Paul Garwood (ed.). The undiscovered country: the earlier prehistory of the West Midlands.
In 2002/2003 a series of one-day seminars was held under the banner of the West Midlands Regional Research Framework for Archaeology, encompassing all periods from Palaeolithic to Post-Medieval. The proceedings of these seminars are now being published in an ambitious six-volume series entitled The making of the West Midlands, of which this book, covering the Lower Palaeolithic to the Early Bronze Age, is the first to appear. These volumes complement the forthcoming synthetic resource assessment and research agenda publication which will represent the main outcome for the West Midlands of the English Heritage Frameworks initiative, now familiar in various forms from many an English region. As Paul Garwood says in his preface (p. vii), the seminars warranted publication in far more detail than the synthesis will allow.
After a short introduction there are 12 chapters, which fall into various categories. Three give chronologically successive regional period overviews: Lower and Middle Palaeolithic (Lang and Buteux), Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic (Myers), and Neolithic (Ray). Other regional overviews look at environmental archaeology (Greig), the aerial photographic evidence for Neolithic enclosures (Barber), Neolithic and Bronze Age lithic artefacts (Barfield), Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age funerary monuments (Garwood), and ceremonial landscapes and ritual deposits in the Neolithic and Bronze Age (Woodward). A closing chapter explores cultural identity and social change through the Late Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age (Garwood). There are also more localised contributions, two showcasing recent fieldwork: the Neolithic evidence from Wellington Quarry in Herefordshire (Jackson), recent work on the Neolithic and Bronze Age in Warwickshire (Palmer), and Bronze Age settlement in Shropshire (Halsted).
All in all these chapters provide a good current snapshot of the early prehistory of the West Midlands, but do they, as intended, 'reveal the scale, richness and diversity of the evidence from all earlier prehistoric periods in the West Midlands, and ... explore its significance and potential in relation to current research themes and approaches' (p. vii)? This reviewer's feeling is that the contributors are far better at the latter than the former. All the contributors are impressively up-to-date with their general knowledge of their respective periods (though the fast-moving pace of Palaeolithic research has left the chapter by Lang and Buteux--admitted to have been written in 2004--a bit adrift), and fully armed with the interpretations currently fashionable within British prehistory. In terms of revealing the evidence, however, we are certainly not getting the whole story; the chapters indicate that precious little original research has been done to obtain the requisite basic data. The exception is Garwood's work on barrows and ring-ditches (the only chapter with appendices summarising the information on excavated sites in the region and the available radiocarbon dates); his distribution map is the single most impressive one in the volume in terms of the claim that there is a richness of evidence--more than 900 recorded sites. Even so there are problems with this database: both ring-ditches and barrows can be misidentified, and the excavated sites are dominated by nineteenth-century investigations in the Staffordshire Peak. Nevertheless, this is an instructive example of resource assessment and analysis.
Apart from the chapter on the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic, which has benefited from recent postgraduate research and the work of the University of Birmingham's Shotton Project, what many of these chapters demonstrate is a reliance on Sites and Monuments Records (SMRs) (and the National Monument Record in Barber's case) for their data, and they are subject to all the well-known limitations of these records. Chief among them is that the SMRs, and the chapters in this volume, are focused on sites and monuments, with material culture resolutely taking a back seat. Barfield's chapter, which is specifically addressing material culture, exemplifies this weakness. His distribution map of leaf-shaped arrowheads from the region can only show a derisory seven findspots in Worcestershire, and only 17 barbed-and-tanged arrowheads from the same county, six of them from Bredon Hill. Similarly the distribution plot of flint axeheads lacks credibility, as in fact does the distribution map of stone axeheads in Woodward's chapter, which she admits is reliant on the data from Stone Axe Studies of 1988.
The resource assessment exercise has clearly not extended to examining the content of the region's museums and private collections, or to assimilating any of the data now coming through from the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Material culture gets such a low profile here that, apart from the obligatory handaxes in Lang and Buteux's chapter, there are solitary illustrations of a flint axehead and scraper in Ray's chapter and no other artefact illustrations at all! No other stone implements, no bronzes, and no pottery--so we are given a very partial, monument-dominated picture of West Midlands prehistory. This flaw would appear endemic to the whole Frameworks exercise, reflecting English Heritage's remit (and vision), which does not in the main encompass material culture. Yet the study of our prehistoric past demands a more holistic approach--in the West Midlands the theory has moved on but the database has not.
This is not to condemn the present volume, which will undoubtedly prove very useful and hopefully stimulate interest in the prehistory of central England, though the surprisingly high cost of this 222-page volume may offset this. It is well edited and the excellent maps and diagrams (by Henry Buglass) make for an attractive book. All the distribution maps show the boundaries of the six West Midlands counties, though the editor has overlooked the need to include a map indicating their names, or any listing of the contributors' affiliations and contact details. Minor points noticed are the omission of recent work on the Wye Valley caves in Myers's chapter, and underplaying of the Neolithic cave burial evidence from the Peak in Ray's chapter.
National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh, UK
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2008|
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