Enduring Records: The Environmental and Cultural Heritage of Wetlands

By Austin, Robert J. | Southeastern Archaeology, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Enduring Records: The Environmental and Cultural Heritage of Wetlands


Austin, Robert J., Southeastern Archaeology


Enduring Records: The Environmental and Cultural Heritage of Wetlands. BARBARA A. PURDY (ed.). Oxbow Books, Oxford, England, 2001. 302 pp., figures, tables, references at the end of each chapter. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 1-84217-048 1.

As Barbara Purdy observes in her introduction to this book of worldwide scope, only about 10 percent of the material culture produced by past societies ends up in the archaeological record for us to study. This fact alone makes Enduring Records an essential read for archaeologists, documenting as it does the incredible array of perishable items (wood, bone, and shell artifacts, structural remains, canoes, macro- and micro-botanicals, textiles, skeletal remains, DNA, and other bioarchaeological data) that are simply unavailable in most dryland settings.

But this is more than just a book about the kinds of normally perishable artifacts that can be recovered from wetlands. It is really about wetlands-rivers, lakes, ponds, bogs, swamps, estuaries, and coastlines-as meaningful components of the cultural landscapes of traditional societies. It is about what we can learn about the past from the study of not only what is contained in wetlands, but how wetlands were perceived by the people who utilized them. In this respect, the contributions that make up this volume, regardless of their specific orientations, are truly concerned with the preservation of the world's cultural heritage.

Within its 27 chapters, all of which are revised versions of papers presented at an international conference held in Gainesville, Florida, in 1999, the reader is treated to descriptions of ongoing research in 17 countries spanning most of the major continents. While the individual topics are as varied as the sites they cover, several major themes are repeated in nearly every chapter: the ability of perishable artifacts to expand knowledge of past peoples, their environment, and their adaptations; the new avenues of research that these unique data present to us; and the considerable problems of artifact conservation and wetland preservation that are inherent in wetlands archaeology. With so many chapters and site examples, it is impossible to summarize everything that is worthy of note. Instead, I will mention a few of the papers that struck me as most interesting as a means of encouraging you to explore the pleasures of the volume's contents for yourself.

Not surprisingly, given the geographical location of the conference and the research interests of its editor, Florida sites are well represented. The book begins with five chapters devoted to wetland sites in the state, with a sixth chapter on reconstructing past environments from Florida lake pollen cores also included. Being a Floridabased archaeologist, these chapters were the first ones I read, although all are on well-known sites (Windover, Pineland, Groves Orange Midden, and Aucilla River). What surprised and pleased me was that the remaining chapters were equally if not more interesting, not because of any shortcomings on the part of the Florida authors but because I encountered such a fascinating array of wet-site examples as well as approaches to excavating, analyzing, interpreting, and preserving them. The moral is, don't be put off by the international scope of the book; there is much here for Southeastern archaeologists to appreciate and learn from.

Of the non-Florida contributions, I was especially intrigued by those that tried to place wetland sites in a broader cultural context or that used data sets from wetland sites to address questions that have the potential to expand knowledge of how people lived and related to one another. To cite one example, John Coles examines the relationship between rock art, wetlands, and bronze artifacts (axes, shields, lurs, and figurines) in northern Europe. The artifacts, which Coles believes are prestige items, often are recovered as isolated finds in wetlands.

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