Monday, July 30, 2007

Reference Book of the Week

Today's pick: The Iron Age in Northern Britain: Celts and Romans, Natives and Invaders, by D. W. Harding, professor of archaeology at the University of Edinburgh. First published in 2004 by Routledge.

A bit expensive at $49.95 for 368 pages, but still very good value. Copiously illustrated with black and white photographs - many of them excellent aerial shots taken by the author - and line drawings. Plenty of maps, too. Again, this is a university-level textbook, not a coffee-table book. As the subtitle makes clear, this book covers a longer period than is usually implied by the term "Iron Age" in southern Britain, generally terminated with the Roman Conquest in 43 AD. In contrast the northern British Iron Age continued from the mid-first millennium BC to the period of Norse settlement in the late-first millennium AD.

A distillation of the author's fifty years' involvement with British Archaeology, in locations ranging from Wessex to the Outer Hebrides, this is not light reading, but the insights and clearly expressed explanations of how archaeology works make the persistence needed to get through the volume worthwhile. He is also good at pointing out the weaknesses of various received theories, as for example his closing comments about the Picts: "Differences between the Pictish language and the Gallo-Brittonic of the Votadini to the south should not be magnified into a major linguistic and cultural watershed on account of a relatively short-lived political anomaly of the mid-second century AD ... older elements in topographical names could doubtless be detected elsewhere without fundamentally undermining our perception of the native communities of Iron Age Britain. The demise of the Picts and Pictish language by the tenth century ... might occasion less surprise if the assumed archaeological associations of the Picts were examined more rigorously in the first place." Highly recommended.

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