The Oxford Handbook of Wetland Archaeology edited by F. Menotti and Aidan O'Sullivan (Eds) with 59 Contributors 943 pp., 234 b&w illustrations and maps, 12 tables Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2 6DP, 2012, £110 (hbk), ISBN 978-0199573493
Article first published online: 10 FEB 2014
© 2014 The Authors. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology © 2014 The Nautical Archaeology Society
International Journal of Nautical Archaeology
Volume 43, Issue 1, pages 201–203, March 2014
How to Cite
Arnold, B. (2014), The Oxford Handbook of Wetland Archaeology edited by F. Menotti and Aidan O'Sullivan (Eds) with 59 Contributors 943 pp., 234 b&w illustrations and maps, 12 tables Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2 6DP, 2012, £110 (hbk), ISBN 978-0199573493 . International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 43: 201–203. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12050_2
- Issue published online: 10 FEB 2014
- Article first published online: 10 FEB 2014
I shall not attempt to define the term ‘wetland archaeology’ in three lines; it took a whole page for the editors to do so successfully and accurately (p. 1). This ‘handbook’ consists of 54 chapters by 59 authors—too many to name. Each chapter is on average 20 pages long; a length that enables an in-depth analysis of the theme covered, while at the same time, obliges the authors to outline the main lines of research. Moreover, each chapter is followed by a bibliography which gives further depth to its contents. The aim of this edited volume is, to say the least, ambitious, as it seeks to cover archaeology worldwide. It therefore addresses a wide audience, allowing it to understand the specific problems posed by waterlogged archaeological remains, or the absence of such remains due to the natural decomposition of organic matter. If, as is usually the case with publications of this kind, specialists find the chapter on their chosen subject overly brief, or query the examples chosen, other chapters will broaden or supplement their knowledge. As far as students are concerned, the overview offered by this handbook should provide them with a canvas into which they can fit their present and future knowledge, and will enlarge their horizons with information about, for example, the habitats and sacred sites of New Zealand, prehistoric rice farming, DNA analysis, or site recognition through remote-sensing techniques. This is the principal objective of the work; rather than being merely a manual, it opens windows on new perspectives.
The work in general is characterized by the omnipresence of palaeo-environmental data and their evolution through time. The fewer settlement sites with organic remains, either preserved or studied, within a region (such as the Americas), the greater the accent put on palaeo-environmental data to elucidate frameworks in which populations developed once they had reached dry uplands, away from the specific problems posed by the temporary presence of water (flood-plains and estuaries) or permanent inundation (marshlands and lakes). On the other hand, regions rich in organic remains have often served as the basis for thematic research, as recounted in Part 2.
The challenge set was to limit the volume to 943 pages—it could include ten times more—while not reducing it to a mere list of excavations and specialized studies. This, however, is the case for the chapter on Japan; although the selection of sites and the sequence in which they are presented make the chapter particularly attractive. The book is divided in eight parts, highlighting the diversity of approaches required by this field of research. It is this very structure that, in my opinion, is the volume's key strength.
Part 4 merits particular reference. It focuses on the multidisciplinary research that modern approaches to archaeological sites as complex as those with organic remains require—an aspect that can never be sufficiently stressed—that, in practice, still pose both scientific and financial challenges when faced with the imperatives of ‘rescue’ archaeology. Therefore, preservation, the in situ protection of exceptional cultural heritage, is a crucial issue. It is even more important because we are not as yet capable of collecting, recording, or analysing the infinite wealth and variety of remains (especially the smallest) found in waterlogged archaeological layers (Part 5). Preservation in situ, therefore, will allow us to respond to future research questions through occasional excavation. In this respect, it is of increasingly vital importance for scientists to provide high-quality information to a wide audience (Part 6 and 7), in order to preserve this cultural heritage. The present work undoubtedly contributes towards this aim.
Part 1 (one-quarter of the book) is arranged by region and presents promising research perspectives from the Americas, Russia, China and Japan. Archaeological investigations in Australia, New Guinea, and New Zealand foreshadow a significant enrichment of our knowledge and complement the often severely limited historical accounts. As far as Africa is concerned, the major river valleys (important routes of communication on the continent) but equally the African Great Lakes, offer almost unlimited research possibilities, in stark contrast to Europe where rivers have been greatly disturbed by civil-engineering projects: dredging programmes to facilitate the passage of increasingly large ships, construction of dams for hydro-electric generation, regulation and artificial lowering of both lakes and the water-table, to name but a few.
Part 2, ‘Waterlogged archaeological evidence’, addresses more traditional archaeological investigations, such as settlement sites (in particular the lake dwellings, or palafittes, and crannogs), the manufacture of bone and antler artefacts, fish-traps and weirs, trackways, and submerged votive and ritual deposits. Part 3, ‘Survey and excavation’, confronts the reader with the technical, strategic, scientific and human-resources problems that face archaeologists working the frontiers between terra firma and water—between the zones characterized by fluctuating soil moisture (where organic remains do not survive) and permanently wet areas, such as at the water-table (where organic matter is exceptionally preserved)—often in the difficult conditions of tidal zones, underwater excavations in rivers where visibility can be only a few tens of centimetres, and so on. In addition, the fundamental contribution of survey techniques, which have enabled the detection of archaeological sites, now allows different preservation options to be considered including rescue operations, protection of archaeological layers from accidental destruction, erosion monitoring (the results of which would indicate when rescue excavations were called for), and the evaluation of the scale of physical protection required.
Sadly, however, there is no mention of the research developments in this field that have taken place in the past two or three decades—something that could have been covered in a few lines in the book's general introduction (Part 1. ch.1). Nor is there mention of the significant impetus that conferences and workshops have provided, nor of the contribution of specialist periodicals such as The Journal of Wetland Archaeology. Only in the last chapter (ch. 54) does the reader find this information. Let's not forget that the ‘Prehistoric pile-dwellings around the Alps’ (p. 3)—111 sites in six countries—were granted a UNESCO World Heritage listing 27 June 2011 (http://www.palafittes.org/fr/produits-downloads/dossier-de-nomination/index.html), which underlines the strategic importance of preserving intact this large group of major prehistoric sites for the future.
Chapter 2 (Part 1), which deals in nine pages with ‘Wetland occupations in Prehistoric Europe’ from the Mesolithic to the Iron Age, illustrates the problem of choosing subjects that have been already covered in several hundred monographs and thousands of articles. This chapter is, obviously, too short and principally consists of a catalogue of sites, bringing the reader little by way of enlightenment about the way of life and activities of these prehistoric populations—something that ch. 3 manages for the period AD 400–1500. This is all the more unfortunate considering that ch. 2 is the first main chapter of the volume, which should attract the reader, and where the author, F. Menotti, could have exploited information mentioned in chs 29–37 (Part 4), for instance, or in ch. 20, especially since he is also one of the editors and so had an overall view of the volume. Of course, this remark does not diminish the importance of the ‘handbook’, which could not only find a place in the archaeology section but also in the natural sciences section of any library.
To conclude, it would have been impossible to present a synthesis or overview at the end of a work of this kind. The editors chose therefore, to express the personal thoughts of Charles F. W. Higham and Bryony Coles, both pioneering archaeologists in wetland archaeological research. As an epilogue we should hold on to Higham's dictum ‘it must not be forgotten that the entire point is the illumination of extinct human societies in all their aspects’; also that the discoveries from wetland sites offer original insights without parallel.