The Field Archaeology of Exmoor

Article excerpt

HAZEL RILEY & ROBERT WILSON-NORTH. The field archaeology of Exmoor. xii+192 pages, 191 figures. 2001. Swindon: English Heritage; 1-87359-258-2 paperback 12.95 [pounds sterling].

This attractive and copiously illustrated book is the product of a systematic survey of Exmoor National Park by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England which commenced in the final years of its independent existence. It will quickly find its way onto the bookshelves of West Country archaeologists. The field archaeology of Exmoor represents excellent value at 12.95 [pounds sterling]. As a recognizable, above-the-surface outcome of the spending of public money on archaeology, a book like this is hard to beat.

It is chronologically organized, with four main chapters and a short one on 20th-century archaeology; nineteen `landscape studies' of individual areas make the point that archaeological landscapes are usually encountered as palimpsests. It is heartwarming to note that substantial upstanding earthwork sites are still being discovered, and how the early production of iron is opening up as an exciting new field of research. Connoisseurs will enjoy certain special features -- the barrow quarry, the duck decoy, the gatepost factory, the fish weirs, the north window of Culbone church. It is sobering to realize how little we know. We learn that the two Roman fortlets are the only Exmoor sites which have been extensively excavated; we note how little is known about the prehistoric ceremonial monuments, the hillslope enclosures and the early Middle Ages. For later times it becomes clear that we need more studies of the social and economic history of the hamlet and the individual farm (one interesting point is that morphologically similar `courtyard farms' have diverse origins). For the authors, indeed, the central theme of Exmoor's story is `the constant adjustment of the settlement pattern to meet changing needs and environmental conditions' (p. 164).

The illustrations are an attractive and often excellent feature of the book, though some do considerably less work than others. The attempts to show field monuments in their landscape contexts by choosing quite high-altitude obliques are not altogether successful -- too much site detail tends to be sacrificed. By contrast, the high-quality detailed surveys of hillforts and field systems -- which are good to see -- tend to lose their landscape context simply because local relief is omitted.

The authors sometimes write as if there is not much difference between producing a descriptive, chronologically ordered account of field monuments and writing a landscape history. …