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The Iron Age and Romano-British Settlements and Landscapes of Salisbury Plain, BY M.G. FULFORD, A.B. POWELL, R. ENTWISTLE & F. RAYMOND
Wessex Archaeology Report 20, Salisbury. 2006, 233pp, 70 figs, 11 plates, 59 tables, hb ISBN 1-874350-42-6 (28.00)

The first thing to say is that this book isn’t about Salisbury Plain in its widest geographical sense. It is about the later prehistoric and Romano-British settlements and landscapes in one small portion of it: the eastern sector of the Salisbury Plain Training Area. Immediately, we are confronted by a paradox: we have a landscape constrained within a military holding, large tracts of which are inaccessible but which are, in the course of archaeological investigation, yielding valuable information about the earlier communities who lived and farmed these landscapes; information that, ultimately, is of much use to a wider constituency.

One of the other paradoxes is that this restricted space, for so long outwith the ambit of more traditional forms of archaeological investigation is now producing exciting results from an increasing number of investigations, and, consequently, we can be sure that more waits to emerge. The result is that this small area of chalkland (and here it would be nice to have a consistency in terms of the real land area controlled by the military—is it 37,000 hectares or 39,000 hectares?), contained within the Salisbury Plain Training Area, is now one of the most intensively scrutinised blocks of downland in western Europe. Many words have been written about the superb landscapes contained within the Ranges and this excellent book builds upon and embellishes pre-existing work and creates a new template for how we might understand elements of landscape development.

The aims and objectives are clearly laid out and provide a concise contextualisation of the work that was undertaken—these focussed on a number of important themes that were missing from earlier syntheses, importantly, a detailed focus on settlement characteristics, and the dynamic of shift, abandonment and new development. Significantly, Fulford et al placed great emphasis on providing a reliable chronological framework for their emerging understanding of landscape change—though the nature of this chronological evaluation is not clear; there is little mention of C14 dating in the report, for instance. One of the real strengths of this work is that the team, rather than focus on a wider ranging assessment, in geographical terms at least (certainly one of the weaknesses of earlier approaches), sought to explore smaller study areas, firstly, on the eastern Ranges before homing in on two sample areas. This works beautifully as it allows a very intimate, nuanced and detailed understanding to flourish.

The reader should be aware that this isn’t a straight-forward blow by blow account of various excavations. Instead, it is evident that virtually every tool available to the fieldworker has been employed, and justified by the results. The book is arranged in a chronological manner but in no simplistic way, emphasising, as it does, the continuities and disjunctures that are evident and seen very clearly in the work at the well known Romano-British settlement sites of Chisenbury Warren and Coombe Down. The work on the field system at the former site is also significant as it suggests an origin in the Iron Age rather than the more blanket Bronze Age date hypothesised by the English Heritage survey of a few years previously.

Frances Raymond’s work on the ‘Prehistoric Pottery’ is outstanding and goes beyond a merely technical assessment of one aspect of material culture. Her ‘Discussion’ illustrates this perfectly but I was left with the feeling that this is a somewhat truncated account—I do hope that a fuller treatise will appear elsewhere at a future date. The tone of the book shifts somewhat from Chapter 6 onwards with a number of more specialist contributions. On first appearances there is a suspicion that much of this will hold little interest for a general reader but, again, it has been carefully framed to give it a proper narrative structure. More often than not, these sections in reports become the ‘here comes the science’ bit and are dull and largely of no interest to the non-specialist. Here, the research is underpinned by a more questioning approach that sought to reconstruct the development of the landscape as we see it—scientific assessment without interpretation weakens the worth of these types of research. Allen and Entwistle’s palaeo-environmental work is evidently well aware of this and illuminated the genesis of farming and its impact on the physical environment. In doing so, it provides an excellent characterisation of the value of these types of investigations. Likewise, for the plant remains and animal bones analyses, and Allens’s synthesis weaves the various strands together in an expert and challenging fashion.

The book concludes with two essays: a ‘Synthesis’ followed by ‘Conclusions’. Each illustrates the immense worth of this research: research that is dependent on detailed and close meshed analysis at the small-scale or local level. There are a number of themes that emerge: the importance of the Bourne Ridge as a significant boundary to early communities is notable as is the suggestion of emerging though ‘permeable’ and ‘transitory’ territorial divisions at the end of the Iron Age. It is with the analysis of the Romano-British settlements and field systems that the discussion really takes off though, and the complex interplay of large and small settlements on the Downs and in the river valleys, communications networks as well as the connections with larger urban centres, is explored in some detail. There are real differences in the form and status of the settlements examined and it may well be that they existed in some sort of dependent arrangement. A number of threads of understanding are produced and superbly link the settlement and land use history of this section of Salisbury Plain into a wider regional (and extra-regional) framework.

This is an important publication and deserves a wide readership. It is an essential read for those searching for methodological insights into landscape investigation. More importantly, however, the authors of this report have produced a detailed and invigorating assessment of landscape change and transformed our understanding the later prehistoric and Romano-British periods on Salisbury Plain and further afield.

David McOmish
English Heritage

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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