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Land, Power and Prestige; Bronze Age Field Systems in Southern England, by David Yates
Oxbow Books, 2007. 204pp, 57 figs, 8 plates, 24 tables, hb ISBN 978-1-84217231-5 (30)

This volume was eagerly awaited by many Bronze Age enthusiasts who had devoured David Yates’ previously published papers and conference contributions—we all wanted the broader, deeper analysis and examination of the themes he had previously introduced. And I very much doubt anyone will be going away from this book disappointed! It is a mine of information, based on extensive and exhaustive research into the field systems of southern England, taking into account the world of grey-literature reports from developer-funded archaeology, which does not always get fully published and is thus can prove difficult to access. The gazetteer alone is exceptionally useful.

The volume examines the relationships between field systems, enclosures, high status settlements and the presence of metalwork deposits. The text itself provides several introductory chapters which examine the nature of the questions and material evidence. These are followed by presentation and examination of the datasets, regionally based. The regions identified are The Straits of Dover and the Thames Estuary, the London Basin, the Upper Thames Valley, The Sussex Coast, Downlands and Weald, the Solent Basin, the West Country, the North Sea Coast, the Fens, and finally the Severn and Avon Vales. This geographical examination is followed by two thematic essays considering how the land has been divided and searching for pattern and symbolism. The text is completed with a chapter looking at the mechanisms and methods of finding and excavating the sites which have been throughout the volume. The volume is then concluded with the gazetteer of sites, providing a short description and references with grid references.

The introductory chapters lay the context for the work which follows. Yates summarises the thoughts of previous researchers into the areas of Bronze Age settlement and expansion and places this into a European and Atlantic context, particularly the works of Kristiansen and Rowlands; also Barrett and Bradley. Yates goes on from his summary of past research to outline his own methods and note the specific focus on field systems in the lowland zone. This underlines some key points, such as the issues surrounding commercial excavation and the occasional requirement for confidentiality. Also issues such as the lack of a single fully-excavated field system anywhere in the country and the weaknesses of sites and monuments records—all salutary lessons for researchers.

Yates explores a range of elements making up the evidence for field systems —these come in a variety of forms, comprising the field layout itself, boundary types, stock handling features, dwellings, placed deposits and the palaeoenvironmental record. He outlines the variety of forms these elements can occur in, and also discusses their place within the field system context, thus setting the scene for the regional discussion that follows.

Each of the regions noted above receives a chapter presenting the data and supported by excellent mapping of the regions with sub-regional groups clearly defined and in some cases, clearly showing the recent surge in sites recognised and excavated since 1990 (i.e. after PPG16). The chapters move beyond simple description of the data, but all carry discussion of the information as well, and provide theories for site distribution, development of the landscape through time from the Early Bronze Age down into the Iron Age and Roman period; presence and derivation of imported artefacts, potential trade routes, stock manipulation and alliances. The research really is exhaustive and this volume is going to provide an exceptional tool for any researcher into this general period, let alone the major themes tackled in the volume.

The essays which follow the regional chapters start by examining the new datasets in the light of extant models of change and expansion in the Bronze Age economy. Yates considers the quality of his dataset at this point, and whilst this is something that could perhaps have been examined earlier (given the vagaries of developer-funded archaeology), it is extremely important that it is discussed, given one of his conclusions is that rectilinear field systems are almost exclusively confined south of the Bristol Channel/Wash line. It would seem that this suggestion is indeed justified and thus Yates is able to proceed with confidence to a more detailed analysis of his evidence. This includes tackling where and when field system settlements developed, including the chronology and speed of change, moving into later intensification. He brings the distribution of metal into the equation, which naturally focuses on the Thames, the Fens and the Sussex coastal plain but also looks at the association with the dryland settlements and the comparable paucity of metalwork away from river valleys.

His arguments move into what the distribution and development of sites and deposition of metalwork imply for the development of society. This again refers to and builds upon extant models and suggests a truly southern British model, the importance of waterways, the presence of non-synchronous development, the importance of key segregated enclosures within regions and the significance of the English Channel and North Sea trade routes. Yates then moves towards examining power, and how we might see who wielded it and how this could have changed with the intensification of agriculture. This draws on a range of published models and examines inherited power and the emergence of a ‘nouveau riche’; the attainment of power and prestige on the back of economic success. Fortunately for those of us with a socialist bent, Yates tries to show the ‘ordinary folk’; the lives of whom are largely archaeologically invisible. He does this through examination of infrastructure, the inference of gang labour and the varying roles required for successful agriculture—herders and drovers for instance.

In time-honoured fashion, Yates concludes his exceptional research by providing a list of priorities for the future, by which to move the subject on. This includes not only straight-forward suggestions for what and where to dig, but exhorts better chronological precision and palaeoecological analysis (good man!).

In summary, this is a superb volume which will surely stand the test of time—the research is exhaustive and the themes examined look into the very heart of society at this most fascinating time of change in our history. It is lavishly mapped and includes some excellent reconstruction paintings by Casper Johnson. A few artefacts would perhaps have been helpful, particularly from the poorly published sites; however it would be churlish to carp about such a minor point. The volume really is essential reading for anyone interested in later prehistory, land division and the complex changes in society at this crucial point in the past.

Jane Sidell
English Heritage

Review submitted: October 2008

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

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