination to flesh out, for instance, the beautiful plan of the linear village on Chapperton Down (fold out figure 4.13) with its long village street and individual housing plots, or the largest of the villages, Charlton Down, with its village pond, a dam, and more than 200 hut sites (figure. 4.7). Historians of the 20th century also owe a debt to the survey for properly recording, from aerial photographs, the surviving military trenches dug for training purposes on the Plain, which apparently, ‘apart from the ‘Celtic’ fields and linear ditches, are the most extensive earthwork monuments on the Training Area’ (p. 139).
The illustrations are of course one of the great features of these English Heritage volumes, which report work largely carried out by the RCHM(E) and there are many in this volume which exemplify the excellence of this work. The plan of Orcheston Down for example, in Figure 1.18, is one of these, but this also illustrates a flaw of the volume which for this reader at least detracted a little from the overall pleasure and utility of it.
Archaeological work of the last ten to twenty years has increasingly turned to a consideration of the wider setting of contexts in which ‘sites’ occur, so that even quite basic excavation reports may feature rather extensive considerations of the topographical setting of the excavation. Others, such as Chris Tilley, in A Phenomenology of Landscape or Sally Exon and colleagues for the Stonehenge landscape (Exon et al. . 2000) have concentrated on the physicality of the subject area almost above everything else. It is not that degree of concentration which is missing from this volume - that is far beyond what could reasonably be expected - but simply any sense of a physicality to the study area, or any help for the reader in attempting to construct for themselves what this landscape is like and how different parts of it related to each other at different times in the past. To refer to the Orcheston Down plan again (Fig. 1.18): there is no way easily to relate this plan to the overall plan of archaeological features on the SPTA (Fig. i.1) nor is there on that plan any indication of water courses other than by contours (that element is on Figure 1.8 which shows only relief and drainage, no archaeology). For someone who used regularly to pass fairly close to Orcheston village on a daily commuting trip, I could still form virtually no idea of where the field system was without an OS map, and even then it is difficult as the area is away from modern features and no OS grid reference is given. Just to confuse the reader further, the interpretative plan accompanying the main plan of Orcheston Down (Figure 1.17) which highlights the features of different date, is a different shape from the plan it is interpreting (it omits a little of the main plan to east and west) but includes fields in the north-west corner which are not shown in the main plan. Similarly, it is very difficult to form an impression of the location of the different types of long barrows when the map showing their distribution gives no identification for the long barrows themselves. Numbering or naming the barrows in the figure (Figure 2.3) or providing a numbered key would have greatly enhanced the discussion of the locations of individual barrows and barrow groups (pp 21-27), which must remain largely incomprehensible to someone who does not already know the Plain. Even with the Concordance at the back of the volume and an OS Map all is not necessarily plain sailing: I tried to identify a large, possibly Neolithic barrow, at Compton, which is mentioned in the text and of which I did not know the location (in fact did not know where even Compton was). Seventeen round barrows are listed, but none are that one, nor is it listed as ‘Neolithic barrow’; in the end I found it by simply going through the five pages of place name entries and finding at least the area (which was listed for its R-B settlement and villa).
These are not criticisms which are necessarily aimed at the authors. The authors so clearly know the SPTA so well that it is understandable that it may not have occurred to them that readers would find it difficult to form an understanding of where things were. It should be, however, the role of an editor to read a volume with the potential reader in mind and to adjust it accordingly. In this case much could have been done quite easily, by marking up maps with identifiers, and it is a weakness of the volume that it was not.
But this is a small criticism compared with the undoubted excellence of the fieldwork which is represented in it and the usefulness of the volume not only to the archaeologist concerned with Wiltshire but to British archaeology. This is a large area of southern England which has, for most of the 20th century, been lost to the public, and professional, eye. The work of these past few years by archaeologists, both in recording and in working with the M.O.D. to preserve the archaeological evidence, is a heartening story and one which is on the whole well-served by this volume. It is probably not an exaggeration to suggest that anyone remotely interested in the prehistory of Wessex should go and buy this book now, and if you have an interest in other periods than prehistory, particularly the Roman period, then you most certainly should.
Review Submitted: July 2004
The views expressed in this review are not
necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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