ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 46, July 1999


Catastrophes, tree-rings and climate

by Andrew Sherratt

Mike Baillie
Batsford, £19.99
ISBN 0-7134-8352-0 hb

As tree-ring sequences accumulate from different parts of the world, it should become possible to discern `signal' from `noise': to identify patterns which are consistent across large areas, rather than just describing local ups and downs. Dendrochronology could thus move towards dendroclimatology.

One sort of signal which it is tempting to search for in such a record are traces of regionally or globally synchronous climatic events resulting from the impact of extraterrestrial bodies such as meteorites or planetesimals. The importance of such phenomena has been increasingly recognised since Luis Alvarez's hypothesis that the Cretaceous Period came to a dramatic close some 65 million years ago as the result of such a major impact. It is now known that an asteroid some six miles across landed on the Yucatan peninsula, where an explosion equivalent to 10,000 times the energy of detonating the world's entire nuclear arsenal left a crater 180 miles across and wiped out a major portion of the life of the planet in an `impact winter' and subsequent greenhouse effect.

If this seems a long time ago, then remember that in 1908 an impact equivalent to a ten-megaton explosion left a 1.2km crater in Tunguska (Siberia), and that events of this magnitude probably occur with a frequency of between once a century and once a millennium. Worth searching for in the tree-rings.

Mike Baillie is a leading dendrocatastrophist who believes he had found them. There are certainly some dramatic and widespread anomalies in tree-ring thicknesses, though many may be associated with volcanic eruptions rather than impacts. Sadly, the hard evidence does not yet make a story. Undeterred, Baillie recruits an amazing mixture of historical records for various kinds of unusual phenomena and their associated mythologies, in a way which goes far beyond any credibility as serious science.

`Mercy on us,' wrote Horace Walpole, on surveying the second volume of Archae-ologia in 1771, `what a cartload of bricks and ruins and Roman rubbish they have piled together!' It is tempting to echo the judgement; but a serious idea still awaits investigation.

Dr Andrew Sherratt works at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford

The why, who and how of past migration

by Heinrich Härke

J Chapmen and H Hamerow (eds)
BAR, £19.00
ISBN 0-86054-857-0 pb

After some two decades of neglect, migrations have again become a hot topic in British archaeology. But the questions have changed. Up to the 1960s, archaeologists wondered which tribes moved from where to where. Today, apart from being sceptical as to the frequency and scale of migrations in the past, they want to know: what exactly happens in migrations? Which sectors of society emigrate? How do immigrants and natives interact? What are the social changes caused by migrations? And why have our own ideas on past migrations fluctuated over time?

This new outlook is reflected in this volume which is the outcome of a 1993 conference session. The emphasis is on anthropological, sociological and linguistic approaches to migrations, not on archae-ological case studies. Migrations are identified as complex social processes which frequently have an impact on language patterns. It also emerges, however, that their impact on material culture is less easily identifiable.

Like many books in the BAR series, this volume bears the hallmarks of hasty and cheap production, but the contents hang together well - with the exception of the biggest contribution, a case study which was added after the conference and ignores the key points of the volume. Not everything in this book is brand new, but it is a useful collection of some of the stimulating ideas emerging from the current debate, and as such, it may help to stem the tide of anti-migrationism.

If that tide continues to rise, we may, in a few years, have a situation in which ambitious postgraduate students will argue in conference papers that the first humans in the British Isles were not immigrants, but symbolically transformed, indigenous reindeer. The book looks at some of the factors creating this curious academic trend of `immobilism', but it does not discuss if it might be partly a consequence of the recent British (English?) identity crisis. Perhaps that's a topic for the next book or conference session.

Dr Heinrich Härke is a specialist in the migration period at Reading University

A geographer's review of landscapes

by Tom Williamson

Richard Muir
MacMillan, £14.99
ISBN 0-333-69393-0 pb

Richard Muir's name will be well known to landscape archaeologists. His books, such as Reading the Landscape, have provided an excellent introduction to the subject for many `middle brow' readers. Muir is by training a geographer, however, and many of his more academic publications have actually been in the field of political geography. In this wide-ranging text, Muir brings together his diverse range of interests and attempts `to identify and explore the different approaches to landscape' rather than to provide any new theory, `or even champion a particular approach'.

Beginning with an examination of the development of the concept of `landscape', concise chapters go on to discuss landscape history, geomorphology, `Landscapes of Politics and Power', landscape evaluation, `Symbolic Landscapes' and aesthetic approaches. The book provides an admirable resumé of varied perspectives, and offers an excellent introduction to some material (especially by German and American geographers) perhaps unfamiliar to many British archaeologists. The views of key figures - Barrel, Cosgrove, Daniels, Lowenthal - are presented in Muir's reassuringly accessible style.

But this is not simply a summary of diverse schools of thought - some judicious criticisms are made. The general `southern England' bias of the Hoskins school (a Muir favourite, this) thus comes in for some stick. This is not a book primarily about archaeology, and to the archaeological reader some omissions may seem surprising. There is, in particular, very little discussion of the approaches of prehistorians like John Barrett or Chris Tilley: love it or loath it, his Phenomenology of Landscape is an important book which should have got a mention.

Muir's is a broad canvas and there are times when the book seems to lose its focus: perhaps that is the nature of the subject, for many of the approaches to the subject of landscape are so diverse that any serious rapprochement may be impossible.

Dr Tom Williamson is a Lecturer in Landscape Archaeology at the University of East Anglia

Comprehensive textbook on the Vikings

by Stephen Driscoll

James Graham-Campbell and Colleen Batey
Edinburgh, £14.95
ISBN 07486-0863-X pb

This comprehensive synthesis of contemporary Viking studies is welcome. It has an importance far beyond Scotland, because almost all of the Viking archaeology in Britain is found in Scotland. The most recent overview was Barbara Crawford's Scandinavian Scotland (1987), which covers much the same ground, but focuses more on historical evidence. Graham-Campbell and Batey focus much more closely on material evidence.

The last attempts to survey the material remains were made over 30 years ago and, here as elsewhere, a lot has happened both in artefact studies and fieldwork. One of the strengths of the book is the balance which the authors bring. Prof Graham-Campbell's expertise in artefacts is complemented by Dr Batey's experience as a fieldworker with a special interest in settle-ment studies and environmental research.

This book seeks to cover all aspects of the Viking Age. It begins with the cultural and historical background in Norway, and then surveys the evidence in three regions of Scotland - North, West and South - where the impact of the Norse was distinct. Norse graves are amongst the most spectacular in Britain and the main discoveries are described individually within a general interpretation. The settlement evidence is broken down chronologically to allow the early period (800-1050) to be contrasted with the late (1050-1200).

The past 25 years have seen huge growth in environmental studies, exploiting remarkable preservation conditions created by shell-sand and waterlogging. This allows detailed reconstructions of the agricultural practices of the Vikings, complemented here by a survey of the economic evidence provided by finds of gold and silver.

The book concludes with an assessment of the political developments of the late Norse period, which saw the emergence of a powerful regional lordship based in Orkney. These developments are as important for literature as for history as they create the context for the saga tradition.

Dr Stephen Driscoll teaches early medieval archaeology at the University of Glasgow

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