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Prehistoric Landscape Development and Human Impact in the Upper Allen Valley, Cranborne Chase, Dorset, BY CHARLES FRENCH, HELEN LEWIS, MICHAEL J. ALLEN, MARTIN GREEN, ROB SCAIFE AND JULIE GARDINER
McDonald Institute. 2007. xix + 400 pages, 194 figures, 96 tables. ISBN 978-1-902937-47-2. (60.00)

This book is dedicated to the late John ‘Snails’ Evans, the ‘key mentor’ of two of its main authors. It is a fitting tribute: a landmark study which sets new methodological standards for the application of environmental archaeology to regional landscape history, and establishes—to some extent by implication—a new research agenda for the later prehistory of the Wessex chalklands, and areas further afield.

Apparently the upper Allen valley provides ‘a greater density of data than seen in any other prehistoric landscape anywhere else in northwest Europe’ (p. 153). The approach has been to take an area not much larger than 5 × 6 km and hit it with studies of land molluscs, pollen and soils from carefully chosen sites and sampling locations - some from Martin Green’s excavations, but many more from small excavations and sampling pits cut into upstanding monuments or natural features such as old river channels - backed up by a campaign of soil augering, geophysics, and analysis of air photographs. This has involved a very large team; to the names of the six principal authors are added those of a further seventeen contributors, fifteen illustrators, and five photographers. The bulk of the book is taken up by its long central chapter entitled ‘studying land use from monuments’ and by Appendix 4, which features excavation results on a site-by-site basis. Those looking for the main findings and implications can probably confine their attention to the clear and concise final chapter, though if this is all they read they will miss some neat methodological and interpretive touches, as well as good deal of fascinating, sometimes jaw-dropping archaeological detail. For example, I was intrigued by the remarkable Monkton-up-Wimborne Neolithic enclosure (pp. 112-22) - as I am by ‘shafts’ in general - by Late Neolithic houses which were circular and yet defined by their central, rectangular settings of roof-support posts (pp. 83-94), by some curious, unexplained fence-lines (eg, figures 3.12, 3.62) and by the news that part at least of the Bottlebush Down section of the Dorset cursus was ‘slighted back into the ditch’ shortly after construction, in contrast to other sections where the ditch infilled naturally over a long period of time. Clarity is the hallmark of this work, and the illustrations set a uniformly high standard. However, text and illustrations—most notably the maps—do not always seem to have been composed with each other in mind, making some passages hard to follow. Some illustration captions do not provide full enough explanations of their content.

Given the thoroughness of this work, and the mutually reinforcing arguments and evidence deployed, it is hard to resist its main findings. Substantial open areas were already present in the upper valley in the Mesolithic; brown earths were rarely more than ‘rather thin’ and by the later Neolithic had mostly developed into rendzinas carrying stable short-turfed grassland. Further downstream there was more woodland, but here too the conventional transition to open country and short-turfed grassland took place. Signatures of arable cultivation in prehistory are quite sparse. There was little colluviation (hillwash) during late prehistory, and no support for the idea that cultivation intensified in the Middle Bronze Age.

This is, almost literally at times, a worm’s or snail’s eye view. Palaeo-environmental scientists do not place humans at centre stage, energetically farming the land and creating monuments against a backdrop which they will paint for us. To the contrary: the prehistorian who reads this account must get used to the idea of human action as just one potential causal factor in a nexus of observed phenomena relating to past environments. Humans reduced to their environmental signatures, and valued for their habit of moving earth around and thus creating good sampling sites? A few readers may find this perspective problematic. However, as Oliver Rackham has pointed out: ‘there are other actors in the theatre besides Man. Landscape history is the history of human default as much as of human action’ (2006, 184). And in demonstrating that extrapolation of palaeo-environmental results from a handful of sites has produced misleading general models in the recent past, this book makes an excellent case for the kind of thorough, focussed work which it presents. Critics of ‘over-empirical’ approaches to landscape history, please note.

The picture which emerges is challenging, and sets a new research agenda. Now, surely, we must finally abandon the ‘Whig prehistory’ encouraged by agrarian typologies of the sort put forward by Esther Boserup, in which landscape change is driven largely by technological and agrarian advances which represent ‘progressive’ or ‘improving’ responses to the inexorable rise of population (and in turn stimulate further population growth). The idea that some landscape zones, on the chalkland and probably also in the lowlands, remained largely treeless through the Mesolithic and into the Neolithic, and others retained their parkland aspect for many centuries, might help to explain the relative scarcity of Mesolithic axeheads, and also support the widespread perception that tree-felling was not really the main ‘function’ of Neolithic axeheads. It now looks increasingly likely that centuries-old grazing and browsing zones of game animals, maintained and nudged in certain directions by Mesolithic hunters/herders, created significant opportunities for Neolithic (and later) livestock herders. Arguably the main outlines of agrarian, social and political geography were in alignment with each other, corresponding to the ecological gradations, as well as perpetuating and intensifying them. These ‘core areas’ would have attained great significance not only as zones of seasonal (?) aggregation and socio-political interaction, but also as areas enhanced and sanctified by long tribal memory, containing the sites of legendary ritual feats and performances, including the erection and modification of monuments. These were the foci of pilgrimage, as well as places where fabled flockmasters or mighty cattle breeders might come into their own. It is argued in this volume that the ecological stability of the short-turfed grassland zones where ceremonial monuments accumulated might have been cherished and even deliberately maintained by people with future monuments and their turf requirements in mind.

This scenario would dispense with the model of average-sized local Neolithic to Iron Age ‘communities’ inhabiting ‘territories’ of a certain average size, trudging through an agrarian typology of ‘mixed farming’, from forest fallow to crop rotation in manured, fixed fields. Instead, the intensity and nature of livestock-herding and arable farming in any given area would essentially represent responses to social aggregations and opportunities (or dispersals and low-key survival strategies) which were historically dependent on ‘ancestral geographies’ (to coin a phrase). The variable ecozones (cultural landscapes) of the Wessex chalklands would then represent (and stimulate) varying intensities of social, political and economic interaction, and carry different degrees of regional prestige and significance. If the landscape archaeologist of medieval England tends to ask ‘where am I, in relation to characteristic patterns of land use within familiar territorial units?’ the landscape archaeologist of late prehistory (or at least the Mesolithic to earlier Bronze Age) should now be asking ‘where am I, in relation to non-uniform, perhaps sharply graded intensities of social power and ecological diversity?’

This reviewer seems to recall writing about this kind of scenario in the early 1970s (Fleming 1971; 1972) (although I have to admit also to flirting with Boserup’s ideas). I was once told that my ‘territorial patterns in Bronze Age Wessex’ piece attained the distinction of being regularly used as a cautionary tale for Cambridge undergraduates; its shortcomings apparently illustrated the dire consequences of amateurs venturing into Higgs territory. However, given the conclusions from the upper Allen valley, and perhaps the emerging findings from Durrington Walls, I venture to suggest that some of the insights and ideas in this article might be worth be re-examining (or even acknowledging) in the light of the information and knowledge available today. And the quantifications ventured in my 1972 paper are good examples of the kind of data fed into the sort of GIS models constructed by Samarasundera in the Allen Valley volume.

So what happened at the Great Transition, in the Middle Bronze Age? The upper Allen Valley apparently demonstrates that whatever transpired at this time in terms of field system development, there is no evidence for agrarian intensification. These findings are certainly pertinent to the debate about the historical significance of the rise of coaxial (and other) field systems, and the overall transition to the more partitioned landscape of the first millennium, as discussed perhaps most notably by John Barrett in Fragments from Antiquity (1994). But unfortunately—and this is no criticism of the research—they are not very helpful either, let alone eloquent. As in so many other areas of Britain, we are left wondering how, and how far, we may use environmental ‘signatures’—and indeed ‘field systems’ to understand the relationship between, and relative importance of, cereal cultivation, animal husbandry, woodland management and so on. How did the ‘balance’ between cereal cultivation and livestock breeding work out, quantitatively and geographically, in later prehistory? Francis Pryor, for one, has not been afraid to embrace the paradox of postulating ‘community stockyards’ and the handling of immense flocks of sheep within coaxial field systems (1996).

There is no space to pursue these issues further here. In conclusion, I should mention another paradox, which I have encountered in reading this book—the paradox of disciplined, empirical, detailed fieldwork, carried out in a small area, opening up the prospect of a most exciting new research agenda—for those with the imagination to think through its implications. I congratulate the team most warmly on this tremendous achievement.

Andrew Fleming


Fleming, A. 1971. Territorial patterns in Bronze Age Wessex. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 37, 138–66.
Fleming, A. 1972. The genesis of pastoralism in European prehistory. World Archaeology 4, 179–91.
Pryor, F. 1996. Sheep, stocklands and farm systems; Bronze Age livestock populations in the Fenlands of eastern England. Antiquity 370, 313–24.
Rackham, O. 2006. Woodlands . London: Collins.

Review submitted: April 2008

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

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