This excellent volume addresses two key questions of archaeological research. First, can archaeology create the grand narratives practised by public historians? Second, what is the return on the long history of archaeological research, accumulating big data, often funded by the taxpayer and the developer? The answers to these questions are resoundingly positive. Archaeologists are fully capable of presenting long-term histories with the same vibrancy as historians. Furthermore, the return on financial investment, in this case both by the European taxpayer and commercial activity, has been well rewarded. In common with all good historical science, the work is in a constant state of flux, as illustrated by the opening quotations for each major period: Gordon Childe, Colin Renfrew, and Richard Bradley for prehistory; Robin Collingwood/Ian Richmond, Barry Cunliffe, and Simon James for the Roman period; Ralegh Radford, John Hurst, and Gabor Thomas for the medieval period. Every generation adds stature on the shoulders of the ancestors and this 2021 synthesis can be accessed both from the 11 thematic chapters by the EngLaId Team and from the visualisation online (http://englaid.arch.ox.ac.uk/).
The result is not one single narrative but a set of themes: landscape, identity, and continuity and change. The structure of the volume moves between the general and the particular. As we have learned from the current pandemic, data are only valuable once they have been properly assessed. The 900,000 data entries accumulated by the project have been subject to close scrutiny before presentation. The broad geographical trends build on the distinctions of south-east and north-west first outlined by Cyril Fox in his Personality of Britain, and broadly summarised as identity grounded in production and place. These are given detail by extensive use of graphics covering all England. Ideas such as ecology, movement, food consumption, and orientation of the built environment can then be effectively cross-related. The overall effect is a set of powerful historical geographies of England, a result which should encourage further investment in understanding how the past has provided a foundation for the present.
English Landscapes and Identities: investigating landscape change from 1500 BC to AD 1086, Chris Gosden, Chris Green, and the EngLaId team, Oxford University Press, £90, ISBN 978-0198870623.
Review by Simon Stoddart.