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Discussing different discourses of the Iron Age

The Earlier Iron Age in Britain and the Near Continent, edited by Colin Haselgrove and Rachel Pope
Oxbow Books, 2007, 428pp, c. 144 b&w illustrations, hb ISBN 1-84217-253-0 (£75.00)

The Later Iron Age in Britain and Beyond, edited Colin Haselgrove and Tom Moore
Oxbow Books, 2007, 528pp, c. 205 b&w illustrations, hb ISBN 1-84217-252-2 (£90.00)

The two volumes reviewed here represent perhaps the largest compilation of research papers for Iron Age studies in Britain. The work presented here are published versions of papers given at two seminars held at Durham University during late 2001 (the Earlier Iron Age) and early 2002 (the Later Iron Age), brought together by Colin Haselgrove and two of his research students (as they were at the time), following in the fine tradition of a previous Durham seminar published 10 years ago (Gwilt & Haselgrove 1997).

It is always difficult in a review such as this to know how to tackle such a diverse range of topics, especially with two volumes. In total there are 57 papers, with the ‘Earlier’ consisting of 26 papers and the ‘Later’ comprising 31; the latter is 100 pages longer. The sheer width and depth of coverage within these volumes is impressive, with themes ranging from regional studies and site reports to aspects of material culture, environmental considerations as well as theoretical perspectives on Iron Age studies. There are also 11 papers on aspects of continental archaeological studies, worthy of allowing their ‘Near Continent’ and ‘Beyond’ entitlements. It is perhaps better therefore to focus on the overriding themes that are brought up by these publications with reference to some of the papers included in these edited volumes.

The need for a wide scale review of Iron Age Britain as produced here can be traced back into the 1990s and the desire to follow up the ‘Agenda for Action’ (Haselgrove et al. 2001) that made such an impact at the time of its publication. Whilst there is not a direct influence on the actual content and themes of the papers, the need for an audit of what was known within British Iron Age studies was necessary, especially since the advent of PPG 16 in 1990. Many of the papers deal with development-control archaeology on regional (eg, Moore; Wigley and Knight) and even site level (Woodward and Hughes) without dominating the proceedings of either volume. In fact, the material has often been incorporated into more thematic studies (Pope; Hill) rather than acting as a reviewing mechanism within its own right. I was also delighted to find an article on the portable antiquities scheme (Worrell) which has contributed so much in developing relationships between metal detectorists’ and the archaeological profession, and added much in terms of finds and location of new sites. These volumes also offer us the first opportunity to really see how PPG 16 has impacted on Iron Age studies, and the sheers size, diversity and quality speak for itself. When the two volumes are considered together, this is by far the largest collaborative work for Late Prehistoric studies within the UK and can therefore be considered a real achievement.

The underlying theme of these volumes is the need (and ability) to incorporate so many different strands of research for the Iron Age. The sheer number of papers warrants the two volume approach and the application of ‘Earlier’ and ‘Later’ descriptions allow an easier accommodation of very different regional chronological developments and discussions (outlined in Haselgrove et al. 2001, 3). This also marks a move away from the traditional tripartite division of the ‘Early’ ‘Middle’ and ‘Late’ Iron Ages favoured in more recent years, which it is felt, is more based upon a south-centric focus of previous studies. In both introductions, the authors trace the origins of this bipartite division to Hodson (Hodson 1964) and his deconstruction of the Hawkes ABC chronology that dominated studies of the period for so long. It is pointed out within these volumes that not all regions within the Iron Age have such distinct period transitions and in many there is only one taking place during the 4th Century BC. This means that an adoption of more general terms allows the compilation of what are very different regional syntheses. This volume follows in the footsteps of others (Bevan 1999) in focusing on areas that are less detailed in publications elsewhere.

The ‘Earlier Iron Age’ represents the shorter volume with fewer papers but offers, it’s fair to say, a greater sense of an over-riding theme running through the entire volume. This volume discusses the period 800 BC to 400/300 BC often defined (where appropriate) as the Earliest and Early Iron Ages overlapping at the start with the end of the Bronze Age (from the 26 papers here 7 use the terms ‘Late Bronze Age’ or ‘first millennium BC’ in their titles).

The introduction provided by the two editors offers a sound and thorough background to current trends within later prehistoric studies, as well as arguments and dialogues set out within the volume. There is also a good discussion of the current status of research within the period outlined and what hindrances there still are (the difficulty of using radiocarbon dating, the lack of visible settlements for a number of reasons, aspects of material culture) for researchers. It is mentioned throughout the volume how unbalanced a view we have through the continual focus on hillforts in previous decades, most aspects of settlement evidence is somewhat ephemeral and material culture changes little and therefore any changes are difficult to see. However, rather than bemoan the lack of data, the editors just widen the horizon to incorporate more material to give a greater perspective on what has been previously studied and future research directions.

There are a number of contributions from authors more often associated with Bronze Age studies, necessary now it is apparent that the boundaries of the Bronze Age and Iron Age are becoming less clear, especially with consideration to the recent discoveries at Hartshill Copse, (Collard et al. 2006). They add significant discussion on aspects of settlement (Brück, Pope) and varying discourses of landscape and agriculture (Serjeantson; Huntley; Yates & Bradley; Moore; Wigley; Champion; Bevan; Giles; Ralston & Ashmore) are discussed.

This volume also provides us with a good discussion from Stuart Needham regarding the Bronze Age/Iron Age transition, which he places at 800 BC. This is a thorough paper that is well argued and whilst the date is now accepted by most, it is this paper that will always be cited in future as the reason that date is given as the start of the Iron Age. The inclusion of the paper on Llyn Fawr metalwork also adds to Needham’s paper; whilst this is best identified as “the last phase of Bronze Age metalworking” its inclusion here as an aspect of Earlier Iron Age material culture adds measurably to the ongoing discussions regarding the transitional period.

I was also glad to see that hillfort studies are not entirely excluded from discussions of the ‘Earlier’ volume. Whilst there is a need to move away from a narrow focus on just them, there cannot be a total ignorance of the wealth of data out there with regard to these sites. As we already know a great deal regarding these it is therefore refreshing to approach this topic from a different angle. Firstly, Sharples’ tackles the possibility of labour exchange as part of a wider pattern of networks or gift exchange systems, which represents a nicely argued paper. Gosden and Lock also produce an interesting discussion of their work on the Berkshire downs, although this has now been somewhat overtaken by their more recent publication of Segsbury. Furthermore James’ paper provides a superb reflection regarding modern discourses that often ignore the darker side of life in later prehistory where violence may have been an aspect of everyday-life. James quite rightly chastises the somewhat liberal leanings of the academic community, afraid to find parallels in the past for the violent side of humanity observed in so many aspects of modern society, especially with unpopular wars. This is, however, let down by the lack of a concurrent paper in the ‘Later’ volume, obviously promised but not apparent; as James points out, there is much greater evidence from the ‘Later’ period as highlighted in more recent works (Finney 2006). The additional paper in the latter volume would certainly have contributed much to the discussion as the Frodsham et al. paper certainly does.

This is also the first opportunity to see Pope’s work, acting as the first publication of her thesis, unlike Moore who has published a full transcription of his thesis elsewhere (Moore 2006). It might be argued that Pope’s paper has more impact as a piece of doctoral research because of this, however, I did find it interesting that this paper was cited by the author in a review this year for the society just about the time I received these volumes for review, slightly pre-emptive perhaps? Nevertheless, this is an important contribution alongside those of Woodward and Hughes in the same volume and Webley in the ‘Later’ volume. Domestic architecture has formed an important discussion point within later prehistoric studies, discussed in Iron Age contexts by Parker Pearson in Champion and Collis (Champion & Collis 1996) and Oswald and Fitzpatrick in Gwilt and Haselgrove (1997). These are necessary additions that make a worthwhile contribution.

Overall, this volume represents a well-organised and thorough overview of research into the early first millennium BC. The continental studies add significant discussions to the progress that has clearly been made in defining the chronological aspects of the Bronze Age/Iron Age transition. The greater difficulty in observing the archaeological record is more than made up for by the sheer wealth of information that is outlined here. I was most impressed by the sheer diversity of work discussed, that included a number of important pieces on material culture (Humphrey; O’Connor; Sørenson; Diepeveen-Jansen), although perhaps this volume would have benefited from an updated discussion on Barrett’s paper (Barrett 1980) regarding ceramic typology and chronology that is so crucial during the Bronze Age/Iron Age transition.

The Later volume contains a greater number of papers and is much longer. This belies the fact there is much wider range of material to deal with. Within this volume there is also greater disparity as the archaeological material within the regions differ, observed through the appearance of enclosure-types and higher quantities and wider ranges of material culture. This perhaps means this volume works less well in trying to incorporate too much information where the ‘Earlier’ volume succeeded with less. There is also the key aspect that some regions have clear distinctions between the ‘Middle’ and ‘Late’ Iron Ages and I think this is somewhat underplayed in favour of the more generic term, even when the divisions are more appropriate.

The volume again starts strongly with a good introduction by the two editors, followed by the papers of Hill and Moore, which in a similar fashion to Needham’s in the earlier volume argue with clarity on chronological aspects, this time with regard to the Middle and Late Iron Age in eastern England and the Later Iron Age in the Severn-Cotswolds. The same can also be said for Gwilt’s discussion on the Iron Age archaeology of south Wales, which also includes impressive appendices of artefactual material recovered from that region. I found these articles so important because they had an approach that is missing from many of the articles within these volumes. These papers are good examples of the kind of picture that can be built up using different strands of research in a regional context. This is not meant to be a critique of the other papers, there are after all plenty of excellent discussions that incorporate aerial surveys, geophysical surveys and material culture studies, there are very few that provide such complete overviews using different aspects to formulate a tighter chronology for the Later Iron Age.

The underlying theme within the ‘Later’ volume is the regionality that develops during this period. The wide scale changes that are apparent across Britain and the near continent are put into some perspective in this volume as there is a clear trend towards enclosure (e.g. Moore; Wigley; Hey; Knight; Rylatt & Bevan; Giles & Gwilt) and enclosing spaces (Bryant). The diversity of environmental and economic evidence (e.g. Dobney & Ervynk; Albarella; Hamilton; Willis; van der Veen & Jones; Morris) also offers an insight into the developing complexity of culture and society, further backed by the evidence from the material culture.

I was particularly impressed by the varying discussions of Later Iron Age metalwork that follow a number of different directions of research. These cover the methods, regions and types of discovery (Hamilton; Worrell; Hill; Gwilt; Wells; Hutcheson; Hunter) to the discussion of styles and art forms within metalwork decoration (Macdonald; Fitzpatrick). These are all interesting discussions (and similar to the O’Connor article in the ‘Earlier’ volume, important additions to the current discussion) but one of the impressive aspects are the line drawings that are included, especially in the articles by Gwilt, Macdonald, Fitzpatrick, Worrell (but also Morris and Giles) and the numerous photos also incorporated (Hunter; Hill; Fitzpatrick) aide the reader and really contribute something significant to the discussions.

It is not just the line drawings that add depth to these books, there a large numbers of maps, aerial photographs, transcriptions, landscape surveys and plots of geophysical surveys throughout the two volumes. The sheer quantity of images used within these volumes is extremely impressive and no doubt required a great deal of time and attention to pull together and format into what is produced is certainly a credit to the authors and most especially the editors. This contributes to the overall stylish production of the volumes.

Whilst the two volumes have distinct underlying differences, their strength is when they are considered together. There are not many authors who have contributed to both (although those that do must be applauded – Haselgrove; Moore; Giles; Wigley; Wells and Bevan – one co-authored) but this does not overly affect the themes that do run through both, with papers overlapping on topics such as pits (Wigley; Rylatt & Bevan) metalwork (see above), enclosing space (Gosden & Lock; Moore; Wigley; Knight; Giles; Davies (as the opposite); Haselgrove) and the continental evidence. The papers cover broad areas of lowland northern Europe, parts of Germany and France and northern France and include important contributions outlining theoretical discussions current within those regions (Roymans; Collis; Gerritsen).

It is interesting to note some ways in which the discussions of Iron Age studies change very little. These form the basics of Iron Age studies as we seek to advance our knowledge and try and accommodate the wealth of information brought about by PPG 16 and development-control led archaeological practice. There are some good examples: In 1996 Mark Maltby wrote ‘The exploitation of animals in the Iron Age: the archaezoological evidence’ here there are two papers, Dale Serjeantson writes on “Intensification of animal husbandry in the Late Bronze Age? The contribution of sheep and pigs” and Umberto Albarella discusses ‘The end of the Sheep Age: people and animals in the Late Iron Age’. It is interesting to note that the material stays the same, but the answers are more complex as there’s just a great deal more information out there now. I also found it interesting that domestic architecture continues to form a significant presence. Parker Pearson wrote about it in 1996; Oswald and Fitzpatrick in 1997 and Pope and Woodward and Hughes in the ‘Earlier’ volume and Webley in the ‘Later’ volume. There were also some nice successions/continuations, with Carr’s (re-)consideration of burial rites, Bryant’s continuing discussion of Late Iron Age Herefordshire and Bill Bevan’s further discussions on Yorkshire/Peak district.

Overall the editing of the volumes was to a very good standard. There were very few (if any) typographic errors that I could find. The illustrations were clear and well labelled when used and generally of good benefit to the text. The overall design of the volumes looks good and work well in generating an overall presentation, the use of iconic images from Iron Age studies on the front covers are a clever and nice idea. The only gripe I have is that after a summer’s use, the threading within my ‘Earlier’ volume is already coming loose, this does not bode well if these books are going to form the staple for undergraduates research in University libraries for years to come, whilst a paperback version would have perhaps looked less stylish they are, perhaps, slightly less practical.

However, my feeling is that to some extent the editing should be absolutely spot-on. This is important not only from a standards point of view; these volumes are six years in the making and therefore should be of a perfect standard. The delay in publication of these has led to a number of problems with regard to the arguments used or outlined here. Hill’s and Moore’s deconstruction of the core/periphery hypothesis was valid at the turn of the Millennium, but is now generally accepted (perhaps because of the original papers). As I have already mentioned, some papers have been overtaken by other publications as is the case with Moore, Gerritsen and Gosden and Lock, and in the case of others, they have been published almost word-for-word elsewhere (van der Veen and Jones). The volumes are therefore somewhat “of their time”, which (understandably) also means that many of the citations stop in 2001/2002, beyond the inclusion of the most recent edition of Iron Age Communities (Cunliffe 2005). There is a good chance that some papers would have benefited from slight additions or readjustment, particularly with regard to Ireland, with only two papers (Henderson and Armit) and so much work going on there with road construction schemes and other development a more detailed discussion could perhaps have been added. Whilst this might be seen as a somewhat harsh assessment, the length of time in publishing these books should be regarded with some level of criticism. I am also a great advocate of the need to reduce the price of books within archaeological studies, where most publishers aim towards the University library market and not the professionals; between purchasing these and Cunliffe, that is an expenditure of more than £300, which is asking a bit much of three books and too much to ask of any person, particularly a student who is likely to need them the most.

There is an inevitable feeling that this book would require comparison with the most recent edition of Cunliffe’s Iron Age Communities. I have attempted to avoid this as much as possible, yet it would be impossible not to have any discussion on such an influential and widely referred text. In many ways I feel that the papers presented here offer a more detailed perspective on particular regions or aspects of material culture and offer a better theoretical insight into Iron Age studies. Furthermore, there is a wider range that will develop out different approaches to research and alternative views of data and results. However, there is also sometimes a tendency towards more abstract thought rather than tackling the datasets themselves. Whereas Cunliffe dedicates discusses in details such as ceramics and coins, within the two volumes there is only one discussion of briquetage (Morris); this also compares badly to the Gwilt and Haselgrove volume of ten years ago four papers focused solely on ceramic material within southern Britain. It is therefore perhaps best to suggest that the most effective way of using these books is by using them together, alongside Cunliffe’s volume, which provides an excellent general overview that is often lost within more regional studies and that is required to gain better perspectives of sites, artefacts and interpretations.

Nevertheless, overall, I felt the books are an absolutely necessary addition to Iron Age studies. The wealth of material within these two volumes is almost overwhelming and in many ways this review does not do justice to the quality of work within them. The addition of the continental papers is an excellent decisions, helping to pull Iron Age studies out of its tendency for insular studies and to leave out discussions on our nearest neighbours and these benefit the overall contents considerably.

In closing, I would just like to add one point. I was asked during the period I was reading these and preparing my review by the chief executive of a commercial archaeological unit whether these were worth purchasing for their library. I answered ‘yes’ without hesitation as I feel that these provide an excellent overview of the state of Iron Age studies and will provide a great deal of information to the non-specialist and plenty of synthesised data for specialists or researchers. With the publication of these volumes and Cunliffe’s Iron Age Communities we have perhaps an embarrassment of riches in synthesised work for this period. There is now a wide-ranging corpus of material that allows us to have perspective on research into this period as it continues unabated at scales not previously seen. These are, therefore, a very welcome addition and provide an excellent review of material.

Alex Lang
University of Oxford

Barrett, J.C. 1980. The pottery of the Later Bronze Age in lowland England. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 46, 297-319
Bevan, B. 1999. Northern exposure: interpretative devolution and the Iron Ages in Britain. Leicester: University of Leicester Archaeological Research Centre
Champion, T.C. & Collis, J. 1996. The Iron age in Britain and Ireland : recent trends. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic
Collard, M., Darvill, T. & Watts, M. 2006 Ironworking in the Bronze Age? Evidence from a 10th Century BC Settlement at Hartshill Copse, Upper Bucklebury, West Berkshire. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 72, 367-421
Cunliffe, B. 2005. Iron Age communities in Britain: an account of England, Scotland and Wales from the seventh century BC until the Roman conquest. London: Routledge
Finney, J.B. 2006. Middle Iron Age Warfare of the Hillfort Dominated Zone c. 400 BC to c. 150 BC. Oxford: Archaeopress
Gwilt, A. & Haselgrove, C. 1997. Reconstructing Iron Age societies: new approaches to the British Iron Age. Oxford: Oxbow Books
Haselgrove, C., Armit, A., Champion, T., Creighton, J., Gwilt, A., Hill, J.D., Hunter, F. & Woodward, A. (eds), 2001. Understanding the British Iron Age: An Agenda for Action. Salisbury: Iron Age Research Seminar and Prehistoric Society
Hodson, F.R. 1964. Cultural groupings within the British pre-Roman Iron Age. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 30, 99-110
Moore, T. 2006. Iron Age Societies in the Severn-Cotswolds: Developing narratives of social and landscape change. Oxford: Archaeopress

Review Submitted: October 2007

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

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