Researching the Iron Age, edited by Jodie Humphrey
Leicester Archaeology Monograph No 11, School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester. 2003. 97 pages. ISBN 0-9538914-5-3. (£12)

This stimulating and useful collection of ten papers is drawn from the first three of the ongoing series of Iron Age Research Seminars (Newport, Southampton and Leicester). Meetings have since been held in Durham and Glasgow and future seminars are planned. The first IARS was held in Newport during 1998 and, as Justin Claxton emphasises in this volume (page ix), it formed an indirect consequence of the meetings of another body, the Iron Age Research Group (IARG), held in Cardiff in 1997. IARG itself had met a number of times since the late 1980s and continues to meet occasionally today (for a relevant collection of papers derived from IARG, see Haselgrove and Gwilt eds. (1997). Many of those attending IARG during the middle years of the 1990s considered that the meetings had come to be dominated by certain particular individuals and topics (cosmology, structured deposition, etc) and also that new approaches and views were not being encouraged (see Claxton’s reference on page ix to ‘adversarial and confrontational nature of conference’). IARS was set up specifically to provide a less hierarchical forum in which research students could communicate their ideas and receive feedback, free from the fear of the established discourses of domination.

The papers published in this first volume show the success of the initiative. Jodie Humphrey writes in the introduction (page xi) of a ‘selection of papers’, but we are not told how individual contributions were accepted or rejected. The fact that only ten papers, out of a far greater number presented at the original seminars, have been published demonstrates the degree of the selection and this makes a suspicious reviewer wonder whether the publication may represent part of an attempt to construct a new discourse of domination. It is also significant, however, that the selection process has resulted in a volume of consistently strong papers.

Before I turn to the specific papers, there is one fascinating issue that emerges from the comparison of this publication with those emerging from the research-student led Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conferences (TRAC). TRAC has a longer history that IARS, having met fourteen times and this has resulted in a substantial body of published material. From a survey of the IARS volume and the TRAC publications, a gender issue is immediately apparent. The Humphrey volume contains ten papers (eleven, if we include the introduction), seven of which are by female authors (eight, counting the introduction). This forms a very direct contrast with both the papers presented at TRAC and those in the published volumes. From its origin, TRAC has had more than its share of male contributors, reflecting a tendency inherent in Roman studies more generally (Scott 1998). The IARS volume could be taken to suggest a far stronger presence of women in Iron Age postgraduate research. Whether this is a true reflection of the proportions of men and women undertaking research in Iron Age topics is unclear to me. It does, however, cause me further concern about gender issues within Roman studies.

Following a similar logic, it is interesting to make some more detailed observations about the Humphrey volume. It is split into two halves:

· Material culture
· Settlement and landscape.

Each section has five papers. 100% of the ‘material culture’ papers are by women, while three out of the five settlement and landscape contributions are by men. One of the papers in the latter half examines both material culture and landscape and is written by a woman. According to Gero (1988, 35, quoted by Swift forthcoming), women tend to do finds research and scientific analysis, as opposed to men who carry out broader and more prestigious theory and fieldwork studies. While this is a characterisation, it also has a degree of validity, and it represents an unhealthy balance, as the masculine dominance of the agenda downplays the vital importance of finds within archaeology (Swift forthcoming). The sample of papers in the Humphrey volume is small, but perhaps suggests that gender issues continue to have significance for the research topic chosen by students who studying the Iron Age.

Does the contrast between Iron Age and Roman postgraduate research reflect the difference between two bodies of theory? Perhaps the ‘post-IARG’ perspective in Iron Age archaeology, which appears mainly to focus in particular, upon local context and complexity, provides a greater inspiration for both men and women. If so, what does this say about the ‘TRAC generation’ in Roman archaeology? TRAC has always contained a number of female contributors and the increasing number of papers written by women in the most recent TRAC volumes indicates that we are not doomed to a theoretical Roman archaeology dominated by men. Nevertheless, the gender balance in Iron Age research appears to be rather healthier.

Turning in greater detail to the individual papers in the IARS volume, those on material culture address a number of different issues, forming part of a general reaction against earlier perspectives by stressing the complexity of the material evidence for the past, in a search for deeper meaning. For example, Lucy Harrad proposes that the significance of gabbro rock in Cornwall, inherited from the use of the clay in the distant past, dictated the power of the pots made from this material. This is an approach that moves analysis away from the various forms of broadly economic explanations that have dominated discussions of pottery production, distribution and consumption. Rachel Pope explores the use of ceramic containers in the later Iron Age by examining the potential for a functional analysis of various types of pots. She identifies functions on the basis of ethnographic analysis and then applies the resulting understanding to nine assemblages from Dorset. Jodie Humphrey studies the continued production of flint tools during the Iron Age and considers the social reasons for this. Past studies have tended to ignore or play down the significance of flint implements because of a stress within Iron Age studies upon iron and metal, one that reflects the intellectual inheritance of the Three Age System. Stephanie Knight uses large bone assemblages to consider social factors behind the butchery of animals at the hillfort of Danebury, and argues that the evidence is useful in the inference of social structure, while Imogen Wellington’s analysis of the context of deposition of lightweight silver coins in central southern Britain suggests a function for these objects within ritual practice.

Within ‘Settlement and Landscapes’ we have papers by Tom Moore on rectangular houses, Leo Webley on the aisled longhouses of northern Europe, Cécilia Courbot-Dewerdt on the context of Gallo-Roman villas, John Thomas on pit alignments and Natasha Hutcheson on the Snettisham hoard and the landscape context of Iron Age hoarding. These papers, again, seek to achieve a more nuanced understanding of the Iron Age than many past accounts. Webley, for example, attacks the cosmological model for Iron Age roundhouses, using information provided by the complex evidence for the internal organisation of the longhouse. Moore also shows that the nature of domestic architecture in the southern British Iron Age was rather more complex than the cosmological model would suggest. He draws attention to the fairly frequent discoveries of rectangular houses, evidence that has been played down in the past focus upon the indigenous tradition of circularity. It is ironic that the cosmology model appears to have become highly popular among field archaeologists over the past few years, since the current generation of researchers appear to wish to dismiss it. Hutcheson approaches her study of northern East Anglia as an area ‘highly conceptualised … with different places acting as foci for particular activities within a landscape imbued with many meanings’ (p 95). This is an increasingly powerful way of exploring the meaning of landscape and settlement during the Iron Age. Courbot-Dewerdt explores changes that occur on rural settlements in north-western France during the Iron Age/Roman transition, stressing that indigenous societies within the area gradually developed from pre-Roman roots. Thomas explores a class of site – the pit alignment – which has not often been afforded serious consideration in past accounts of the Iron Age. He argues that the symbolic significance of these monuments lies in their deliberately different form from the rather more common continuous boundaries which typify much of prehistory.

Overall, the focus upon variability and complexity that emerges from the individual papers is the result of the reaction against the over-simplistic approaches adopted by many members of previous generations (including, perhaps, some of the works of those who dominated IARG). This new focus on detailed contextual analysis has much to recommend it, and the editors and authors have produced a collection of papers that make a significant contribution to the changing subject of Iron Age studies.

Richard Hingley
Durham University

Gero, J. 1988. Gender bias in archaeology: here, then and now. In Rosser, S. (ed.), Feminism within the Science and Health Care Professions: overcoming resistance. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 33–43
Gwilt, A. and C. Haselgrove (eds.) 1997. Reconstructing Iron Age Societies. Oxford: Oxbow
Scott, E. 1998. Tales from a Romanist: a personal view of archaeology and “equal opportunities”. In Forcey, C., Hawthorne, J. & Witcher, R. (eds.) TRAC97 Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Theoretical Archaeology Conference Nottingham 1997. Oxford: Oxbow, 138-47
Swift, E. forthcoming. Small objects, small questions? Perceptions of finds research in the academic community. In Hingley, R. and Willis, S. (eds.), Roman Finds in Context and Theory. Oxford: Oxbow

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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