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The Experimental Earthwork Project: 1960-1992.

Small ditch dug, a little infill, nobody hurt: what's the fuss?

The work of the Experimental Earthworks Committee over the last nearly 40 years has been important, and this is the largest and most detailed publication to come from it so far, the work of a large team being splendidly brought together by Martin Bell, Peter Fowler and Simon Hillson. The setting-up of the committee led to the construction of its experimental earthworks, in 1960 on Overton Down, near Marlborough, Wiltshire, on Upper Chalk, and in 1963 at Morden Bog, near Wareham, Dorset, on a heathland podsel. Sections were planned at geometrically expanding intervals: 2, 4, 8, 16 years, and so on. After a flurry of initial reports, there was a long silence, now broken after the 32-year section at Overton in 1992 and by the approach of the similar interval at Morden. As well as catch-up reports on the 1968 and and 1976 sections at Overton and on the story so far at Morden Bog, the bulk of the report consists of detailed studies of the state of the bank, ditch and their placed contents 32 years on. As the preface coyly suggests (p. xxiv), 'Some early results . . . look promising'. What is their general importance?

Archaeologists regularly make assumptions about the behaviour of earthworks, banks and ditches, and about the histories of things found in such contexts. The discipline possesses a vast amount of knowledge about such archaeological situations, but it still lacks a rigorous basis on which to interpret such contexts. The Earthworks Project is essentially a first attempt to provide some uniformitarian rigour. This is both its strength and, as Bell and the others recognize, its weakness.

Results reported here are extensive, some with implications (such as of the study of bone decay for DNA recovery and analysis) which cannot have been envisaged at the start of the project. There is something for almost everyone here: sediments, soils, micromorphology, vegetation, pollen, land molluscs and buried materials of varied kinds. From my own personal perspective of having excavated Neolithic sites in the same north Wiltshire area and being now engaged in writing them up, I have found three particularly useful reminders: about the rate at which earthworks change, about how deposits change, and about how things move within archaeological contexts. Some of this has been evident from earlier reports from the project, but the underscoring provided here is invaluable.

The Overton bank has slumped or eroded a little, and the ditch has accumulated a fairly shallow primary fill, but has now stabilised. The profile of the ditch fill is still more or less symmetrical, the bank having contributed little or nothing to the ditch fill. Within the primary ditch fill, banding of coarser and finer deposits could at first be seen, but these have begun to be mixed by in situ biological processes. Things have moved, by erosion and biological activity (and perhaps also on occasion by the action of people), for example charcoal moving both down and up under the bank (p. 133), and pottery discs moving from the outer bank face and the sides of the ditch to a whole variety of positions within the ditch fill (p. 79).

What does the Overton earthwork not tell us? Is the uniformitarian approach sufficient? The business of the primary ditch fill is puzzling. Martin Bell candidly discusses some of the variables in the last chapter. Different ditch widths, other chalk subsoils and varying vegetation, erosion and human and animal activity would all be likely to produce different results (p. 236). To this list one could add the woodland setting of the Neolithic period, perhaps thicker soils, a chalk subsoil affected by the Pleistocene climate, and the fluctuating Holocene climate. There is so much more primary fill, often markedly asymmetric, in Neolithic and other ditches, and Neolithic secondary fills, though slow-forming, have accumulated in a finite period of centuries. The Overton earthwork is neatly fenced off. It is hardly the fault of the Earthworks Project that it is difficult to reconstruct the lived setting of prehistoric earthworks, in dynamic ecosystems and fluctuating climates, on changing soils and subsoils, and above all used - and abused, for example by cultivation - by people, and walked over by animals. Welcome news is that there are other kinds of experimental earthwork being contructed and observed, for example at the Butser Ancient Farm. As well as waiting for another 32 years now to wheel by (depressing thought), the committee could turn its attention also to other kinds of observation, especially through ethnoarchaeology, to look at the fate of earthworks in dynamic, lived human environments.

ALASDAIR WHITTLE School of History and Archaeology University of Wales Cardiff
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Author:Whittle, Alasdair
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1997
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