In a recent visit to Kent I learned that there were only two Iron Age hillforts in the entire county, whilst my native Devon and Cornwall boasts almost one per parish, although their often small size and stature probably argue against the use of the term `hillfort' altogether. But a recent week spent in Dorset provided a third radically different Iron Age landscape: massive hillforts in size, but in number somewhere between those found in the lands of the Dumnonii and Cantiaci.
Martin Papworth's book, written for archaeologists and the general reader alike, is subtitled `Dorset and the West Country in the Late Iron Age'; the `West Country' element that he covers comprises adjacent south Somerset and southwest Wiltshire in some detail, and there is some coverage of east Devon and west Hampshire too in terms of trying to set the Durotrigan border. Papworth argues later in his book that its western edge may have been the river Brit, leaving the western nose of the county perhaps within Dumnonian territory, but that Cranborne Chase and Bokerley Dyke are valid limits in the east.
In his opening abstract, Papworth writes, "This survey of the region brings together the evidence gathered by archaeologists working across the Durotrigan zone and combines it with new fieldwork and excavation." Within this overall survey, Papworth looks in detail at seven ten-by-eight kilometre study boxes. He concludes that the Durotriges were not one people with a central leadership and administration, but rather a grouping of disparate yet linked peoples in a fragile alliance and association whose state of confederation reached its apogee just before the Roman conquest. At the book's end he will use the example of the Eurozone as a valid exemplar. But in the meantime the book's introduction and subsequent twelve chapters provide the evidence to justify that conclusion.
Papworth can speak authoritatively on his subject, remarking that he has "lived, worked and trained as an archaeologist in Dorset for over 30 years". Being the National Trust's archaeologist for its Wessex Region, he has been able to make use of opportunities for fieldwork and study on land both within and outside the Trust's ownership. But before devoting seven chapters to surveying the whole Durotrigan landscape, Papworth helpfully devotes the first four chapters to introducing the reader to the history of Iron Age studies.
Chapter one relates how views about the Iron Age have changed over time. In a sometimes dry but never too academic text, he points out that the lack of oppida in Dorset makes the archaeology of its hillforts more significant, "because the evidence is fixed in time through rapid abandonment" following Roman intervention. Chapter two traces those rare ancient historical references, for "the name `Durotriges' begins the history of Dorset". Chapter three summarises excavation work in Dorset from the sixteenth century onwards, Papworth concluding that, "There is nowhere in Britain that can boast this level of published Iron Age material." And then in chapter four he beats the proposed bounds of the tribal area and considers the type of evidence - coins, pottery, burials - that might provide evidence of a cohesive entity known as the Durotriges. One sharp criticism of the book is that no decent map illustrating the area and the places mentioned within it has yet at this point appeared to assist the reader.
Chapters five through to eleven then provide the detail of Papworth's anti-clockwise tour of the Durotrigan territory. Here we appreciate more that the hillforts experienced phases of little or no settlement, their role as a `central place' giving way to a more dispersed settlement in the landscape. I appreciated Papworth's attempt to address the changes in the pottery evidence at South Cadbury in the same way that the Safeway supermarket in Warminster became a Morrisons supermarket: in less than a year, "the signs, the carrier bags and the own-brand goods all now bear a different logo." Papworth makes clear the settlement differences to be found on Cranborne Chase from those in the rest of the county, making a good comparison with the Norman takeover of Saxon England. There are some surprises too: the author argues that the second most important town in Roman Dorset was at Crab Farm in Shapwick.
Papworth contends that the Durotrigan confederacy was perhaps engineered not just to counter the Romans, but also to counter powerful political groups of Britons to the north and east. Having read this book, I now see how this is probably correct. He ends his book tracing the area during the Roman period, seeing a large element of continuity rather than change. He also briefly charts a possible Durotrigan identity into the Saxon period.
The book has sixty-one well-chosen illustrations and thirty-four colour plates, all referenced within the text, although these are confusing and sometimes in error towards the end of chapter ten. Some plans (e.g. Waddon Hill on p.92 and South Cadbury on p.100) have no legend, rendering them therefore of little use. Unfortunately, there are errors with some directions on some figures. For instance, plate 29 is looking southeast, not northeast as stated; and in the book's text Ham Hill is not west but north of Yeovil. It is a shame that there are no photographs of the Roman ballista pieces embedded in the excavated huts on Hod Hill or of the hundreds of sling stones found ready for use at a number of hut entrances there. I would have liked to have seen an example of the polygon enclosure type on the Hampshire side of Bokerley Dyke. The book would also benefit from a map of Dorchester in the chapter on South Dorset.
An index and a six-page bibliography are provided at the book's end. My basic checks showed at least one omission (Eagles 1994), and at one point in the text Papworth refers to Paul rather than Philip Rahtz. But these are minor quibbles and easily rectified in any subsequent editions. That I can imagine another edition being published in due course is due to the apparent healthy level of further Iron Age archaeology in this region, but also due to Papworth's book becoming a recognised benchmark and classic.
on 28 September 2013
This is one of the most enjoyable and insightful books on the Iron Age I have found. The author's deep knowledge of the area about which he writes is conveyed vividly throughout. This knowledge is set in the context of explicit and balanced discussion of current debates and themes in Iron Age studies. Papworth is clear about the large element of uncertainty in most analyses including of the uses and histories of hillforts.
The focus on the Dorset region will make this an appealing purchase of people from that area. However, its significance is far broader, particularly in the analysis of Iron Age society. At one point, Papworth notes that each enquirer must, in the end, write his own Iron Age. Archaeologists are indeed discovering that there may well be no single pre-Roman Iron Age but a series of developments that may have echoes of each other.
There is an element of personal quirkiness at some points. I especially enjoyed the references to Safeway and Morrison's. However, this is also a deeply informed and scholarly work.
An excellent read.