Power and Island Communities: excavations at the Wardy Hill ringwork, Coveney, Ely by CHRISTOPHER EVANS
East Anglian Archaeology 103. 2003, 307 pages, 145 figures, 12 plates. ISBN 0 9544824 0 9. (£25.00)

Wardy Hill is a commanding location on the edge of a former marshland embayment in the western part of the Isle of Ely, a major topographical eminence in the southern Wash Fenlands c. 20km north of Cambridge. Today it is topped by a World War II pillbox (illustrated on this report’s frontispiece), but this eagerly awaited report makes clear that this is only the most recent defensive feature to have stood here. This volume deals with major excavations at Wardy Hill by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit in 1991–2 under the auspices of the Fenland Management Project. All of the work was funded by English Heritage.

A significant body of Bronze Age evidence might indicate an embanked or enclosed landscape here in the later 2nd millennium BC, but the focus of the project was a prominent network of Middle–Late Iron Age crop-mark ditches. At its heart lay a bivallate ringwork, one of a number of defended features of this period known in this part of East Anglia. Evidence for six round structures – four of them substantial, and at least one of which may have preceded the construction of the ringwork proper – was concentrated in the southern and south-western parts of the interior. Although some important questions about chronology and sequence remain unanswered, the excavation results indicate that the site had been occupied not only in the later Iron Age, but also into the later 1st century AD by people using Roman-type pottery. A large and varied body of artefacts derives both from excavation of features and from exhaustive test-pitting and surface survey. This report has been some years in preparation, but this schedule has offered opportunities to strengthen contextual appreciation of the site by considering the results of post-1992 excavation at a number of other Iron Age sites in the vicinity of Ely.

The report’s structure is innovative, and offers a contribution in its own right to ongoing discussion about how we write and present field reports. Evans and his colleagues sometimes present familiar subject matter in unfamiliar and stimulating contexts. The second chapter offers a comprehensive narrative of site structure and sequence but also considers present-day fenlanders’ perceptions in its account of the recent evidence. Chapter 4 on artefacts is relatively conventional in format and is dominated by J.D. Hill’s report on the 60kg of pottery recovered – although a fragment of a remarkable decorated tankard or bucket stave offers a sharp reminder of the profusion of wooden and wicker objects that are lost to the archaeologist under all but the most exceptional circumstances. Yet the two chapters bracketing the finds report stand apart from familiar practice. Chapter 3 presents the palaeoenvironmental evidence, and the decision to reverse the usual system of considering ecofacts after artefacts is vindicated by its synthetic strength. Its concluding discussion not offers a full consideration of the evidence for subsistence and agricultural practices but also considers the local environment’s human carrying capacity. All in all, it makes a stimulating prelude to the artefactual account. Chapter 5 is entitled Articulating settlement structure and re-addressing sequence. Here the large body of ploughsoil evidence – more usually offered as a preliminary to the stratigraphic narrative in a site report – is interpreted vigorously in a fully illustrated account that considers these results in terms not only of changing trends in the use of space but also of decline and abandonment processes. Researchers seeking a case study in extrapolating total artefact populations from plough-damaged archaeological landscapes that have seen only partial excavation need look no further!

The concluding chapter is entitled Violence, power and place. Despite the closely argued interpretations offered by Evans and co-workers, both in this chapter and elsewhere in the book, they are often circumspect when presenting their main conclusions, highlighting uncertainties and unresolvables and noting topics for future research. Some of the chronological evidence is challenging, and Chapter 5 includes a frank discussion of the implications of a Bayesian radiocarbon chronology that indicates an earlier start to the occupation span than might have been suggested from the pottery evidence alone. The presence of quantities of late 1st-century Roman pottery indicating activity well into the Flavian period also raises interesting discussion points. Even if the site had not lain in Icenian territory, many readers will find it intriguing that a local Iron Age settlement network (Evans’ intentionally neutral term), and possibly a resident elite, persisted here in the post-Boudiccan decades. Although he suggests that the absence of the more prolonged Roman occupation seen at comparable sites nearby might indicate an eventual unseating of some kind, there was no evidence for any violent termination. Indeed such an outcome could have been achieved indirectly by means of economic or social disruption.

Readers will find a full consideration of the ringwork’s possible appearance and defensive character, along with quantitative analysis of the labour resources that its erection might have involved and the issues of control and direction that they raise. When discussing enclosure morphology and function, the report argues carefully against viewing a need for defence as a simple response to a high prevalence of warfare in this part of the Iron Age fenlands. In so doing, it invites us not only to consider the possible symbolic significance of this architecture in the exercise of social control, but also that any conflicts which it saw may have involved relatively small-scale incursions, which need not have left any tangible archaeological impact. The report emphasises the site’s farmstead-like characteristics, and the apparent importance of the areas of open space that it seems to have enclosed. In addition to its residential function, it may have acted as a refuge or assembly place.

A comparative study of enclosure morphology places Wardy Hill alongside other Iron Age sites in eastern England and beyond. This embraces the network of peripheral ditched outworks (Evans’ term) as well as the ringwork itself and the features within it, and considers (amongst many other topics) the possibility that the distribution of some shared defensive features and concepts reflects the inter-regional dissemination of ideas. Unanswered or previously unposed questions are given prominence, and some of these are couched provocatively – for example, what is it precisely that makes it appropriate to classify the well-known Late Iron Age site in Norfolk at Fison Way, Thetford as a ceremonial enclosure, whereas some other enclosures with which it shares characteristics have been viewed as defensive or domestic compounds?

The way in which activity persisted into the late 1st century AD makes Wardy Hill’s large artefact assemblages significant to anyone interested in using material culture to characterise processes of Romanisation. Here the report’s authors emphasise contact and acculturation, rather than continuity. It is argued that while the absence of coins is not necessarily significant in this non-military environment, that of metal dress-fittings and grooming equipment to accompany the Roman pottery is of much greater interest – not least as a fuller package of objects seems to have been well established by this time in areas only a short distance to the south. Hill argues that the composition of the late pottery assemblage is inconsistent with Roman table habits, and this supports the impression that the people using the ringwork had not adopted fully Roman modes of behaviour.

The final discussion of the island settlement network within which Wardy Hill was situated extends the study of social space beyond the limits of the site itself. Although the island setting for this drama may appear an exceptional one, the questions posed here will interest any student of the dynamic processes that generate evidence for prehistoric landscapes. Is the ringwork’s settlement context best seen in terms of a thread of continuity from earlier prehistoric occupation, or did it arise from Iron Age ‘colonisation’ of the Ely claylands? And how important were choice, convenience and factors of power and control in the manner in which this settlement pattern developed over time (for example, in an apparent tendency towards the compounding of enclosures in the later Iron Age)? Questions of this nature dealing the nature of social cohesion are of special importance given the suggestion that the ringwork was an assembly place. While Evans suggests that the Ely settlements might have represented a northward Catuvellaunian incursion, the various uncertainties and irresolvable factors are emphasised too.

Mention of the Catuvellauni in these final pages of the report emphasised – to this reader at least – how little it invokes the documented events of the period of the Roman conquest, depending instead on exhaustive interrogation of the available archaeological resource in all its forms. The fact that this reviewer has lived and worked in Icenian territory for many years may have strengthened this impression upon him! Despite its unique interest, the historical narrative relating to post-conquest events in this region and the Boudiccan rebellion can still provide unwary archaeologists with opportunities for circular reasoning, and powerful temptations to seek correspondence between archaeological phenomena and historical events. Future archaeological research into the Iron Age and conquest period in East Anglia would do well to consider the advantages of the rigorously questioning approach to archaeological evidence that is the hallmark of this report.

Trevor Ashwin
Norfolk Archaeology

Review Submitted: March 2004

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

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