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Die Keramikfunde der Grabung Feddersen Wierde (1. jh. v. bis 5. jh. n. chr.),, By P. Schmid
Probleme der Küstenforschung im südlichen Nordseegebiet, Band 29; Feddersen Wierde, Band 5. Oldenburg, Isensee Verlag 2006. 192 pp, 92plates, 5 figures. ISBN 3-89995-355-X. (€ 45)

Die Buntmetallfunde der Grabung Feddersen Wierde: Chronologie – Chorologie – Technologie, By J. Schuster
Probleme der Küstenforschung im südlichen Nordseegebiet, Band 30; Feddersen Wierde, Band 6. Oldenburg, Isensee Verlag 2006. 278 pp, 31 plates, 69 figures, 24 tables. ISBN 978-3-89995-391-6. (€ 45)

As one who is trying to publish excavations from the 1950s, in my case the rescue excavations in Winchester, there are problems in how much it is worth spending time and money on excavations which do not reach modern standards of recording and data collection. There are iconic sites (which include both Winchester and Feddersen Wierde) which need extensive treatment, and the plans of the various successive phases with the radiating succession of long houses at Feddersen Wierde with their domestic and stable areas has become a classic of European prehistory. This terp started as a flat settlement in the 1st century BC, and was gradually raised in height to protect it from the increasingly injurious inundations of the North Sea, until its abandonment in the 5th century AD by which time it had reached some 4m in height; it was re-occupied in the early medieval period in the 8th-9th century, and has some later activity. This represented the first extensive excavation of such a site (about 3.5ha), between the years 1955 and 1963.

The basic problem with Feddersen Wierde, however, is that it was appallingly excavated even by the standards of the day; at least in Winchester, from most of the sites excavated between 1953 and 1960, the majority of the finds can be assigned to stratified layers, and related directly to some of the structures identified; this is not the case with the German site. It was excavated using the planum method, that is it was dug in spits of 20–30cm depth (spits A to L), and all the finds collected in 5m squares. Ideally, with this method, at each stage the site is planned, and when the next spit is removed, finds from separate features are distinguished, producing at least some stratified finds; this was not the case at Feddersen Wierde, and the only information we seem to have for the majority of finds is the location by spit and 5m square. The phasing of the site was done after the excavation, using the spit plans and relating these to the drawn sections (implying that features were perfectly visible, just ignored in the digging), and this is the basis of the phase plans (Siedlungshorizonten 1a to 1d for the flat settlement, and 2 to 8 for the terp proper). Some finds were measured in (eg, coins and brooches), but this was not done systematically, either for all finds of a special nature (eg, only 13 of the 34 coins), or by using a standard method (absolute height, depth below the bottom of the previous spit, etc.). From the photographs in Band 6 it would seem that some features were identified and excavated, but this finds absolutely no resonance in Band 5 where not a single closed group of finds is published. One can only conclude that of the thousands of sherds found on the site, not a single one can be called ‘stratified’ and the same is true for all but a very small number of the special finds, such as some brooches from a burial. It is impossible to distinguish between finds which were finally deposited in the dumped material used to raise the height of the terp, and those which were related directly to the occupation layers.

The pottery, Band 5, suffers from a second fatal flaw, in that it is caught in the paradigm shift that started taking place in the 1960s, and so its presentation does little to deal with the sorts of questions we might want to ask nowadays. The study of the ceramics is completely in the ‘Culture-Historical’ approach dominant in the 1950s, and no effort has been made to extend the scope of the study. Thus, there is no interest in matters such as production and function of the pottery; only once is a fabric described, of Streepband pottery (p. 26), and only once function, of a group of storage jars (p. 54). The major concern is the shape of the pot, and its cultural relationship with adjacent cultural groups such as the ‘Elbe-Weser Culture’, and, in a very secondary way, the decoration. There is no discussion of who was making pottery, where it was made, nor phenomena such as trade and production. There is no internal dating on the site, despite some dendrochronology dates and imported Roman finds, so all of the dating of the pottery (and other finds) depends on similar finds turning up in dated contexts elsewhere. Perhaps the problem is that, in the prehistoric and early historic times, there are few cases where cultural change can be linked historically with migration of populations, and two of those are to be found in northwest Germany, at the beginning and at the end of the occupation of the site: the expansion of the ‘Elbe-Weser Culture’ into central Europe in the late 1st century BC, associated with the appearance in Bohemia of the Marcomanni; and, in the 5th century AD, the Anglo-Saxon settlement of eastern Europe (Feddersen Wierde provides some good parallels to English pottery). But this should not prevent discussion of other aspects on which the pottery might throw light. Noting the parallels for, for instance, early Saxon pottery from England, is perhaps the only way in which the publication can be used; the distribution maps of the pottery on the site which are claimed to give some indication of date, along with quantitative recording of the percentage of types, in fact do no such thing.

In contrast, Schuster tries to maximise the possibilities of the data he is investigating, mainly the bronze and silver objects, though also a few iron objects which had previously been unpublished. Using work done for his doctoral thesis, he cites a wide spectrum of literature or reports from the areas of Germany and northern Europe which escaped Roman control, but also adjacent areas of the Roman Empire in northern Gaul and along the Rhine, seeking parallels and dating evidence for the material. As such it is a useful compendium of information on specific artefact types. He also publishes the evidence for bronze working on the site, both in the form of crucibles and evidence of repaired objects, and speculates that the introduction of metalworking came from smiths from the local area, and not people with experience of Roman practices. He does his best to locate the objects in their settlement context, but, for the reasons discussed above, this is only successful to a limited extent. He also tries to date the various phases of settlement, using a few dendrochronology dates (the earliest is 56 BC), imported Roman objects, and the evidence of the local pottery and especially his own studies of the brooches. He inevitably has to pass judgement on which objects may belong to which phase, and ignore the many earlier items which may have been redeposited, and the later objects which are contamination due to the failure of isolating finds from later disturbances. He comes out with a chronology for the site, but it must be emphasised that this is the best guess, and relies entirely on the dating of the objects from outside Feddersen Wierde; there is absolutely no internal chronology due to the lack of stratified finds which can be linked directly with the settlement phases, as even the items which are measured in usually cannot be assigned to a specific phase with any confidence.

With these two volumes, we can now draw a line under the publication of this site. The finds such as the pottery, will be of some use when people start looking at trade and production, but only a limited way (their presence on the site as unstratified finds, but not with any dating evidence). It is over 40 years since Egon Gersbach introduced stratigraphical excavation on the Heuneburg, but it is amazing that there is still a debate in Germany on whether to dig stratigraphically or in spits. There are contexts in which the planum method is necessary – I have used it myself on the terres noires of the Auvergne where layers are simply invisible, but with much tighter control (using a one-metre grid, and using the stratigraphy where it was visible), but there are still major conflicts in cities such as Köln where the traditionalists have suppressed all attempts by other excavators to introduce modern methods. I hope this damning review of a site whose potential was never reached because of poor excavation methodology will encourage those fighting for change.

John Collis

Review Submitted: February 2008

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

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