Review Stuart Palmer
Leaving aside the extraordinary feats expected from the team who excavated the Bronze Age remains at Must Farm (see CA 312 and 319), later prehistoric settlement studies have, latterly, struggled to break new ground, despite many more dots on many more development-led distribution maps. Perhaps because of Must Farm, it is incumbent on students of the period to seek out those instances where the atypical will provide new, much needed, insight.
This, then, is the mise en scène in which Andy Chapman casts Coton Park – and here I should declare that I hoped to dig this site back in 1998 and have referred to it often over the last 20 years as the only complex agglomerated settlement excavated to modern standards in the West Midlands.
The report describes the chronology, development, and structural sequence with aplomb, and we learn that the site was permanently in use from the 5th to mid-2nd century BC, but with a curiously exiguous swansong in the later 1st century AD. The emphatically useful pottery chronology appears in Chapter 5, although all the comparanda is from the East Midlands.
The remarkable evidence for copper-working is counterpointed with the paucity of metalwork to the point that it remains unclear how this was ‘a major economic function of the site’; and the evidence for manufacturing three-link bridle-bits in a location where horse bones are worked is not seen as symbolic at all. The faunal assemblage is the most significant of this period from Warwickshire, but as wood charcoal was the only plant remains analysed, and no storage pits were recorded, we are left to wonder how cereal production contributed to this ‘mixed’ economy settlement.
The ‘Discussion’ section relies on a comparison with agglomerated settlement in Northamptonshire and moves rapidly on to analyse the evidence for social structure with several interesting observations regarding functional space. This includes the intriguing but tentative argument for gender-specific living and working areas, with copper- and bone-working ascribed to men and weaving and milling to women. The taphonomy of finds is discussed and compared with sites in Northamptonshire, although its conclusion remains frustratingly ambiguous. Equally frustratingly, the analysis of the many roundhouses is based on super-structural assumptions that are not explained, and walls for which there is no evidence.
It is a shame that the ‘Discussion’ does not venture into Iron Age Warwickshire or the West Midlands, despite the well-attested importance of the site to local studies, or consider the Late Iron Age and Early Roman activity on the site or the reasons for an intervening hiatus. Instead we explore how the Coton roundhouses compare to examples from Brigstock and Aldwincle in Northamptonshire and ‘An Iron Age pottery typology and chronology for the south Midlands’, although I remain unsure of its applicability for the West Midlands. Another point of interest is a model for the introduction of the rotary quern in the Middle Iron Age, which is followed by a treatise on the relationship between storage jars and rotary querns. These and other last thoughts read like accumulated ideas of a seasoned excavator shoehorned into a convenient outlet – and why not?
In general, the level of detail presented is warranted by the significance of the data, allowing plenty of scope for future researchers to consider aspects such as the significance of the linear boundary that was maintained throughout the occupation and which forms the spine of the final, disjointed, phase of activity. There is much to consider about why the site is so completely different to those excavated in the Avon Valley and the West Midlands, particularly in the absence of cultivars, the production of horse-related metalwork and, potentially, dairy herding.
This long-anticipated site report contains a lot of really useful data and will be essential reading for any student of later prehistory in the Midlands. That it required the author to retire to publish it, though, probably says more than it should about the state of commercial British archaeology.