Michael Fulford, Amanda Clarke, Emma Durham, and Nicholas Pankhurst
The Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, £75
ISBN 978-0907764458
Review Edward Biddulph

The decades leading up to the Roman conquest of Britain must have been a dynamic and turbulent time, a period of tribal manoeuvrings, with alliances made and loyalties tested in the face of increasing political and material influence from the Continent. From an archaeological perspective, however, the period can be frustratingly bland, with many sites in southern Britain lacking closely dated ceramics, giving only a hedge-betting chronology either side of AD 43. That late Iron Age Calleva presents solid evidence for pre-Conquest occupation, with more than a hint of the political and social complexities, is just one of the aspects that makes this a welcome and exciting volume.

Making sense of the archaeology belonging to the late Iron Age in an area away from the centre of what was the pre-Roman oppidum and, subsequently, the civitas capital of the Atrebates cannot have been easy. Ephemerality of features, the paucity of stratigraphic relationships, and a high degree of residuality combined to make the task of identifying and phasing features a challenging one, and the authors are to be congratulated for producing a highly coherent and convincing narrative.

Excavations in what became Insula IX of the Roman town uncovered evidence for occupation spanning some 50 years before the Roman conquest. Something of a planned layout is suggested by the arrangement of buildings set within enclosures defined by ditches and trackways. Perhaps the most remarkable structure exposed was a rectangular hall-like building, some 47m long, almost 9m at its widest, and tapering at one end. In a British context, the building, if correctly identified from the shallow slots and post-holes, is startling and alien, but this perhaps gives us the first clue to the origin of the inhabitants of this site, with parallels in the Iron Age of north-west Europe hinting at an incoming population.

As expected, a great deal of pottery was collected, with amphorae from across the Roman world and tableware imported from Gaul, including pre-Conquest Samian ware, being well represented. Salt, as represented by briquetage, was imported from north Kent, and Kentish connections are also suggested by some of the coins. Other connections, notably a south-western element, are suggested by coinage too, as well as by brooches. The animal-bone assemblage presented the usual range of domestic species, but the paucity of young calves suggested that dairying was not practised to any great degree. This is marvellously supported by organic residue analysis carried out on coarseware pottery samples, which showed a lack of milk or other dairy products, in contrast to the pattern obtained elsewhere in Iron Age Britain. Along with the imported foods among the archaeobotanical remains, the results offer another indication of an immigrant population, and I was reminded of Caesar’s observation in his Gallic Wars that people in Britain lived on milk and meat. Not, it seems, at Calleva. Just as interesting were the results of geochemical and micromorphological analyses. These indicated that the site was not intensively occupied, suggesting that activity was of a seasonal or periodic nature.

Such fascinating strands of evidence are deftly pulled together in the discussion section to paint a picture of Calleva in the late Iron Age as a social, economic, and political hub, with the great hall and its successor serving as a meeting place for trade and negotiations between residents of north Gaulish (Atrebatic) origin and representatives of British tribes or clans. Quite where the balance of power lay is perhaps underexplored, but it seems that whoever held the keys to the great hall led the way.

Naturally, the story of the site does not stop at AD 43. More volumes, which will deal with the 1st- and 2nd-century occupation of Insula IX, are in preparation. The rationale behind the publication strategy is understandable, but, despite its size, the book has the feel of an interim volume awaiting a definitive overview that draws on the results of the later archaeology and places the site in wider context. As they say at the end of TV episodes: ‘to be continued…’.

This review appeared in CA 348.

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