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The Avebury Landscape: aspects of the field archaeology of the Marlborough Downs edited by Graham Brown, David Field and David McOmish
Oxbow Books, 2005, 224pp, many B + W Figs and plates, ISBN 184217 152 6 (£30).

This book is an endorsement of the old adage that one can never have too much of a good thing. It takes the Marlborough Downs – which has the great prehistoric site of Avebury at its core – and through a series of essays shows how the landscape has developed over millennia. It is part of a growing custom of publishing conference proceedings – sometimes with less discrimination than one would wish as they can be dysfunctional and superficial – but this volume makes the grade and satisfies in its balance, content, formatting and the high quality of Deborah Cunliffe’s illustrations. It is introduced by that doyen of Marlborough Downs studies – Peter Fowler and is poignantly offered to his late colleague Desmond Bonney. The acknowledgements make it clear that the publication has benefited greatly from the merger of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England with English Heritage. The latter provided the financial support which made the volume possible – if only the money could have included the provision of an index!

The organisation of the volume follows traditional lines – survey, geology, environmental change succeeded by the familiar chest-of-drawers of cultural change – Mesolithic (S. Allen), Neolithic (Pollard), Bronze Age (Cleal, McOmish, Barber), Iron Age (Bowden), Roman and later (Andrews). The essays therefore have a thematic unity even if their ordering has an over-familiar appearance. It makes it reassuringly simple, for example, for a reviewer to identify the volume’s strengths and weaknesses. The bulk of the essays deal with prehistoric matter and only four with Romans and later. The title of Mike Allen’s contribution on environmental change refers pointedly to its prehistoric context. This is probably a reflection of the research interests of past workers but there must surely be much more to be said on Roman and later settlement patterns and it is a value of this volume that it makes this clear – albeit inadvertently. Similarly, such conferences – from which this book sprang – should pay greater heed to the interests and views of those who live and work in the areas under review. Jon Cannon’s views on the Swallowcliffe Spring are no substitute for the sense of place that such contributions would convey.

The book opens with a magnanimous gesture by Peter Fowler who, although not invited to the 2002 seminar, nevertheless got to write the foreword to the book. This he has triumphantly done in a witty penetrating style and those who wish to understand the volume would do well to read it. Building on its contents he supplements the papers with five outstanding issues which require attention at the next research stage. We must hope that resources will be made available to address them. The volume editors provide a stimulating introductory overview illustrated by sumptuous plans of Rybury and Knap Hill – the high quality of which are sustained throughout the volume, particularly in respect of the Avebury monument itself and Silbury Hill in the following paper on fieldwork in the Avebury area. The volume is worth perusing for these alone which have lasting value and are a sheer delight. We are then brought up to date on aerial survey (Simon Crutchley) and geophysics (Andrew David), the highlights of which are area plots of the Avebury region and magnetometer surveys of Liddington Castle and Oldbury hill-forts. The welcome paper on geological history – to this reviewer’s great satisfaction – draws attention to the total lack of evidence for glaciation on the Marlborough Downs and the absence of any dolerite stones. A stimulating paper by Mike Allen reviews the abundant palaeo-environmental information from the region and questions some assumptions and perceptions – John Evans would have loved it! The remaining papers deal with the cultural sequence as presently understood on the Marlborough Downs and provide an important platform from which to move forward with new questions in mind. They are important works of consolidation and synthesis and form the core of the volume. Overall, the volume marks a significant stage in our understanding of Avebury and its context. Many people have contributed to our current perceptions. This volume is an appropriate tribute to them and is an essential basis on which to build for the future.

Geoff Wainwright

Review Submitted: August 2005

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

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