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The Wetland Revolution in Prehistory: Proceedings of a Conference Held by the Prehistoric Society and WARP at the University of Exeter, April 1991.

This volume is the result of a joint Prehistoric Society/WARP (Wetland Archaeology Research Project) conference held in 1991. The title is discussed on p. 1 by editor Bryony Coles who asks whether a revolution had occurred and immediately answers 'Hardly so' given similar conferences held within the previous seven years. Lest it be thought that the reader is about to be short-changed, we learn two paragraphs later that the title of conference and volume was deliberately provocative and was intended to encourage debate about the significance of wetland archaeology to the study of prehistory. Anyone slightly confused and seeking enlightenment by flicking to the proselytizing final chapter by John and Bryony Coles will learn that a consideration of both wetland and dryland sites is necessary: 'This is not revolutionary -- it is common sense, and therefore it may take a revolution for some to accept'.

So, do the 14 papers which form the heart of the book, spanning 11 countries and the Palaeolithic to the recent, point up the significance (if not exactly the revolutionary nature) of wetland archaeology? Well, there are nuggets aplenty but they have to be dredged from a mass of evidence. I felt that the text, albeit one comprising mainly short reviews, was guilty of drowning the reader in detail -- an ordinarily welcome hazard of wetland sites, but not always conducive to the conveyance of a message. Fish-nets, trackways, textiles, canoes, plants, bones, paddy-fields, buildings, dendro dates are all here in profusion and underline the amazing capabilities of wetland sites to preserve evidence. It means, for example, that we know more about the Neolithic and Bronze Age villages of Switzerland than those of the early medieval period. Sites of the northwest coast of North America have proved themselves to be a most comprehensive medium for examining the evolution of technology, housing, clothing, canoes, art and so on; they typically produce 90--95% perishable artefacts with the remainder being the characteristic dryland artefacts of stone, bone and shells. Without the wood carvings from wetland sites in Florida, it might be inferred that early Floridans were culturally impoverished; NDA studies on brain-tissue from wetland burials in the same state are producing startling hypotheses concerning North American Indian lineages; an estimated 1000 individuals are buried at Little Salt Spring; and the non-perishable items from Floridan wetland sites 'are so trivial that the sites would not have been discovered at all or their significance would be greatly diminished'. The quantity of wood (i.e. nearly 10,000 timbers) from Flag Fen in eastern England meant that only the computerized recording of data could prevent a reburial in paperwork. Facts of a staggeringly different kind come from Japan. In 1991, 4366 rescue archaeologists were employed; in 1987 more than 3000 publications appeared covering 5500 individual sites; the budget for rescue operations in 1989 was almost [pound]289 million! In the Osaka Plain, researchers were able to excavate 16 km of the 16.5-km route of a planned motorway -- the trench was 8 m wide, up to 8 m deep, and the excavations took more than 10 years. This contrasts with the USA, where funding for even the spectacular wet sites of Florida met major difficulties; or with eastern Europe, where the classic Polish site of Biskupin suffers without the means for proper conservation. The brevity of the contributions means that tantalizing facts emerge but they are seldom developed. We learn that for the Yayoi Period in Japan, there was a clear transition from the huntergatherer to rice cultivation economies (p. 12), but no clear time period for the change is indicated. In the French site of Noyen-sur-Seine, 'we can observe clear bush fires of deforestation' (p. 58), but the evidence for this is not provided. In Ireland, axe marks on an oak plank dendrochronologically dated to 2259 BC were made with metal (p. 31), which clearly has significance for the origins of metallurgy there. Elaboration of the hypothesis that Mesolithic peoples were immigrants to North central Europe rather than having roots in the local Palaeolithic (p. 72) would also have been welcome. If one is prepared to disregard a lack of critique (the paper by John Evans on river valley bottoms and the concluding chapter by the Coles' are honourable exceptions), the light editorial hand (especially evident in the papers of those for whom English is not a first language), and the absence of an index, then the volume still represents excellent value for money -- even without a revolution! There are things of interest in every contribution. One message of the concluding paper by the Coles' is that the conventional dryland mentalities of archaeologists must undergo a conversion -- one may be submerged in the evidence from wetland sites, but one would starve to death if seeking full explanations of human behaviour in a dryland site. It is difficult not to concur, and the same sentiment is reflected in the wish of Glen Doran (p. 132) that archaeologists would look at the waterlogged deposits in a site and exclaim 'Fantastic, we've got wet materials!' instead of 'Stop digging, we've hit water'.

KEVIN J. EDWARDS School of Geography, University of Birmingham
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Author:Edwards, Kevin J.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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