Belonging and Belongings: portable artefacts and identity in the civitas of the Iceni

Belonging and Belongings is the latest BAR publication in the Archaeology of Roman Britain series. Focusing on the portable archaeology of the ‘Iceni’, Natasha Harlow presents an enormous volume of work that challenges the traditional, Roman historians’ accounts of the area and the people who lived within it in the Late Iron Age.

The detailed and in-depth analysis that underpins this study – incorporating over 14,000 artefacts from multiple datasets – is phenomenal. Interrogating the data to reveal intricate and complex patterns across the region, Harlow effectively demolishes the construct of the Iceni as a defined cultural group – a definition that has lingered since the tribe was first identified by Roman historians.

In doing so, she effectively demonstrates the potential of Portable Antiquities Scheme data, especially when combined with Historic Environment Records and grey literature. Stepping beyond keyhole archaeology and analysing portable artefacts en masse enables her to invalidate the dated theory of the Iceni who rejected Roman imports following a failed revolt and replaces it with complex intra-regional patterning.

She does not, however, deny the potential for over-simplification and the enduring problem of the many complex historical and contemporary inter-relating factors that influence the distribution of objects across the region. The need for much clearer identification and dating of many of the diverse artefact types she examines is understood. Her robust research into detecting practices and consequent biases in recorded objects is an area that deserves greater attention.

Nevertheless, her synthesis is powerful and her approach is to be admired. Her analysis of zoomorphic and gendered imagery is intriguing. As she states, a review of votive and miniature objects is well overdue. This would help to put into context her preliminary identification of the dominance of female imagery in Norfolk’s objects as a reflection of the importance they held within the communities there.

This book is a great illustration of this approach’s potential and how much we are constrained by historical interpretations when we should be unpicking evidence from the material culture itself.

Review by Megan Dennis.
Belonging and Belongings: portable artefacts and identity in the civitas of the Iceni, Natasha Harlow, BAR Publishing, £63, ISBN 978-1407357010.