Cambridgeshire from the Air

Susan Oosthuizen

Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1996. 19.99 hardback. ISBN 0-7509-1064-X

Review by Mel Giles

In a lavishly illustrated book, with both colour and black and white plates of excellent quality, Susan Oosthuizen introduces both the archaeology of Cambridgeshire and the techniques of aerial photography to a wide audience. The book is ordered chronologically, with chapters on prehistoric, Roman, Saxon, Norman and Middle Age Cambridgeshire, through to Tudor/Stuart and 18th-19th century landscapes. More unusual and especially welcome is the final chapter on 'Modern' features of the landscape, featuring industries such as cement works and 1930s railway sidings, some of which have already disappeared in the remodelling of the urban landscape. A page of background history is provided for each period, summarising the salient events which have left often dramatic and indelible traces on the land. Industries, transport routes, buildings, settlement plans, field systems and earthworks are presented in varying lights, different years and seasons. Oosthuizen also explains the geology, topography and soils of the region, to illustrate both the rich response of some areas and the paucity of sites in others, as well as pointing out a few geological features which can easily deceive an uninitiated interpreter.

It is inevitably a quite personal collection, aimed at people who have a local connection with the county, and a general interest in the past of the landscape they inhabit. Susan Oosthuizen's skill in varying the texture, colour and scale of these prints is to be admired, and she provides not only a brief historical introduction to aerial photography within the discipline of archaeology (stressing the role of Cambridgeshire's own Dr. J.K. St Joseph in the early years after the war), but also explains the way in which ancient features become visible from the air through earthworks, soil and crop marks. It might have been helpful here to provide illustrations, as the non-expert reader might find these processes difficult to visualise, but the book itself does not purport to be an academic text on aerial archaeology and should not be read as such.

Although a chronological thread provides a good structure for the book, this is occasionally undermined by the palimpsest of features which are presented in one photo, often making it difficult to discern the site to which the author is drawing attention. These photos are not 'time snapshots'; the text masks the fact that any landscape is a product of its past, and many of these sites have both prehistoric and Medieval features underlying their later features. It also fails to convey how archaeologists must therefore be familiar with the total history of any one place, to unpick the many events which have moulded the landscape into its present form.

In terms of periods, the prehistoric sites (representing over 11 000 years of the county's 'history') are given scant attention, considering the wealth of sites available; only 12 plates out of 141 are given over to these earliest landscapes, with a heavy bias towards later prehistory (especially 'defended' Iron Age enclosures and hillforts). This seems a little remarkable when there are at least 4 plates devoted to 'Cambridge Colleges', and probably indicates that the book is partly inclined towards parents and students at the University, as a handsome 'coffee table' book. But there is obviously a wider local audience being addressed through the collection of both Medieval religious sites and grand houses, gardens and parks of the 18th-19th century, sites which Oosthuizen notes may be visited by the reader. Not all of the photos present a past which is exclusively the preserve of the wealthy; smaller settlements and field system are also depicted (often in beautiful, low grazing light, or early snow) to redress the balance.

Some of the most stunning photos are of the great drainage works of the Fens, as in the 17th century Bedford Level, Roman roads and the 'Devil's Dyke', and it is these sorts of photographs which use aerial archaeology to its best advantage, revealing a scale of labour unappreciable on the ground.

One of the main criticisms I have of the book is that Susan Oosthuizen's interpretation of the sites is often open to debate. Although her knowledge of local history is impressive, the way in which she categorises settlement types from their plans follows a trend in landscape history which is being rejected by many in the field; it imposes a historical trajectory upon a living and working landscape which denies any sense of agency local and individual histories which are ignored in such plan analysis.

An index of the photos would have been useful for reference. Also, there are no details within the captions about when the photograph was taken, at what time of the day and season, and by whom. For anyone with a serious interest not only in the archaeology but in the technique of aerial photography, these details are essential. Again, this underlines the point that this is a illustrative rather than an analytical account.

If there are problems with the historical weighting of the book, and the interpretations placed upon the sites revealed in these photographs, perhaps this is of little consequence considering the market for which it is intended. Whilst current landscape archaeologists might be frustrated by another text which prioritises an 'aerial view' of the landscape which no-one ever saw in the past, there are other books which are beginning to respond, through narrative and representation, in more embodied understandings of such landscapes. At 19.99, this is a book aimed at the local amateur rather than an academic, but many of the plates can still elicit wonder from the most experienced archaeological photographer.

Melanie Giles is a PhD student at Sheffield University's Archaeology Research School. Her research interests include inhabited landscapes of the Iron Age and prehistoric ceramics.

Melanie Giles 1997


assemblage 1997