A Line Across Land: fieldwork on the Isleham-Ely Pipeline, by KASIA GDANIEC, MARK EDMONDS and PATRICIA WILTSHIRE
This report is concerned with the various phases and scales of work involved in archaeological survey and mitigation in advance of a water supply pipeline between Isleham and Ely in Cambridgeshire in 1993–4. The format of the report (physically entirely familiar to readers of any of the other 100-plus volumes of the East Anglian Archaeology series, and congruent with those publications standards and style) follows the structure of the excavations: following an introductory chapter, the results of the survey and evaluation of the pipeline corridor are presented; chapter three deals with the more detailed excavations of four sites identified during those surveys; chapters 4 and 5 focus on the most significant results from a further two sites; chapter 6 places the whole in its regional context. Entirely traditional in arrangement and presentation, and none the worse for it.
There is of course a trend nowadays towards different styles of reporting (and, indeed, of excavating), from so-called integrated reports to more experimental and forward-looking methods of presentation. Some of these are transparently driven by the desire to minimise cost; others by a wish to make very large bodies of data available to interrogation; but whatever the motive, the increasing frequency of their appearance is such that other authors are beginning to feel the need to apologise for the old-fashioned presentation of their material.
Not so Gdaniec, Edmonds and Wiltshire, and all credit to them for it. While the fieldwork and its reporting were underpinned by a rigorous and detailed set of methodologies, many drawing on a developing the work of the Fenland Management Project, to which this volume serves as a kind of addendum (detailed in the introductory Chapter 1), the reporting of it merely (with no pejorative sense to that term) attempts to present the results of those methodologies, within—as the authors are at pains to point out—a landscape perspective. In those terms—of the presentation and interpretation of a sometimes rather disparate set of data (as unsympathetic to synthesis as pipeline, road scheme and other narrow linear transect investigations can be)—the report is almost entirely successful.
Chapter 2 deals with the sampling of the landscape through programmes of fieldwalking, test pitting and evaluation. The results of trial trenching and test pitting are presented in both summary (Table 1) and detail (pages 8–15 describe the archaeological features encountered). Presentation is straightforward, with description following the course of the pipeline, and it is perhaps here that the first criticism can be levelled: because of the direct progression geographically from one end of the transect to the other, it is often a little difficult to retain a sense of the chronological relationships and consequently of any development or change within and between the various pits, ditches, enclosures and etc (of the character, scale and temporality of particular landscape traditions—a stated aim of the volume). A thematic or chronological rather than route-oriented approach may have been preferable—this too would have alleviated some of the repetition of trial trench and test pit information in the chapters dealing with the more detailed surveys and excavations; having said which, the large numbers of undated features would not have been particularly accommodating of such an approach. In this sense, the analysis of the lithics the remains of the chapter is more successful and rewarding.
Chapters 3 to 5 are the meat of the volume, and deal with the six sites (as they are referred to in the text) deemed worthy of more detailed mitigation on the basis of the results of evaluation. Summarising the results of these chapters would be pointless: suffice it to say that the results of the various surveys and excavations are clearly and accessibly presented in useful tables and descriptive text; the standard of the supporting illustrative matter (location maps, plans, finds drawings and photographs) is generally very good; and the accompanying photographs for the most part pleasing. Other than one or two typographic slips which direct the reader to the wrong table, the only real reservation here is that the level of detail is in some places perhaps a little high: one wonders if some of the specialist contributions (to Chapter 5 particularly) would not have been more effective with the benefit of a little more editing.
Throughout, the authors are at pains to stress that the material presented in this volume does not stand in isolation but rather—especially around Isleham and Soham—adds to the artefact scatters previously known to cluster around the fen edge. It is to their credit that enough mention of this preceding work is made for the reader without specialist knowledge of the area to both appreciate the context within which the pipeline works were undertaken and judge the contribution of those works to the understanding of the archaeology of the area.
In this sense the concluding Chapter 6 is the most successful, concerned as it is with the evaluation of the projects results on a wider scale. As is made repeatedly apparent, the authors are not blind to the difficulties of extrapolating from the narrow transect of a pipeline corridor, but as a consequence of the sustained application of site sampling procedures, it is possible to place the results within some sense of regional context. The consideration of relative densities of flint scatters is exemplary of this, and successfully makes the point that these numbers are only really meaningful between sites.
In summary then, this volume is a worthy presentation of a well-planned and executed project—a little heavy on detail in places, a little unsympathetically organised in others—but on the whole a successful achievement of its aims. As well as contributing significantly to the understanding of the archaeology of its region, the project and its reporting have also demonstrated (or, perhaps, re-emphasised) the importance of suitable, repeatable and comparable survey and sampling techniques, and the possibility of successfully carrying them out within the framework of a developer (rather than research) led project. Not new observations, perhaps, but certainly ones that benefit from restatement.
Review submitted: November 2008
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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