16.02.33, Owen-Crocker and Thompson, eds., Towns and Topography

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Oliver Creighton

The Medieval Review 16.02.33

Owen-Crocker, Gale R., and Susan D. Thompson, eds. Towns and Topography: Essays in Memory of David Hill. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2014. pp. 196. ISBN: 978-1-78297-702-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Oliver Creighton
University of Exeter

This handsomely presented new edited collection of essays is a tribute to the late David Hill, the Anglo-Saxon archaeologist celebrated for his excavations and writing on early medieval towns, for his great Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England, and for his fieldwork on the dykes of the Welsh Marches. Many of the papers were presented at a two-day symposium held in Manchester in 2012, although they amount to much more than an obligatory volume of conference proceedings. Eighteen varied papers highlight the fruitfulness of dialogue between archaeology and documentary history and supply a rich mix of new data and thinking on burhs, towns, trade, and mints; on territoriality, boundaries, and the linear earthworks of early medieval kingdoms; and on Anglo-Saxon agriculture, fields, settlements, and landscape. The large hardback format of the book, with plentiful use of colour, is also attractive: the arresting cover illustration of Anglo-Saxon Canterbury--showing a concourse of men, women, and animals living, working, and moving around a townscape--emphasises from the off the critical importance of peopling medieval topographies.

David Hill worked for much of his career in the Department of Extra-Mural Studies at Manchester University and many contributors remember him as an exuberant and passionate educator with a particular zeal for engaging adult students in field-based research. That several of his past students are also contributors to the volume provides a reminder of how in the UK extra-mural education acted as an incubator of great archaeology and imaginative archaeologists--long before the fashion for "community archaeology."

The volume comprises three parts. Part I presents a generous tribute to David Hill by Nicholas J. Higham and a catalogue of his fine body of work published between 1967 and 2011. This splits fairly evenly between material on urbanism, defence, and areas of interface between the two, including several papers dealing with the wider European scene. The wide-ranging content that comprises the bulk of the volume broadly mirrors these research interests: Part II (comprising eight papers) is centred on towns and Part III (also of eight contributions) on topography.

In terms of contributions to urban studies, Margaret Worthington Hill discusses Quentovic, in northern France, where David Hill excavated on the Frankish emporium in the late 1980s and early 90s to reveal the economy as well as the topography of a remarkable open trading centre with long-distance contacts. Two papers concern London. Damian Tyler ("Control of London in the Seventh Century") considers its transforming political status during the East Saxon to Mercian transition, while in a slightly later context, David Beard ("London: Archaeological Evidence for the Events of 886 and its Aftermath") discusses the consequences of King Alfred's occupation of London and argues against a bridge across the River Thames being an important part of the king's plans for the place. Moving to settlements at the opposite end of the early medieval urban hierarchy, Jeremy Haslam ("The Late Saxon Burhs of Somerset--A Review") reconsiders the sites of Axbridge, Ilchester, Langport, Lyng, and Watchet, reconstructing their defences and discussing how they were suspended within a highly militarised landscape. Michael Hare ("Hemming's Crosses") looks at the contexts of standing crosses in Anglo-Saxon Worcester and argues that these were, by then, considered old fashioned.

There are also a few helpful synthetic papers. Erik Grigg discusses early medieval dykes (or linear earthworks) and provides handy syntheses of names, dates, sizes, and construction times. Other contributors think about lines of contact within the landscape. Jonathan Parkhouse ("Putting Lava on the Map") investigates the distribution through trade of Mayen Lava (or Rhineland lava) quernstones in early medieval northwest Europe, while Martin Allen addresses "The Mints of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Scandinavian England, 871-1066" in masterful fashion. The complex interrelationship between landscapes and documents is the touchstone of other contributions. Gillian Fellows-Jensen ("Bursting the Bounds of the Danelaw") uses mapped representations of place-name evidence to discuss the spread of Scandinavian influence in northern and eastern England, while Alexander R. Rumble examines Anglo-Saxon boundary descriptions in an area of Somerset. Mark Atherton ("'Sudden wonder': Urban Perspectives in Late Anglo-Saxon Literature") shows how literary approaches can enrich our understanding of place and space in early medieval urban environments.

Localised studies also feature prominently. Dominic Powlesland ("Reflections upon the Anglo-Saxon Landscape and Settlement of the Vale of Pickering, Yorkshire") showcases the results of a long-term remote sensing research project and in passing deconstructs the "palimpsest" analogy beloved by landscape historians. Christopher Grocock ("'Ploughing Old Furrows Afresh'--The Importance of the Practical in the Study of the Anglo-Saxon World") takes a fresh look at the support systems behind the early monasteries of Jarrow and Monkwearmouth, while through a study of a region south of Chester, N. J. Higham draws upon landscapes of ridge and furrow to reach back to explore the ploughlands and ploughs of Domesday Book and beyond.

The final two papers deal with maps. A short contribution by Donald Scragg ("Mapping Late Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts and Documents") reflects on ways of geo-referencing aspects of books and documents. Bringing the volume to an emphatic conclusion in a detailed and splendidly illustrated paper, Simon Keynes ("Mapping the Anglo-Saxon Past") traces how map-making has influenced the perception and construction of the Anglo-Saxon past, which ends fittingly with a reflection on the enduring legacy of David Hill's Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England. That this allowed readers to explore a dimension to the Anglo-Saxon past previously hidden from view pointed the way forward for modern GIS-enabled approaches where an enlarging, not to say exploding, dataset is being viewed, presented, and interrogated in ways that could not then have been anticipated. Making and remaking maps to question the evidence as well as producing visually interesting products now, as then, is pushing the subject forward in unexpected and exciting ways. That this buoyant research direction is building on foundations laid by David Hill is an eloquent tribute to a great and sadly missed figure in early medieval scholarship.

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