B.T. Batsford / English Heritage: London, 1997. ISBN: 0 7134 7589 7.
Review by Rowan May.
This book, part of the English Heritage/Batsford Landscapes series, is a timely addition to the collection of literature pertaining to the Dartmoor National Park. It is the first really comprehensive and up-to-date attempt to bring together the features and remains, from all periods of Dartmoor's prehistory and history, into a single volume. Previously in the Batsford series, Andrew Fleming's book on the Dartmoor Reaves (1988), which provided a useful insight into the sites and landscapes of the Bronze Age in this area, was really one of the few recent works, accessible both to archaeologists and the wider public, to deal with Dartmoor on a theoretical level. Gerrard's book takes on an enormous task, both in looking at the area from the Palaeolithic to the post-medieval period and in seeking to present the field remains in a fashion, "which makes sense to other archaeologists and interested visitors alike" (p. 21).
The format of the book follows the standard chronological pattern, with a final chapter examining the effects of the palimpsest of features that has built up over time. The chronological layout is the simplest means of displaying the changes through time, although Gerrard has a tendency to treat each period as though there were actual breaks between them. In the preface the author discusses the multiplicity of interpretations of and theories about the landscapes of the past, mentioning that "I consider it refreshing to know that future discoveries and attitudes will inevitably lead us all to re-examine our own ideas about the landscape and the way in which it has evolved" (p. 10). This is in itself a refreshing admission for a book geared towards a popular market, where indicating the non-static nature of archaeological interpretation is all too rare. The emphasis in the preface on the human aspect of landscapes as well as the significance of the palimpsest, gives expectations of the book that later chapters do not, to a large degree, uphold.
Through the chapters of the book, Gerrard presents an informative discussion of the types of monument, sites and landscapes that can be found on Dartmoor, and the date range and function of these remains. The book is a useful field guide to these remains, giving a good picture of the nature of Dartmoor and its uses throughout the centuries, with a range of site plans, photographs and several colour reconstruction drawings by Chris Powell, including three which are particularly well-conceived, showing the changes through time within a particular village. The distribution maps of Dartmoor are equipped with useful grid reference bars to make locating and visiting the sites more simple, and this is a fine consideration. As an aid to finding and identifying sites on the moors, the book is a valuable guide. Its range, in considering the medieval and post-medieval as well as the more publicised Bronze Age remains is good, and the book considers industrial features in equal detail to the settlement sites. The descriptions of quarrying and tinworking techniques, communications and trackways, is illuminating, giving these subjects the coverage that is often reserved merely for the more 'enigmatic' sites of prehistory.
One problem with the illustrations is the predomination of aerial shots. These certainly create a spectacular sense of the landscape from the air, and provide an attractive counterpoint to the experience of sites on the ground, giving a clearer picture of the way sites link up in the wider landscape. However, there is a danger in too few photographs from the perspective of human experience, since aerial photos give no real sense of the terrain and texture of the landscape, and little real idea of how the monuments will look on the ground. This is a minor problem, but illustrates a wider attitude that permeates the book as a whole, where landscapes are viewed in general from the perspective of a surveyor.
Although Gerrard admits in his conclusion to the book that, in a study of this size, it is not possible to include everything pertaining to the landscape archaeology study of Dartmoor, it seems odd that the most significant exclusion is the human aspect. The carefully described houses, settlements, fields, burial monuments, trackways, and industrial sites are presented to a large extent divorced from the human understanding and inhabitation of these places. Thus, there is no consideration of how changes in the exploitation of resources would affect the kinds of tasks through which people formed their understanding of their identity within society. The lowlands peripheral to the moor are considered when there are no remains from a particular period within the uplands, but aspects such as the medieval hamlets and dispersed settlement on the moors are mentioned in isolation from the trends of other regions.
In this study, Dartmoor exists in a vacuum. Space may well have been limited; but to omit the details of human interaction with the landscape and the dialectics between people and places is to miss the main emphasis of landscape archaeology. In Gerrard's study, the principles of the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments in England (RCHME) surveys are evident. Landscape is understood as the purely physical remnant of human occupations, to be typologised and interpreted. There is no real appreciation here of the role of landscape in the lives and identities of the human beings who live in it and through it.
This apart, the book is a valuable introduction to the variety of monuments and landscapes of Dartmoor's past and present, giving a comprehensive guide to finding and identifying archaeological remains in the field. It stresses the similarity and problems of interpretation of many forms, such as round houses, ring cairns and sheilings. Gerrard's book is useful in orientating the reader within the Dartmoor palimpsest, but ultimately, its lack of the human factor gives it a hollowness which the attractive illustrations cannot conceal. Gerrard's stance is perhaps summed up through his own comment on the stone rows of Dartmoor:
"Enigmatic they still remain, though science may one day put to rest our vivid imaginations and reduce flamboyant theories to cold facts" (p. 36).
Fleming, A. 1988. The Dartmoor Reaves: Investigating Prehistoric Land Divisions. London: Batsford.
Rowan May recently completed the M.A. in Landscape Archaeology at Sheffield University and is currently 'looking for work'. Her interests include archaeology of all periods, although she is becoming especially interested in later medieval to post-medieval societies and landscapes. When not engaged in archaeological pursuits, she indulges her passions for 'sci-fi' and Sheffield Wednesday.
© Rowan May 1997
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