Waterlands: prehistoric life at Bar Pasture, Pode Hole Quarry, Peterborough

Review by Mark Knight

There is something of a contradiction between the main title of this publication and the archaeology presented within its pages. The book details and interprets an impressively large-scale, decade-long excavation of a low-lying Bronze Age site made up of familiar components: barrows, field systems, and settlement. It is an evidently terrestrial landscape of land enclosure bracketed by circular monuments for the dead and roundhouses for the living – what we might term the full 2nd millennium BC package. Dotted among this sequence were pits and post-holes associated with Beaker pottery, large watering holes (some of which yielded waterlogged wood), and, atop everything, an Iron Age smithy.

The first-rate specialist reports describe the site’s material culture (prehistoric pottery, loomweights, and so on) and palaeoenvironmental evidence. And yet, as with the archaeological features, nothing here shouts a watery environment. Quite the opposite: this 55ha window on to a much larger system of Middle Bronze Age ditch-defined fields and droveways describes, for the most part, a patchwork of pasture with some cereal cultivation, grazed by cattle, sheep, and pigs.

The monograph gets its title from Graham Swift’s novel Waterland, its Fenland location, and the site’s proximity to much deeper contours still submerged below layers of silt and peat. Missing from this account, however, is any sense of depth or altitude: the plans have no contours, the sections no heights. It is as if the site’s topography, like its setting, were taken for granted.

As a site report, there is much to recommend this publication and its many colour plates show features expertly excavated. The remarkable plan of the field system alone represents a major contribution to Fenland research, especially in relation to contemporary systems excavated east of Peterborough.

I would have liked the authors to have made reference to recent research that properly explores Fenland’s varied palaeo-topography in relation to its dynamic time-transgressive palaeoenvironment. It is what makes Fenland’s prehistory so special. This landscape had a gradient that became wet over time. As its archaeology consistently shows, it was land before it was water.

Waterlands: prehistoric life at Bar Pasture, Pode Hole Quarry, Peterborough
Andy Richmond, Karen Francis, and Gary Coates
Archaeopress, £55, and Open Access e-book
ISBN 978-1803271521