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Wetland Archaeology and Environments. Regional Issues, Global Perspectives Edited By M. Lillie & S. Ellis
Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2006, 336pp, 127 b&w illus, 13 tabs, pb ISBN 1842171542 (£19.95)

Wetland Archaeology and Environments. Regional Issues, Global Perspectives is a collection of 23 papers on wetlands from around the world, and based on a conference under the same name in 2000. It includes a number of regional archaeologies of wetlands from nearly every continent (including several from the UK, alongside contributions from Russia, Sweden, Indonesia, Australia, north America and central Africa) alongside a number of more general (eg, on wetland science by Mike Corfield) and methodological papers (eg, on interpreting molluscan assemblages by Paul Davies, non-marine ostracods by Huw Griffiths and diatoms by Jane Reed). In their introduction and reflection, the editors present the case for the archaeological study of wetlands with, on the one hand, the better-than-usual preservation encountered in these anoxic environments and, on the other, the world-wide threat to many wetlands as their drainage and exploitation continues apace. All papers in this volume, to varying degrees, present examples of high quality preservation (eg, the Tumbeagh Bog Body by Nora Bermingham and most papers incorporate palaeoecological data in their results), whilst four papers consider aspects of the threats to wetlands (notably In-situ preservation by Malcolm Lillie).

The most interesting paper, at least for archaeologists working in wetlands, is Francis Pryor’s ‘Beware the Glutinous Ghetto’. In this short paper, Pryor effectively argues against a Wetland Archaeology as a distinct (sub-) discipline in archaeology. Somewhat surprisingly (and unfortunately), the editors do not comment on this evocative challenge put to them by Pryor in either their introduction or reflection. However, the arguments in this paper can not go unchallenged, so I’ll pick up the challenge here.

Let me start by acknowledging full agreement with the key concept of Pryor’s argument, that is that the isolated study of wetlands is an intellectually mistaken enterprise as wetlands were never isolated from their surrounding landscape, and ‘people of the wetlands’ would never recognise this label themselves. However, this is now an argument increasingly accepted amongst archaeologists working in wetlands and few if any research projects designed today would consider the isolated study of wetlands a worthwhile pursuit. In the context of modern wetland research, Pryor’s argument nevertheless appears as one of the baby-and-the-bathwater. The value of wetland archaeology lies not in its isolated study, but in the additionality it has to offer to ‘mainstream’ archaeology.

Initially (say 30 years ago), that additionality lay in the study of large tracts of low-lying landscapes such as the Somerset Levels and the Fens of East Anglia that were less well understood that their surrounding environments, a situation exacerbated by the archaeological application of aerial photography, which did not work well in areas with near-surface water tables. More recently, that additionality lay with methodological advances. For example, the use of dendrochronology on wet-preserved sites shows something of the annual dynamics of the prehistoric past which are impossible to attain on a non-wetland site where, typically, radiocarbon dates determine the nearest quarter century (about a whole generation) of a particular event that may have lasted a day or week. Or, the full integration of archaeological with rich palaeoenvironmental data remains the preserve of archaeologists working in wetlands, but this no longer leads automatically to environmental deterministic explanations of human activity, rather it forms part of the armoury of data that can be used to understand the diverse relationships between people and their environments. And in the near future, I foresee that this additionality will be more theoretical, and may include new ways of conceptualising nature-society relations, including the relational agency of the human and other-than-human, and suggesting ways in which such agency can result in hybridity, and the co-constitution of places, and the well-studied dynamic nature of wetlands can play a pioneering role here. These arguments for the fully contextualised study of wetlands were the subject of a recent book (Van de Noort & O’Sullivan 2006) which, perhaps unfortunately, was published sometime between the original conference and the publication of Wetland Archaeology and Environments.

Returning to Wetland Archaeology and Environments, the individual papers in this collection are all very worthwhile and most present results from recent research that deserves the broader audience sought by this book. Whether the sum is greater than the parts is, however, debatable and this publication remains something of an eclectic compilation of research in wet places around the world, without a clear sense of why these were brought together in this particular book. As such, it does little to argue against Francis Pryor’s appeal for the demise of Wetland Archaeology.

Robert Van de Noort
University of Exeter

Van de Noort R. & O’Sullivan, A., 2006. Rethinking Wetland Archaeology. London: Duckworth.

Review Submitted: June 2007

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

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