Alan Lane and Mark Redknap
Oxbow Books, £40
Review Michael J Stratigos
This detailed monograph reports on the excavation of the only crannog known in Wales: Llangorse. Written by Alan Lane and Mark Redknap, with contributions from many other scholars, the book takes its readers through a complete study of the crannog, its excavation, and its wider context. Two-thirds of this nearly 500-page volume are dedicated to the immense environmental and artefactual assemblage recovered from this early medieval island dwelling, and highlights include recovery and analysis of over 40,000 fragments of animal bone, and the study and conservation of an embroidered textile. Readers may already be familiar with Llangorse, having seen it featured on Time Team (Season 1, Episode 4) or come across references to it as a probable early medieval royal centre (see CA 364). However, the richness and importance of this site are fully brought to light in this excellent volume.
The book lays out in abundant detail the six seasons of excavation and survey at Llangorse in 1989-1993 and 2004. The excavation report is richly illustrated, allowinga good appreciation of the waterlogged and submerged archaeology. It was very notable to this reviewer, who has excavated a handful of crannogs in Scotland, that Llangorse must be among the clearest stratigraphic sequences of any extensively excavated crannog in Britain or Ireland – stone rubble atop a relatively thin layer of organic debris, in various states of preservation, sitting on natural lake deposits. Captured well in the many easily comprehensible site plans and section drawings, this is, in part, the result of the apparently very short period of use of this crannog, spanning maybe only 26 years, indicated by dendrochronology putting initial construction in AD 890 and historical accounts of the crannog’s destruction in AD 916. It is clear that Lane and Redknap see the excavated stratigraphy as supporting the documentary evidence, meaning that the site was not reoccupied as a crannog abode after AD 916, but there was later fishing and opportunistic activity post-dating the crannog.
Although in use for such a short time, the site produced a very rich material culture assemblage. As well as detailing the large faunal assemblage and exceptional textile fragments, this book contains detailed analysis of a small reliquary hinge, dozens of structural timbers, a copper-alloy zoomorphic drinking horn terminal, a logboat, and a group of iron knives, among many other rare and well-preserved finds. It is clear this work has only scratched the surface of what is possible in these analyses, and that the Llangorse assemblage will see further exciting research for many years to come.
The volume then sets Llangorse crannog in its historic context. The book presents a convincing case that the tight chronology of the crannog and the available documentary evidence point very strongly to Llangorse crannog being a royal seat of Brycheiniog, an early medieval Welsh kingdom. The post-crannog period of the island and lake are not ignored in this volume – something to be commended, as the afterlife of crannogs, in Scotland especially, are rarely interrogated. Comparisons are made between Llangorse and both Irish and Scottish crannogs, with the excavated features found to be more similar to Irish examples than those from Scotland, which bolsters the historical and legendary association between Brycheiniog and Ireland.
There is very little to criticise here. The book is polished and comprehensive. There are, though, a few niche questions that it raises that might have been more fully addressed. For instance, did occupation of the crannog really end at AD 916? There is some evidence that it maybe did not, which is noted but not fully explained away. However, these points do not amount to more than future research questions that I hope the authors and other scholars pursue in future.
This book will no doubt be an important volume to consult for anyone interested in the late 1st millennium AD in Britain and Ireland, especially the material culture of the period.