Assessing Iron Age Marsh-Forts

Review by Ian Ralston

The subtitle to this volume – ‘with reference to the stratigraphy and palaeoenvironment surrounding The Berth’ – indicates clearly its main objective: detailed consideration of the environs of the Shropshire fort, the subject of several small-scale excavations since the 1960s. (Those archaeological results are included only summarily.)

Norton’s template for this category of sites is provided by the excavation and publication of the paired enclosures at Sutton Common, Yorkshire. In terms of most hillfort classifications, marsh-forts are unique in not being grouped by their topographic settings but primarily by their immediate, and less fixed, environmental surroundings. Although sometimes engaging in wider comparisons, the writer’s focus is on England, thereby unfortunately omitting important comparisons from, for example, Galloway.

Having assessed the wider Iron Age settlement context and the methods used in the environmental studies, the kernel of the book begins with a ‘national’ discussion of marsh-fort candidates. Key characteristics are extracted from evidence from Sutton Common, including large size, a low-lying setting within marshland, monumental enclosure, approach causeways, (mostly Middle) Iron Age chronological evidence, and predominantly non-domestic use – others are perhaps more contentious. Outwith Shropshire, the subject of detailed study, over 40 possible examples are outlined, and the uneven available evidence is tabulated. Only two sites, both in Cambridgeshire, fully meet the Sutton Common criteria (‘Group 1’), although others do so in some measure.

There is a detailed case-study of North Shropshire marsh-forts, especially the wetland environment of the Berth (one of the county’s two ‘Group 1’ sites) as it evolved over the Holocene. Insights into the mosaic of open water, marshland, pasture, and declining woodland then present are offered, though relatively little of this is directly pertinent to later prehistory.

The author frankly states that her study offers a vade mecum to the underexplored world of marsh-forts and is not definitive. Her concluding hypothesis is that marsh-forts were multifunctional enclosures, with ceremonial, ritual, territorial, and economic roles within their waterscapes. Well written, -illustrated, and -referenced, this is a helpful addition to the literature on this part of the later prehistoric settlement record.

Assessing Iron Age Marsh-Forts, Shelagh Norton, Archaeopress, £38, ISBN 978-1789698633.