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Jon C. Henderson. The Atlantic Iron Age: settlement and identity in the first millennium BC.

JON C. HENDERSON. The Atlantic Iron Age: settlement and identity in the first millennium BC. xiv+370 pages, 125 figures. 2007. Abingdon & New York: Routledge; 978-0-415-43642-7 hardback 60 [pounds sterling]; 978-0-203-93846-1 e-book 60 [pounds sterling].

I opened The Atlantic Iron Age as an agnostic. Are there traits in Europe's later prehistory that are quintessentially attributable to proximity to the Western Ocean from Cape Trafalgar to the Butt of Lewis, or characteristic of the 'bounteous West'? And further, did these endure or at least recur during the longues durees of the pre-Roman Iron Age? Jon Henderson's pricy book, the first extended case for the prosecution, develops the theme masterfully introduced by his doctoral supervisor, Barry Cunliffe, in Facing the Ocean.


This is an ambitious work. It encompasses the Iron Age, but also, for the North-West primary focus, runs into the first millennium AD. Moreover, the better-established Atlantic Late Bronze Age is summarised. Within the 'Atlantic facade', western Britain, Ireland and western Brittany (sometimes, confusingly, the 'northern Atlantic area', p. 126) are prioritised, with Galicia and the Gulf of Cadiz also appearing; the lands edging Biscay from Asturias to the Loire are summarily dismissed without examination (p. 32). Most Irish Sea shores are included--the eastern, not. Despite an informative excursus on British geo-archaeological perspectives on the western seaways, this reviewer failed to identify any extended rationale for the geographical limits chosen here, beyond the expediency of the manageable. I have sympathy--it is well-nigh impossible to keep up to date with the torrent of literature emerging over such a range; this shows in that, for example, few sources on Brittany since 1998 are cited, and the discussion of oppida depends on English-language sources a generation old. Whilst the significance of ritual dimensions is recurrently mentioned, key Armorican sites such as Mez-Notariou and Tronoen go unmentioned.

Brittany is also largely isolated from adjacent western France, whereas 'Atlantic France' was at times assuredly more extensive, not least as key rivers were navigable far inland. This is important because Henderson essentially seeks archaeological evidence within the geographical zones he has pre-determined, rather than letting archaeological evidence fix geographical limits (cf. the Atlantic Bronze Age). Anyone considering his 'Atlantic facade' needs to juxtapose it with Milcent's map (2007: 15, Figure 3) of western Europe in mid-millennium; here the frontier between North Alpine and Atlantic worlds occurs in central France, well back from the Biscay and Channel coasts; and the overall pattern is more nuanced than the binary split between Atlantic and Hallstatt/La Tene 'provinces', as Henderson tends to suggest even in his conclusion (p. 303).

Given the author's assimilation of much settlement material, it is unsurprising that final reports of sites considered here from interim work (e.g. Paule in Brittany) appeared some years ago. Opinions are attributed to authors that they cannot have held, for example Childe (1935) on the 'first Atlantic roundhouses' of mid-millennium (p. 155). Foreign words and proper names are marred by many typographic errors (e.g. 'Boissane' for 'Boisanne', 'Avenius' for Avienus'); these are really too numerous to forgive the publishers. Some cavalier uses of vocabulary are also apparent: whatever Atlantic Scotland was in the Iron Age it was not the Ultima Thule of Chapter 5's title (cf. p. 24), otherwise identified after Hawkes as Iceland (see Figure 1.3). Continental chronologies are distinctly idiosyncratic: examples include the start of the Gallo-Roman period (p. 116); Mediterranean imports are much more significant in Hallstatt D than C, i.e. after 600 BC; the dating of Italic Dressel la amphorae in Cornwall (p. 236); the use of the term 'Roman Empire' (e.g. p. 259). These cannot simply be the result of melding the finer typo-chronologies of the nearer continent with the blunt weapon of radiocarbon further north. These chronological problems are apparent for example in his attribution of the abandonment of Armorican farmsteads at 'the end of the first century BC' to disruption caused 'firstly by the Gallic Wars and then conquest in 56 BC' (p. 273); and by the correlation between the emergence (from the third century BC) of rectangular settlements in Armorica with the 'increasing intensity of contacts with developing ... Roman markets' (p. 288). Finally there are some confusions over sites: for example, Le Camp d'Artus and Huelgoat, with murus gallicus defences dug by Wheeler, are the same place (p. 266).

Traffic along the Atlantic seaways, in the case of Dressel I amphorae found in Brittany, is recurrently attributed, to this reviewer's surprise, to 'links to the east' (e.g. p. 274) rather than to material arriving (say) via the Carcassonne gap, Mouliets-et-Villemartin near Bordeaux, and Atlantic coastal waters. Equally, chevaux-de-frise, in their restricted distribution and shared characteristics, perhaps the epitome of the potential for long-distance links from Iberia to Shetland, are recurrently mentioned but never discussed in any detail (nor indexed). Graphics, including maps mostly derived from elsewhere, are helpful, when not over-reduced (e.g. Figure 5.19). Some are overtaken by the author's text; for example his discussion of promontory forts on p. 128 ff. extends their distribution beyond that on Raymond Lamb's map of 1980 (reproduced as Figure 4.13).

It is interesting that the case for a specifically Atlantic Iron Age, with a range of traits best exemplified in Atlantic Scotland (p. 297 for list) and underpinned by sometimes difficult-to-discern (as Henderson admits) maritime contacts and shared mentalites, derived in part from the Ocean's proximity, and sometimes couched in quite deterministic vocabulary, has emerged now. The great bulk of temperate European Iron Age studies elsewhere points to the highly regional, variable and sometimes very short-lived, nature of cultural phenomena recognisable archaeologically. The pony-cart, ridden horse and ship (riverine and sea-going) were main drivers in cultural change in the last millennium BC; their impacts assuredly differed from continental interior to coastal hem. As well as short maritime crossings for trade, there were undoubtedly heroic sea-journeys, the Atlantic's equivalents of Jason's--one perhaps bringing the gibbon that left its skull at Navan. But does the material culture and architectural evidence Henderson has marshalled sustain his case for a distinctive and broad-scale Atlantic Iron Age with the boundaries he considers? I remain sceptical, but the data, hypotheses and speculations in this book will be essential for those wishing to develop the case.


MILCENT, P-Y. (ed.). 2007. Bourges-Avaricum; un centre proto-urbain celtique du Ve siecle av. J.-C (Bituriga Monograph 2007-1, 2 vols). Bourges.


School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

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Author:Ralston, Ian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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