Niall Brady

title.none: Laing, Archaeology of Celtic Britain (Niall Brady)

identifier.other: baj9928.0711.011 07.11.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Niall Brady, The Discovery Programme,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Laing, Lloyd. The Archaeology of Celtic Britain and Ireland, c. AD 400-1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. xiv, 406. $99.00 0-521-83862-2. ISBN: $50.00 0-521-54740-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.11.11

Laing, Lloyd. The Archaeology of Celtic Britain and Ireland, c. AD 400-1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. xiv, 406. $99.00 0-521-83862-2. ISBN: $50.00 0-521-54740-7.

Reviewed by:

Niall Brady
The Discovery Programme

In presenting a survey of the lands currently occupied by Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Wales, and Cornwall between the period c. 400-1200 AD, Lloyd Laing has taken the opportunity to produce a second edition of his Archaeology of late Celtic Britain and Ireland (1975). It is a fascinating subject area, and Laing tries to assemble the essential cultural information that distinguishes those parts of the islands of Ireland and Britain in which direct Roman dominance and subsequent Anglo-Saxon settlement was absent. The book is arranged into fourteen primary chapters, the first nine of which are organized by subject matter (the Celtic World; Settlements; Farming; Everyday Objects and Equipment; Industry and Technology; Trade and Communications; Clothes and Jewellery; Art and Ornament; the Church). The last four main chapters (249-329) take a regional focus and look at Wales; Ireland and the Isle of Man; Southern Scotland and Northern England; and Northern Scotland respectively. A short Epilogue is followed by three Appendices (groups of people mentioned; brief biographies of some important people mentioned; and a comment on date brackets). The volume is completed with sections on notes, further reading, references and two indices.

It is always welcome when somebody examines a geographic area from "underneath," as it were. Instead of tackling the subject matter of early medieval Britain and Ireland from the perspective of the dominant forces of Anglo-Saxons and then Vikings, Laing tries to elicit strands of commonality among the peoples over whom the Anglo- Saxons did not exert direct authority, and who have come to be considered in popular tradition as sharing a common "Celtic" heritage. This is not an easy task, and readers will quickly appreciate how "independent" each of the Celtic groups appear to have been. It is perhaps poignant that the first map showing archaeological indicators which are common to the larger study area does not appear until page 137, and that is of glass vessels imported from continental Europe. Indeed, when one considers the evidence for commonality, the unity is in what is not readily visible. It appears that prior to the seventh century, we can expect a wide range of interaction and exchange. However, from the 600s onwards, just when there begins to be substantial material culture surviving, we tend to see each region with its own distinct assemblage, and the interconnections are difficult to distinguish. If crannogs are a feature of Scotland and Ireland, they are not evident in numbers elsewhere, while the ringfort is a unique settlement to Ireland. Irish scholars might also disagree with Laing's opinion that the ringfort is a derivative subgroup of the hillfort (32).

Readers hoping for something new in terms of insight to the economy will not find it. Perhaps it is too specialized an area, and Laing makes no claims to be its master, but Chapter 3 (Farming) is perhaps the weakest in the volume. The descriptive mode does not take account of the more current thinking on such matters, and Laing ignores the role of urban and proto-urban sites and the Church. Instead, there is a reaffirmation of concepts that limit the possibilities to that of a subsistence economic paradigm right across the study area. This was hardly the case in Ireland, and one wonders about Southern Scotland/Northern England. Laing does not use the opportunity of Chapter 6 (Trade and Communications) to redress this issue, and nor does he explore the dynamic which the Irish Sea provided in connecting the various regions.

Laing is more confident when dealing with what he knows well; art, ornament, and prestige objects. He has included a series of very useful summary statements and line-drawings that describe the principal object types and subtypes. Perhaps he could have considered more directly the sense to which there was interaction with the Anglo- Saxon world; the uninitiated would be forgiven to think there was little or no monumental stonework from Anglo-Saxon England, which of course is not the case.

There is a lot in this study, and it is well worth reading. If a book's title should somehow anticipate the contents, then in this instance Laing should have reversed the order of the islands, since the vast bulk of his examples come from Ireland. This cannot simply be ignored or explained away as a special pattern of survival that nevertheless represents the patterns in the wider and source-poor regions of the study area. Perhaps it suggests the basis for an absence of cultural unity. Readers will decide for themselves. They will not find too many typographic errors in this book, and indeed will be pleased to work with an easy narrative style.