of the Iceni: The Iron Age in Northern East Anglia. Edited by John Davies
and Tom Williamson.
This volume is the result of a one-day conference held at the Centre of East Anglian Studies, University of East Anglia, in 1995. Readers who are familiar with collections of essays that originate from conference contributions will recognise that it is often the case that the title promises more than the book delivers, and 'Land of the Iceni: the Iron Age in Northern East Anglia' does not deliver a cohesive approach to the region, or the tribal entity that inhabited it. However, the eclectic nature of such volumes in general, (including this one) is their principal strength, allowing a variety of new insights and advances some new approaches to be surveyed. The overview of on-going work which this volume provides makes it a valuable contribution to the scholarship of East Anglia, and each of the contributions has something of interest to add to the general picture of an area where vigorous scholastic interest is alive and well.
That said, I would like to consider an issue raised by Land of the Iceni, and of relevance to all such local studies, that of regionality. It is a developing trend in archaeology to consider the nature of regional identity, rather than attempting to interpret areas in the light of broad national models or hegemonic interpretaive frameworks (e.g. Mattingly 1997 for a good idea of the state of the debate for the Roman period). The Iron Age has perhaps suffered from this to a greater extent than some other periods, with broad assumptions about the nature of settlement derived from few individual sites (like the key role played by Little Woodbury), though this is common for other periods too. For Roman archaeologists, the debate about breaking down such monolithic models is well advanced and the benefits to our understanding of breaking down overarching models are clear. By looking at the detail of an area, we can begin to see the detail of how people lived, and how the individuality of such 'sub regions' was maintained, even amidst the superficially homogenising environment of Roman Britain. In the Iron Age, where no such homogenising political entity as the Roman administration existed, such 'regionality' was, surely, just as significant, and, as the editors of the volume under review point out (pg 8), Iron Age culture should be studied in its own regional terms rather than seen as 'pale reflections of a 'typical' Iron Age represented by Wessex or Hertfordshire and Essex'. For a Romanist, taking the view that regional detail is important, such well considered studies of Iron Age Britain become very important. They inform our understanding of cultural patterns before the conquest, and, help us know what to look for beneath the surface of 'Roman' material culture afterwards. In this aspect the study succeeds admirably, not only with more general summaries of the archaeological data (Edward Martin provides a useful summary of the archaeology of Iron Age Suffolk and Trevor Ashwin for Norfolk, but there also good contributions on material culture, like coinage (Amanda Chadburn) and pottery (Sarah Percival). John Davies' contribution entitled 'Patterns, Power and Political Progress in Iron Age Norfolk' perhaps goes the furthest towards meeting the stated aim of the volume, to consider the Iceni in their own regional light, and Hill offers an interesting perspective upon the area, using the techniques of landscape archaeology to explore the structure of Iron Age society. As well as all this, Andrew Rogerson provides us with two parish studies (Barton Bendish and Fransham) and Patricia Wiltshire and Peter Murphy consider the environment and the agrarian economy.
The approach, however, of considering a region in its own terms, although accepted in principal, is not carried to its logical conclusion. If we are to attempt to inject regionality into our understanding of the past, we have to first establish the nature of that regionality: we must create it in a meaningful way. It is not my intention here to consider how identity may be recovered from the archaeological record, but the first step in that direction must be to consider the nature of our study area. If we are to consider the Iceni, or anyone else from the past, where should we start to look?
The basic problem is that of the county study. This is a format which is common to such work, and is one of the principal vehicles for generating 'regionality' in archaeology, perhaps because it reflects the structure of the archaeological profession, and to a large extent the organisation of our data (people with 'county' wide interests, county archaeological officers, SMRs organised upon a county by county basis). Whilst this may be convenient in terms of access and organising our data, is it a suitable interpretative framework for attempting to understand the past? The answer is yes, if that period of the past is one where such county boundaries had relevance to those who inhabited the landscape. If not, if for example, we are looking at the Iron Age, or the Roman period, we are simply imposing arbitrary and irregular divisions upon our data, and this causes two principal problems. Firstly, their familiarity as divisions, their identity as counties, leads us, I suspect, to transferring, subconsciously, a little of that identity to the data. In studying, for example 'Roman Oxfordshire', or 'Prehistoric Derbyshire' we are in danger of generating a spurious sense of social cohesion and historical relevance for such study areas, that they do not merit. Worse, by severing one part of a functioning social landscape from the past from another part, just because they lie on either side of a modern local government boundary, might actually obscure our understanding of the data that we are examining.
A good example of county orientated thinking, and the effect that it can have, is that of Breckland, discussed in this current volume (Davies 40 - 41). Here, Davies early on in his paper defines the 'land of the Iceni' as Norfolk, and parts of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, but within a few paragraphs the emphasis has changed to 'Iron Age Norfolk', and the paper proceeds upon this basis. This impacts, upon the way in which the data are interpreted, most clearly in the case of the western parts of the county. The concluding parts of Davies paper includes consideration of the impact of the Roman conquest, and in this context Davies notes the decline in the political power of west Norfolk from the Iron Age to the Roman period, citing the Boudican Revolt as a possible reason for the population to have fallen 'out of favour' with the Roman authorities. Several issues are raised, purely by the drawing of the study area along county boundaries - events in the past cannot neatly be contained by modern administrative boundaries, and one possible explanation of the decline of Breckland, and in general the area of West Norfolk, is to be found by casting our net a little wider, and looking into the fens.
The area of the central fens is that around the modern town of March, and includes the late Iron Age earthwork at Stonea Camp. The Camp was certainly firmly of 'Icenian' character by the time of the Roman conquest, the vast majority of IA coins found there being of Icenian type. One of the main economic activities in this region was the probably the production of salt, an important activity that could bring great wealth. As such the central fen islands (otherwise marginal, and of little direct interest) would have been valuable assets. We can envisage 'raw' salt making its way back into Norfolk and Suffolk, much to the benefit of the people through whose hands it passed.
This area would thus have remained free of Roman control during the Client State period, but what about after the annexation of the Icenian Kingdom? There we see a sudden shift in emphasis, which is illustrated in both regional communications of the early Roman period, and in the pottery from the area. The central fens suddenly changes from looking east, to looking west. The salt industries, once controlled by the Iceni seem to have then fallen under the control of those living to the west of the Fens, the Corieltauvi, later, perhaps, being controlled from the Roman town of Durobrivae. One possible hypothesis to explain this is that salt, as important to the Romans as the Iron Age Britons, was placed under the more the reliable control of a tribe that had not taken part in the revolt (Fincham 2002: 72-73). This explains not only the rather 'sullen' feeling about the central fens, the people there reluctant to engaged with Roman culture, but is also of great significance for Eastern Norfolk. The people here may suddenly have found that any role that they had had in the salt industry of the fens reduced drastically to just the salterns in their immediate vicinity on the Norfolk Fen edge. The early Roman period must have been a lean time for an area which had been politically important before the conquest.
If the sudden changes in the economy of West Norfolk are coupled with the equally sudden closure of major ritual centres like Thetford at around the same time, we have a broad based explanation for the decline of East Norfolk in the Early Roman period. Major sources of power and wealth that underpinned the status of the area had been removed. This illustrates two things, firstly the importance to Roman Archaeologists of good regional studies of Iron Age Britain, and how they can throw light upon developments in early Roman Britain. More importantly, it demonstrates, simply by way of being an example, how distorting 'county' based studies can be. Light is only thrown upon the full picture by flexibly considering the changing boundaries of what the Iceni may have considered to be their 'land'. To do otherwise is to allow the parameters of our studies to be driven by mechanistic elements of our data collection, writing county studies, because our data is collected by county.
The problem may also be seen to descend to a lower level, with the format of the Parish study. Much data from the fens (principally that collected by the Fenland Survey) is in this form, but the format is extended to Norfolk in the current study with Rogerson's 'Arable and Pasture in Two Norfolk Parishes: Barton Bendish and Fransham in the Iron Age'. The issues here are by now well rehearsed, but I will simply note that all the failings of county studies are inherent in parish studies for any period other than for which the parish had meaning: principally the medieval. To talk in terms of a 'parish' in the Iron Age is anachronistic. It may be argued that these are simply convenient sample areas, but if data is to divided arbitrarily, good sampling practice surely dictates that these areas should be comparable - say, of the same size and shape, Fenland in Roman Times (Phillips 1970) being a good example of this, using a grid based upon that of the ordinance survey to organise and discuss the data.
In conclusion, we might note that if we are to attempt to understand regionality in the past the first step must be an attempt to understand something of the social structure of a region. In effect we must ask: 'what would some one living at the time under scrutiny have understood as their community?' and then base a study area upon that understanding. Such understandings will always be uncertain, and open to debate, but in that way we are at least making the effort to understand the landscape in the terms of the people who inhabited it, and in that way have a fighting chance of understanding how they related to their surroundings. If we are to study, for example, 'the land of the Iceni', we must determine, as best we can, what geographical area we are looking at, and then base our study area upon that - not the nearest approximate county.
These issues are generic - and this is a criticism levelled not at this study specifically, but the whole genre. It is also a criticism which should not be seen as invalidating the work presented in this volume, and those like it. As mentioned at the outset, Land of the Iceni contains much information which is useful. At a broader level, it presents, as conference volumes often tend to do, a snapshot of on-going research, allowing the reader to quickly gain a sense of which issues are currently seen as important, and where work is currently being conducted. The book is well produced and presented, and contains many interesting maps, diagrams and photographs. It is a must for anyone interested in the region, and will appeal to both the professional and more casual reader.
Review Submitted: October 2002
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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