Fertile Ground, Papers in Honour of Susan Limbrey, eds. D.N. Smith, M.B., Brickley, & W. Smith
Fertile Ground comprises a collection of 15 papers by 23 contributors which originated in an Association for Environmental Archaeologists (AEA) meeting held in 2000 to mark the occasion of Susan Limbrey’s retirement. As described in the introduction, Professor Limbrey’s contribution to archaeology has been impressive, notably on the advancement of our understanding of sediments and soils and their relationship to human activity. Her interests and subjects taught as lecturer in Environmental Archaeology at the University of Birmingham were broad however, so it is fitting that this volume covers a wide range of environmental archaeology themes.
The first paper, by Brickley, Smith and Smith, differs from the subsequent, in providing an overview of the state of environmental archaeology in Britain following circulation of to a questionnaire to some practitioners in the subject. They suggest integration with ‘mainstream’ archaeology and the number of projects in which environmental specialists are involved from the outset has increased in recent years and that the appointment of English Heritage Regional Advisors has had a significant role in this. However, the respondents also felt that smaller field units struggle to adequately provide for environmental issues, particularly in project design and make suggestions on the use of standards. The authors go on to consider issues of funding and training, and note that although field units cannot apply for research funding, their respondents felt these units have a role to play, perhaps through closer working with universities, clearly a topic which requires further debate to enable the field to move forward as a profession.
The subsequent papers fall into several broad themes. Alluvial geoarchaeology and palaeoenvironments are considered by Brown et al. who present preliminary pollen, and insect findings for Lateglacial interstadial to Holocene floodplain sediments filling an Upper Palaeolithic age palaeochannel in the Lugg Valley near Hereford and consider vegetation change over this transitional and rarely well-represented period. Druce investigates Holocene sea level changes in the Severn Estuary through the study of dated peat layers, which though often non-planar and discontinuous in this area may provide useful data on trends in regional marine regression and transgression. Greenwood and Smith use insect data to reconstruct aspects of the fluvial landscape from several discontinuous sequences of the Trent Valley and in so doing are able to provide hope for those working in such spatially variable fluvial landscapes to provide long-term records of landscape change.
Readers with an interest in soil science are well catered for, with papers by Canti who reminds us of the importance of worms in soil formation, sorting and sometimes mucking up site stratigraphy and Guttman et al. who provide a review of the evidence for manuring from the Neolithic onwards and describe a wide range of manure types used and their relationship to the process of intensification of agriculture. Usai describes the use of textural pedofeatures in examining past cultivation and concludes they tend to occur in sequences unaffected by cultivation and rarely below it, contrary to the assumption that the two are directly related and that they should not, therefore, be considered diagnostic. Matthews provides an interesting account of some of her micromorphological findings for floor and midden layers at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük, Turkey. She urges the integration of good field observations, the study of microstratigraphy and other environmental techniques with artefact studies in providing the full archaeological picture.
Faunal studies include those of Brothwell who addresses the topic of tame wolves and dogs and proposes a Palaeolithic origin for domestication, with fully domesticated forms arriving in the Americas early, differentiating into disparate types over the Holocene. Kenward provides an overview of the evidence for honeybees in archaeological deposits and suggests possible beekeeping in 10th century York, a thoughtful and detailed addition to Susan Limbrey’s 1982 paper, while Robinson casts a fresh eye over the beetle work undertaken by Girling in the Somerset Levels. Redfern and Roberts provide the sole human bone study, they utilise large data sets from cemeteries in major urban conurbations to examine the health implications of 2nd-4th Romano-British urban living.
Landscape, notably woodland, topics are also addressed. Hall looks at 19th-20th century woodland management, leaf-foddering and the indirect effects of changes in the nature and intensity of agriculture in the Pindos Mountains of NW Greece using a useful mix of oral histories, aerial photographs, vegetation transects and tree-ring analyses (although little of her primary data is presented in this volume). Heathcote on late Holocene landscape changes on the island of Nevis in the Eastern Caribbean examines the relationship between large-scale changes in land-use and settlement patterns with the archaeological evidence for landscape division over the last 500 years and the spatial distribution of landforms, soil types and sediments on the island, providing an admirably holistic approach to examining the nature of human impact on the landscape, notably soil erosion. Smith and Whitehouse consider the contribution of insect data to the study of early to mid Holocene woodland composition and discuss the likelihood of greater biodiversity and complexity than previously proposed.
Overall the papers are wide-ranging, with something for everyone. Several are necessarily short and some without the original data but this is no bad thing, making the volume very readable. Full bibliographies will allow those with particular interests to research those topics further. It’s a good read for all environmental archaeologists and hopefully for many outside will also find this an interesting review of some of the current issues and the direct contribution of palaeoenvironmental and geoarchaeological work to archaeology.
Review Submitted: January 2006
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