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The Atlantic Iron Age: Settlement and Identity in the First Millennium BC, by JON C. HENDERSON
Routledge. 2007. 369 pp, 125 illustrations, hb. ISBN 978-0-415-43642-7 (60)

This book promises us ‘the first ever survey of the Atlantic Iron Age’ and the one that Jon Henderson conducts is nothing short of excellent. The author has taken on a monumental task of attempting to place diverse archaeological material from a wide geographical area and within an extended chronological context. And he does it in a fluent style that teaches much without being overly-academic or presumptuous in knowledge (or lack thereof).

The author focuses the majority of his attention on the northern part of the Atlantic and covers in detail the areas of the western British archipelago, Ireland and north-west France. These are placed within the context of the wider Atlantic sphere in both the introduction and conclusions. However, were all of the areas of the Atlantic façade to be surveyed and reviewed in as complete and exhaustive manner as what is covered in this book it is likely that the overall complexities of the discourses that the author proposes would have been lost in a sea of conflicting datasets. This therefore works very well as a means of placing the northern Atlantic evidence within the context of wider evidence of the first Millennium BC.

The growth and development of sea-routes in prehistory has provided archaeologists with opportunities to view the changing spheres of connectivity and interaction over the course of decades, centuries and millennia. However, the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age periods are seen as times of falling prosperity, growing isolationism and the appearance of more localised regional settlement, social and cultural groups. The lack of ‘exciting’ archaeological evidence that is apparent from both earlier and later periods often means that these periods are ignored in detailed discussions that otherwise focus on architectural similarities (eg, passage graves) or cultural goods (jadeite axes, gold, tin and bronze). It is clear from the beginning that whilst Henderson recognises these, he aims to redress the balance of archaeological investigation, analysis and discussion by focusing on periods where, superficially at least, there is little to suggest widespread contact throughout the northern Atlantic region.

The framework of this book is extremely simple, which allows the author to work through the regional evidence in a clear and precise structural manner. He begins by outlining previous studies of Iron Age Atlantic Europe and the development of an understanding of the Atlantic façade; this is traced in depth from 1900 onwards but with a brief discussion of earlier sources. This is followed by a glimpse at the geography, geology environment and many of points of interest that provides depth to the reader in trying to contextualise both the archaeological evidence and the visions of prehistoric populations and possible interactions with their local environment. As a final background chapter there is a review of the preceding Late Bronze Age period within the Atlantic region, setting us up nicely for the three vast chapters that look at the Iron Age evidence.

The first of these chapters attempts to outline some overall perspectives on the archaeological material (Atlantic settlement in the first Millennium BC). Here we are given some fascinating—and intriguing—insights into potential settlement themes, site interpretations and the appearance of similar site-types across the different regions. Of particular interest, I thought, were aspects such as promontory forts as trading centres or ritual foci and also the highlighting of examples of many souterrains being deliberately ‘closed’ with sterile fills (p. 135 ff.); both of these examples show similarities with regions beyond the Atlantic sphere. With many of these discussion points the author paints a vivid picture of north-Atlantic sites and their individual, regional and wider contexts.

Following this are two chapters that offer more regional foci. The author looks at Scotland and Ireland (termed the Ultima Thule) and South-west England, Wales (albeit very briefly) and Armorica (discussed as The Western Approaches).

Both of these chapters are ‘data-heavy’ and can at times be pretty hard going; however, perseverance is worthwhile because the level of analysis, insight, reassessment and discussion is superb. Henderson deals with the minutiae of each site, from which he can deconstruct all that has gone before and develop new interpretations of many of these sites. With particular reference to the Ultima Thule chapter, the author is at his best when he is tackling the archaeological evidence for himself, questioning almost every site and every assumption that goes with that. The best example of this is with the Irish archaeological evidence, which is not as extensive as it is for other regions and there is a telling paragraph on p. 203 regarding the supposed ‘acceptance’ of numerous points that appear to be out of kilter with the rest of the archaeological evidence discussed in the book. No doubt some aspects of this discussion will prove controversial, particularly with the potential re-dating or earlier occupation of ringfort sites (pp. 173) that are considered by some at present to wholly date from the post-BC period. He is also clear and concise in his views of Atlantic roundhouses where he adopts a relatively simplistic division of definitions that allow use across different geographical (and possibly social and cultural) regions.

Whilst in the first of these two chapters there is much scope for a relatively free hand in outlining new interpretations of sites, in the second the author is restricted simply due to the far greater level of previous investigation and therefore archaeological evidence. Within The Western Approaches he appears sometimes too reliant on the discussions of others and I think this is most clearly illustrated with the figures 6.6 and 6.7. Each focuses on settlement in SW England (and Armorica). However, for these distribution maps (taken from two different sources—both published in 1991) the numbers and distribution of promontory forts are different, something not referred to by the author. Whilst this might seem a relatively minor point it certainly proves that there is still scope for further re-assessment of what has been published before. Nevertheless, this chapter is also impressive particularly as it deals with a much greater range of archaeological sites, material evidence and chronological developments of settlement forms.

The final chapter does much to bring all this evidence together and outline many of the themes that apparently united populations of the northern Atlantic region. This is a fascinating topic and one that is furthered in scholarly terms here with discussions of ideas not only raised throughout the book but also in relation to evidence from the wider Atlantic and continental contexts. There is no doubt that this is an insightful and useful summary of the evidence discussed throughout the book and Henderson has done much to move many discussion topics for northern Atlantic Europe and he must be praised for doing it in such an accessible manner.

The conclusions are followed by 14 pages of notes at the end that are also exceptionally useful. This is made up technical information edited out of the text to make the arguments flow far more easily and fluently. Its necessity, however, in outlining his arguments means this will certainly be beneficial to future scholars who intend to use this as either a book of sound grounding on studies in the region and those who wish a place to begin contesting aspects of the discussions herein.

Perhaps the only quibble that I do have is with some of the illustrations in the book. Whilst many of these are useful and suitably compliment the text, some appear of relatively poor quality, looking almost like they were photocopies (and bad ones at that). With a price tag of 60 one feels that a bit more effort and consideration could have gone into these by the publishers and they would have added much to the overall context and perspective of this book.

In summary, the way Henderson writes makes this topic very accessible to readers of all types as we are taken through a lengthy chronological period that spans a wide geographical area and encompasses diverse regional archaeological frameworks. He is skilled in elucidating the key aspects in each region’s settlement, social and cultural development. There is no doubt that this comprehensive review is a must for those interested in both the Iron Age period and Atlantic studies as a whole (and the numbers buying it would certainly be increased if a cheap paperback version were released) as it is an easy, fluent and comprehensive read that I believe will be a core textbook and a source of reference material for many years to come.

Alex Lang
University of Oxford

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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