Books : reviews

Bryony Coles, John Coles.
Sweet Track to Glastonbury: the Somerset Levels in prehistory.
Thames and Hudson. 1986

The Somerset Levels are one of Britain’s best-known areas of wetland, where the extraordinary preservative qualities of the peat have embalmed ancient trackways and lost villages for thousands of years. Excavating in the Levels for the past two decades, Bryony and John Coles have unearthed the world’s ‘oldest road’, the Neolithic Sweet Track. Their researches in the famous Iron Age settlements of Glastonbury and Meare have given us the clearest picture so far available of late prehistoric British life, its house-building, crafts and industries. Here is a full account of their work, perhaps the most detailed study ever attempted of ancient man’s impact upon the landscape.

Bryony Coles, John Coles.
People of the Wetlands: bogs, bodies and lake-dwellers.
Thames and Hudson. 1989

The world’s wetlands are unique environments: from inland bogs and lakes to coastal marshes they are rich not just in wildlife, but human life and history as well. For thousands of years the wetlands, through their extraordinary preservative qualities, have kept intact ancient remains that would have perished on dry land, such as the bodies of unwary travellers trapped in the bog, or prehistoric trackways and whole villages. But now these landscapes are under serious threat from drainage and peat-cutting. This timely book is the first to describe for the general reader the extraordinary archaeological wealth of the wetlands worldwide – and just how much we stand to lose if this heritage is destroyed.

People of the Wetlands tells the story from the discovery of the first bog bodies and lake-dwellings more than a century ago to today’s scientific excavations, chiefly in Europe and North America, but increasingly all round the world. The mystery of the bog bodies is fully explored: some individuals met an accidental death, but how many – like Lindow Man, recently unearthed in England – were murdered or sacrificed? Fully discussed too are the revolutionary results of the new tree-ring chronology, which allows prehistoric wetland villages to be dated with a precision once reserved for ancient Egypt or Rome. But wetland archaeology excels above all in revealing details about ancient life: how early farmers wore straw sandals and enjoyed birch-bark chewing gum, how they adorned their houses with patterned textiles, and how they erected wooden god-dollies beside their roadways to ward off evil spirits.

Bryony Coles.
Beavers in Britain's Past.
Oxbow. 2006

Part ecology, part archaeology and part history, Beavers in Britain’s Past explores the evidence for Castor fiber, the European beaver, from late in the last ice age to the time of its extinction from Britain’s native fauna.

The first chapters introduce the beaver and its habitats in western Europe, where it is now flourishing. Beavers arc a keystone ecological species, modifying their waterside surroundings to the incidental benefit of many other species, both plant and animal, including humans. Based on original field survey carried out in Brittany and southeastern France by Coles and a team from the University of Exeter, the characteristic structures and features of three contrasting beaver territories are documented and analysed, with a view to identifying beaver activity in the archaeological record.

The book then focuses on the archaeological and historical record, from the return of beavers after the severe cold of the last glaciation through 13000 years of living alongside humans, to their disappearance from the record. Using the field survey results, Coles identifies beaver influence at a number of well-known wetland sites of prehistoric date, and explores the evidence for human exploitation of beavers, which becomes increasingly diverse through time. In the post-Roman period the range of beaver-related material expands to include place-names, carvings and illuminated manuscripts, written records and oral traditions. Analysing the late evidence in the light of the field survey data and increasing knowledge of the behaviour of European beavers, Coles argues that in Britain beavers vanished from human perception but did not become extinct until the later second millennium AD.

Beavers in Britain’s Past provides a new perspective on the archaeology and history of Britain and demonstrates the significance of beavers to the environment of Britain.