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Archaeology from the Wetlands: Recent Perspectives. Proceedings of the 11th WARP Conference, Edinburgh 2005, edited by SWAP inc. J. BARBER, C. CLARK, M. CRESSEY, A. CRONE, A. HALE, J. HENDERSON, R. HOUSLEY, R. SANDS, & A. SHERIDAN
Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. 2007. 363pp, 157 figs, 26 tables. hb ISBN 0 903903 40 0 (25.00)

This beautifully presented volume contains many of the papers presented at the recent Wetland conference in Edinburgh. It is divided into several sections; the Plenary Session, several themed sessions aligned with depositional environment and then several of the posters. Thirty-eight papers are relatively evenly spread across these sections, and range from case studies of sites from the West coast of the United States to Poland, via Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, England, and an understandable emphasis on Scotland.

The papers contained in the Plenary section tend towards broad overviews of the subject matter and range from the crucial issues of understanding, monitoring and curating these sites, through to the more theoretical aspects of wetland archaeology and specifically wetland ‘landscapes’. The paper by Adrian Phillips touches on landscape as a legislative concept and emphasizes the importance of using international legislation as tools for protection and conservation. The concept of landscape is thoroughly dissected, shaken up and put back together again with a greatly diversified meaning than that normally recognised by archaeologists. It’s a great start to the volume and provides an important and useful survey of the holistic study of landscape and the current European framework surrounding the subject. Several international cases follow: Conor McDermott surveys past surveys of peatland archaeology in Ireland, which contains quite staggering statistics of the scale and diversity of peatland archaeology and also, the erratic nature of the archaeological record to date and the work that will be needed to redress the balance, i.e. the less examined areas and themes (those less accessible/expansive and so less commercially worked out areas). Lars Larsson then takes us to Scania, Sweden, touching on two large developer funded projects amongst the first wetland zones considered for serious archaeological investigation. Sites from the Mesolithic through to the Iron Age were uncovered with remarkable finds, with a stunning Viking settlement in addition.

Two papers addressing the importance of monitoring wetland sites follow: whilst suggesting monitoring is here preaching to the converted, the importance and also the mechanics of monitoring sites does needs to be explicitly set out, and the papers are by some of the leading experts in the field; Richard Brunning, Robert van Heeringen and Liesbeth Theunissen. Both papers provide excellent case studies and useful discussion of fundamental practicalities. The Dutch paper demonstrates the sheer scale of the issue in the Netherlands and the very impressive work done in monitoring and curation.

The section is concluded with a brace of joint papers by Robert van der Noort and Aidan O’Sullivan; the subtitles of the papers, ‘rethinking time’ and ‘rethinking landscape’ in wetland archaeology. The papers form a complementary pair and indeed could have formed one long essay simply titled ‘rethinking wetland archaeology’ which moves into the realms of themes usually explored by the more dryland and theoretically-based prehistorians. The papers are thought-provoking and exhort archaeologists working in wetland environments to examine their subject matter from a wider range of perspectives than has been traditional. Whilst a number of papers in the volume do take a rather traditional approach, it is clear from a number of other papers that the message has been getting across and that archaeologists working in wetland environments are perhaps not as bound by traditional views as may have been thought.

The Alluvial section is somewhat broader-ranging than simply fresh-water river systems, with some estuaries and coastal sites included. The papers start with an examination of how to survey an alluviated landscape to characterise its archaeological potential—a perennial problem, and some useful methods are discussed here by Machteld Bats, in the case of the River Scheldt in Belgium, ranging from test pitting, to augering and sample sieving. A similar scenario, looking to identify sites in the dynamic riverine environments of the Northwest Coast of North America is also reported here, by Kathryn Bernick. Several sites are discussed; Scowlitz in British Columbia and the Sunken Village, Oregon; both disrupted and buried by the riverine activity, yet yielding important artefactual material which can be successfully interpreted once the formation processes and taphonomy are more clearly understood.

A second paper detailing archaeology of the Northwest Coastal Culture is included in this section, prepared by the team from Puget Sound Community College. The paper is focussed on a fascinating and important site, Qwu?gwes (meaning ‘a coming together, sharing’), is at the heart of a project examining the Squaxin Island Tribe, and this paper provides a synthesis of extensive research carried out to date, not focussed specifically on gaining knowledge of past cultures, as is traditional with archaeology, but with linking the current, living, culture, to past expressions of it, with particular emphasis on diet, food production and technology.

A coastal site creeps in, from northwest Scotland, examining the possibility of vegetation reconstruction using detailed statistically-based pollen analysis, written by Jane Bunting, Richard Middleton and Claire Twiddle. The results suggest that robust application of the methods can lead to refined and believable landscape reconstructions.

The paper by Fiona Haughey takes a step back from fine detail of individual sites and examines meaning and value of rivers, as potentially experienced in the past. This ranges from the more usual understanding as drinking source, transport, supply of food, through to more esoteric concepts such as barriers, processional ways and generators of significant sounds and adds a useful contrast to the more traditionally focused papers in this section.

Perhaps not a strictly alluvial subject, but important nonetheless is the paper by Caitríona Moore and Ingelise Stuijts examining a hoard of 131 wooden artefacts from Muckerstown, Ireland. These are bundles of twigs, bound with withies and with central brushwood spines. The artefacts are astonishingly well-preserved, if somewhat enigmatic. A variety of interpretations are explored, employing a highly diverting terminology. Pimps, faggots or bunces anyone?

The section devoted to Peatland issues includes papers on sites, themes and also, rather rarely for this volume; methodology. Two papers look at methodology—the paper by Erica Utsi is concerned with the use of ground penetrating radar (GPR); a technique often despaired of in wet environments. Utsi discusses method in accessible language and indicates that in fact, if used appropriately, GPR has advantages over other geophysical techniques in the wetland environment. A further paper looks at the pioneering work done by Richard Brunning in the Somerset Peatlands to try and gain an understanding of the state of preservation and risk to the structures present within the peats. The paper can be ideally summed up by a direct quote, ‘The results were both interesting and depressing’. Nevertheless, it is a useful and important piece of research and it would be exciting to see it replicated elsewhere.

Three case studies of peatland sites are presented in this section; two from Scotland (Tipping et al. from Loch Farlary and Tipping et al. from Oliclett) and one from Ireland (John Ó Néill and Gill Plunkett from Ballyarnet Lake). All discuss prehistoric archaeology (primarily Neolithic and Bronze Age) within the context of the environmental context and provide useful surveys of the recent work at these sites. In addition to these quite specific case studies, a regional survey is also reported on, with Jamie Quartermaine et al. reporting on the recent Upland Peat survey, conducted with management in mind, in four areas of north-west England. The paper provides useful information on threats to the preservation of wetlands in upland areas and how to go about quantifying them and hopefully forming management strategies.

The peatland section also contains a paper on recent Irish finds of anthropomorphic figures by Michael Stanley. These figures, so rarely seen and so enigmatic never fail to grip the imagination, and this paper is no exception; including a review of past finds (including some from the archive) as well as discussion of several new figures, including pragmatic points about exactly how anthropomorphic they really are.

The final section relating to papers presented at the conference is on a Lacustrine theme, and indeed provides a feast of crannogs. These are mainly from Scotland but also include an Irish crannog and lake dwellings from Poland and Yorkshire. The papers are remarkably diverse and provide essential reading on the subject, starting with specific case studies and issues of taphonomy (Anne Crone on Loch Glashan, Nicholas Dixon and Loch Tay, Aidan O’Sullivan and Robert Sands from Coolure Demesne crannog). Also covered are a range of themes, such as how to spot crannogs (from the air); a fascinating paper discussing the wide range of information and interpretation that can be gained by aerial work—sadly, the reproduction of the photos is a little poor here. Several overviews of the Scottish crannogs are presented (Jon Henderson, Graeme Cavers, Alex Hale) rightly lamenting how poorly appreciated crannogs are (there are 370 known crannogs in Scotland alone) and discussing in rich detail the nature and diversity of crannogs. These papers include useful models of formation, appearance and remodelling (the term ‘wet tell’ is used and is particularly evocative). New research directions are suggested for the future to focus on the significance of understanding the role of these sites over the millennia they were in use.

Malcolm Lillie et al. present a very useful paper on site monitoring of five crannogs: whilst crannogs often have fantastic organic preservation, noted in many of the other papers, the environments in these situations can often be precarious and this paper demonstrates the usefulness of monitoring if the sites are to be managed to best effect, providing good detail on the key parameters likely to affect preservation. Moving to Yorkshire, William Fletcher and Robert van de Noort discuss a series of antiquarian discoveries in the Holderness area, provide the historic context and in fact de-bunk the status of the sites as lake dwellings which would seem to have been attributed during the prevailing contemporary ‘Zeitgeiste’.

Last but not least is a paper on Polish crannogs by Andrzej Pydyn discussing the regions where they may be found, the history of discovery and a survey of the range and nature of the remains, which provides a very useful contrast with the surveys and discussions of the Scottish crannogs.

The final section of the volume is devoted to some of the posters that were displayed at the conference—these include a discussion of Late Bronze Age ritual deposition around wooden in southern Britain (Richard Brunning), God dollies (or pegs?) from the Pict’s Knowe (Anne Crone), Boats and human remains from Norway (Merete Moe Henriksen and Morten Sylvester), Talking about wetlands in the past (Katrin Thier) and Modelling the archaeological potential of a wetland (Rupert Housley et al.). All of these short contributions provide interesting and useful information and it is satisfying to see that at least some of the posters have been published.

All in all, this is an important and useful volume covering both the factual and theoretical; its size and diversity is not perhaps going to make this bedtime reading, but for all those active in the field, and also for those interested in certain themes, or Scottish archaeology more broadly it really is exceptionally good value.

Jane Sidell
English Heritage

Review submitted: May 2008

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



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