The Archaeology of Ardleigh, Essex, excavations 1955-1980 by N.R. BROWN
East Anglian Archaeology Report No. 90. 1999. 195pp, 114 figs, 30pls. ISBN 1 85281 164 1 (£17.00)

This volume publishes the results of excavations near Ardleigh in Essex, carried out over a period of 25 years. Local landowner and farmer Felix Erith, who discovered and excavated a large Bronze Age cremation cemetery on his land, provided the impetus for the excavations. He excavated and published his results from 1950 to 1960. As a result of his work a programme of aerial photographic survey was conducted. This revealed a large palimpsest of crop marks forming one of the largest crop mark complexes in Essex. A large area of the complex was scheduled and excavations were carried out by the Central Excavation Unit to try and trace the development of the complex and to put Erith’s excavations in context. The main body of the volume is given over to the publishing of the aerial survey results and the Central Excavation Unit results. Erith’s excavations provide an introductory lead in to the CEU excavations. This volume presents not just the Deverell-Rimbury pottery evidence from Ardleigh but also that from the major cemetery at White Colne and thus represents a major corpus of material for reference for this period and area.

On a purely technical level this is a quite excellent volume. The production values are very good with large, clear artefact drawings and well-lit artefact photographs. The colour photographs of the chalcedony beads on page 73 emphasising the subtlety and beauty of these objects. The site photographs and plans are also, as one would expect from the CEU of top quality. The maps produced from the aerial photograph plots are clear and will provide a firm basis for further work in the area. The great organisational strength of this book is to present Erith’s work at the beginning of the book. Not only does this provide the volume with a chronological structure but it also gives Erith’s work the prominence it deserves rather than relegating it to an appendix, which one feels would have happened in some other monograph series. Some may say that Erith’s work suffers by direct comparison with that done by the Central Excavation Unit. In that case I would disagree. Some of his plans and sections may not be as technically accomplished as the CEU, but then he was a farmer and the CEU are full time archaeologists. Erith’s own fascinating site photographs show he absorbed advice from Colchester Museum and developed an accomplished archaeological technique. He was quadranting ring ditches and excavating the cremation urns using a method still used today. Many people’s instinct would be to empty the urn in the field and then try to remove it. Erith excavated around the urn leaving it filled and then bound them with string before removal. The contents of the urn would be then micro-excavated in controlled conditions. The only difference between his technique and that of a recent excavation of similar material, such as the Iron Age cemetery at Westhampnett in West Sussex, is the use of bandages instead of string. Erith’s achievement is made all the more impressive when one reads how his method for locating sites involved walking for hours behind a tractor, marking pot scatters with bamboo canes.

Erith’s background and occupation neatly encapsulate two important issues that are currently ‘hot potatoes’ in British archaeology, namely the problems of agricultural attrition of archaeological sites and the role of the “amateur” archaeologist. Erith’s discovery of the sites described in this book was the direct result of the changes that took place in agricultural practice in the mid- twentieth century. His old ploughman retired and so Felix decided to retire his horses and buy a tractor. This cut 10 centimetres deeper into the subsoil than the old horse drawn plough. It was the pottery being ripped up from the subsoil that Erith noted and started to record. Ardleigh was lucky in that the farmer was interested enough to recognise the archaeological opportunity his detrimental ploughing provided. The majority of farms where this occurs in Britain do not have Felix Eriths. As a result of agricultural expansion under the Common Agricultural Policy and allied subsidies, known and undiscovered archaeological sites have suffered enormous attrition over the last 60 years. This problem is now being addressed through the provision of specialist archaeological advice by DEFRA to farmers by Countryside Steward Schemes. Surveys such as the Monument Protection Programme and the Monuments At Risk Survey provide the inventory for this management.

Felix Erith is in the great tradition of British land owner/amateur archaeologists who include great names such as Richard Colt-Hoare and General Pitt-Rivers. The Oxford English dictionary defines “amateur” as “One who practises a thing only as a pastime”. In this sense I think the term is derogatory, especially when applied to people such as Erith and the work they produced. His technique, intelligence, results and publications, as well as the continued work they have inspired place him and his like above the level of the amateur. This was not a mere pastime but a passionate interest, as serious as any academic or professional. Thank fully this tradition continues in the work of many local societies and groups, as well as more well known individuals such as Martin Green who farms near Pitt-Rivers’ estate in Dorset and has quietly excavated and published an extraordinary range of previously unknown monuments. Many “professionals” could do worse than read his and Erith’s works and benefit enormously. As such this volume is a fitting tribute to a remarkable individual.

Dominic Barker
Southampton University

Review Submitted: February 2004

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

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