What I’m Reading…

Fluid Pasts: archaeology of flow by Matt Edgeworth

This is a book about the archaeology of rivers. Like my previous book review,  it only has a tangential relationship to prehistory; it’s mostly a book about Medieval archaeology. Matt Edgeworth writes about the archaeological evidence for interactions with rivers. His main point is that this should not be seen as a cultural intervention on a natural phenomenon, but a human engagement with the dynamics of flow. He provides a number of fascinating accounts of how Medieval towns, such as Wallingford (Oxfordshire) or Hemington (Leicestershire), engaged with, and diverted the flow of rivers, sometimes for engineering purposes, occasionally for defence, or for subsistence – the river at Hemington contained fish traps positioned in the direction of flow of the river. Who knew that Medieval river management could be so interesting? I was gripped; this is a really concise, clearly written account.

The book has a section on the prehistory of rivers that argues that there was minimal engagement with rivers during British prehistory. I’m not sure I agree, especially when we consider the vast number of artefact deposits in rivers, think of the numbers of artefacts from the Thames from the Mesolithic to Iron Age. My point, though, is not to dispute Edgeworth’s argument – in fact he is saying something quite remarkable about how human communities interact with their environment. Flow, whether of rivers, of human movement through landscapes, of actions of working natural materials should all be regarded as processes that involve working with (not against) the environment. So the book offers some important lessons about how we should be thinking about archaeological interpretation, whatever period of the past we are interested in. A highly recommended read.

Dr A