British and Irish Prehistory in their European Context

Researcher: Professor Colin Haselgrove

This five-year project, involving the Universities of Leicester and Reading, and funded by the Leverhulme Trust, aims to reassess the relationship between Britain and Ireland and the near Continent from c. 5000 BC to the beginning of the Roman era, drawing particularly on the results of recent development-led excavations. It also aims to evaluate the ways in which differing research traditions, legislative frameworks and fieldwork techniques within the study region influence our understanding of prehistory.

British late prehistoric sites from developer-led excavations
Figure 1: Later prehistoric sites excavated as part of development-led projects in Britain over the past two decades (data courtesy of Tim Philips, University of Reading)

Background and scope of the project

Britain and Ireland are islands with ready access to the Continent. For many years prehistorians attempted to date the artefacts and monuments in these two islands by comparing them with their equivalents on the mainland, but with the development of radiocarbon dating this approach largely lapsed. That tendency was reinforced by the rise of 'post-processual' archaeology, with its emphasis on the local and the contingent, and on the internal workings of individual communities.

Ironically, there is now a danger of viewing the evidence at too small a scale and of stressing local insularity over long-distance connections in a way that reflects the politics of the recent past more than the realities of prehistoric life (Haselgrove and Moore 2007).

At the same time, there has been a massive increase in excavations undertaken under the Valletta (Malta) Convention in Britain, Ireland and the countries of the near Continent. The sheer scale of this activity means that it has recorded ancient settlements and landscapes in a way that had rarely happened until recently.

However, in some parts of the region at least, many excavations have not come to full publication and much of the evidence remains buried in national or regional archives. The greatly increased volume of research has thus not produced a proportionate increase in our knowledge of the past. Because much Malta-related work is little disseminated, researchers now find themselves discussing British and Irish prehistory and its Continental background on the basis of published sources which are often seriously out of date.

Late prehistoric sites from developer-led excavations in Belgium, Luxembourg and Netherlands
Figure 2: Later prehistoric sites excavated as part of development-led projects in Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands between 1997-2008

The current project will address this problem. The primary research method will be consultation of unpublished reports ('grey literature') held by organisations and archives across a region encompassing northern France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, north-western Germany and western Denmark. In this respect, the work complements an earlier project which used a systematic survey of grey literature as the basis for a new synthesis of British and Irish prehistory (Bradley 2007). However, it should be stressed that the current project is not intended to provide a comparable synthesis of Continental European prehistory per se, but rather to contextualise the prehistory of Britain and Ireland.

Bradley's earlier work on insular prehistory suggested that a significant amount of the variation in the available data arises from different administrative and technical practices in modern archaeological fieldwork, rather than human behaviour in the past (Bradley 2007). It will also be important to investigate these issues during the current project. This dimension is particularly crucial given recent and ongoing changes in legislation and codes of practice in different countries within the region.

Project outcomes

The main product of the project will be a monograph authored by the project team, to be published by Oxford University Press. A database of prehistoric sites excavated since 1998 within the study region has also been compiled, and this will be made available via the internet at the completion of the project, as a resource for other researchers.

A 'round table' seminar was held in Leicester in November 2009 to discuss the various legal frameworks and field practices across northwest Europe. This involved archaeologists involved in the various dimensions of development-led archaeology (commercial units, national bodies, controlling agencies, academics) from countries within the study region. The proceedings of the meeting have now been published (Webley et al. 2012).

Contacting the project team

We are open to dialogue with any researchers interested in the issues explored by this project, and would be particularly pleased to hear from Continental colleagues involved in ongoing or recent fieldwork. Please contact one of the members of the project team below.

 

References

Bradley R. 2007. The Prehistory of Britain and Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Haselgrove C, Moore T (eds). 2007. The later Iron Age in Britain and beyond. Oxford: Oxbow.

Bradley R., Haselgrove C., Vander Linden M. & Webley L., 2010. British and Irish prehistory in their European context: a research project. Lunula. Archaeologia Protohistorica 18: 13-15.

Vander Linden M. & Bradley, R. in press (2011). Identification et définition du premier Néolithique dans les îles Britanniques: nouvelles données. Revue Archéologique de Picardie vol. 3-4.

Webley, L., Vander Linden, M., Haselgrove, C. & Bradley, R. (eds.) 2012. Development-led Archaeology in Northwest Europe. Oxford: Oxbow.

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