Oxbow Books, £40
Review Edward Biddulph
The Selhurst Park Project, an investigation some 10km north-east of Chichester, comprised metal-detecting and geophysical surveys, but principally an excavation at Middle Barn of what was identified in aerial photographs as a ‘banjo’ enclosure and a series of conjoined plots. The local community was at the heart of the project, and much of the excavation was carried out by volunteers. Stripping of the topsoil revealed a circular enclosure with a roundhouse inside and, a short distance away, a series of rectilinear enclosures. These were generally devoid of features, though there were some interesting pits. On plan, the site, which spanned the middle Iron Age to the 2nd century AD, appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary, a typical farming settlement comprising stockades, outlying fields, and a house, but a rather more complex and interesting picture emerged through an inspired combination of stratigraphic, artefactual, and environmental analyses.
Meticulous examination of the stratigraphy showed a pattern of regular ditch cleaning and recutting, suggesting issues with drainage, but also highlighting areas of greatest activity. The animal-bone assemblage indicated that the economy of the site was based on pastoral farming. The range of species, with cattle and sheep dominant, was largely unremarkable, but there were some surprises. A few of the pits contained large deposits of bone. Some of the bones displayed the usual butchery marks one associates with meat production, but such evidence was not just confined to the domestic species: wild species, among them badger, polecat, and possibly even wolf, had also been processed. Even more curious were the mass of frog bones, too many to be dismissed as pitfalls.
Charred plant remains in another pit were also noteworthy, not necessarily in the taxa represented – emmer and barley predominantly – but the fact that much of the wheat was in a juvenile state. In other words, the crop deposited had not been quite ripe. The pits also contained sizeable ceramic assemblages, comprising well-recognised forms and fabrics of a domestic character, although many vessels were decorated, pointing to an element of selection.
These strands of evidence are neatly pulled together in the concluding sections to paint a picture of successive generations of a farming community being witness to a series of dramatic events. It is plausibly argued that the contents of the pits represent large-scale gatherings where feasting, food distribution, and the exchange of gifts (including those fancy pelts) took place. The pit with the unripe grain may represent some sort of harvest celebration. Who lived at the site, though, is uncertain. Community leaders are a good possibility, and certainly imported pottery recovered from late Iron Age and early Roman deposits point to a settlement with regional trading and social connections. But times were changing. The site was abandoned in the 2nd century, the occupants possibly moving into a nearby villa.
Reading the book, I was eager for more information. I would like to have known more, for instance, about how the pottery was used and the role it played in the great gatherings, as well as in the home. There are also structural problems with the book, mostly related to the typesetting (an appendix of pottery fabric descriptions, for example, is placed at the end of the pottery report, rather than the end of the book), but these are forgivable in view of the fascinating results.
While the reporting of the site is quite conventional, the background to the site’s investigation in the field is perhaps less so, given the dominant environment of developer-funded archaeology. The publication is a testament to the dedication and, dare I say it, professionalism of the volunteer team. However, given the project’s aim – to promote the public’s involvement in archaeology – it is notable that the participation of volunteers did not appear to extend far into post-excavation. Maintaining meaningful public engagement throughout the archaeological process is, of course, a challenge. This book reminds us that this is a goal to which projects like Selhurst Park can still aspire.