Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.03.02 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.03.02

Francesco Menotti, Wetland Archaeology and Beyond: Theory and Practice.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. xvi, 544.  ISBN 9780199571017.  $185.00.  

Reviewed by Catalin Pavel, Kennesaw State University (


In the past couple of decades wetland archaeology has been critiqued (from Tilley (1991) to Noort and O’Sullivan (2006), compare with the present volume’s chapters 1 and 91) for being empirical and descriptive, functionalist and environmental-deterministic, reluctant to engage with theory and (especially in Britain) for being isolated from other branches of archaeology, despite its interdisciplinary character. Such perceived shortcomings (often and quite unjustly illustrated by a 1989 book by B. and J. M. Coles, People of the Wetlands, Thames and Hudson) detract from the discipline’s unique ability to produce what Menotti calls “high resolution archaeological data” (p. 362). Halfway between the descriptive richness of the People of the Wetlands and the more theoretical booklet by Noort and O’Sullivan, Menotti’s lucid approach both showcases the strengths of wetland archaeology and addresses its weaknesses. The volume covers the archaeology of coastal, lacustrine and riverine/estuarine sites across the world, from prehistory to the Middle Ages examining their evidence for economic and ritual activities, communication, trade and social interaction throughout the Holocene.

The remarkable preservation of organic remains in wetland sites (for example, plant, wood, skin, invertebrates) is due to cumulative factors, primarily the absence of oxygen and the presence of anti-microbial substances such as the polysaccharide sphagnan in the sphagnum moss (198). Not only do wetland sites yield artifacts not preserved in dryland sites, but they also give clues to the interpretation of the non-organic remains of composite artifacts (176; also see the net sinker from Lake Biel (Switzerland), made of small pebbles wrapped and tied with bark, or the wooden sickle with flint blades from Fiavé, Italy). Chapters 2 and 4, the largest and the most impressive chapters, represent an up-to-date, magisterial overview of wetland finds, sampling information from sites on all continents. Chapter 2 starts off in the European Mesolithic, represented among others by sites on the German coast of the Baltic Sea, in the Masurian Lakeland in Poland, and in England (Star Carr’s “famous perforated skull” of a deer (37) is in fact at least 20 skulls). The Neolithization of the Circum-Alpine region (about which Menotti is particularly knowledgeable) is illustrated by multi-occupation sites, such as ZH-Mozartstrasse (Lake Zurich). The overview covers all periods to the Middle Ages. Asia’s first wetland remains are those of brushwood huts at Ohalo, in the Sea of Galilee, 23,000 BP. Here again Menotti is directing a spectacular wetland site parade: in Russia, a site in the Shigirsky Moor (8th mil. BCE ) yielded a 5.3 m wooden idol, sites in China answer questions about the first domestication of rice or the cultivation of silk worms, while in Japan, shell middens (such as Torihama) and the spectacular coffer dam excavations from Awazu shed light on the Jomon period. Further afield, in Oceania, Australian wetlands produced the oldest human cremation in the world at Lake Mungo. From the Canadian site L’Anse aux Meadows, a Viking site in Newfoundland/Terre Neuve, comes the oldest evidence of European settlements in the New World. In the US a majority of sites are found in Florida, such as the mortuary pond Windover (5,400 BCE), while the northwest coast boasts the “Pompeii-like” site Ozette (89.) Mayan rock alignments near Makabil, in the Yucatán peninsula and Monte Verde in Chile are among the rare wetland sites in Central and South America. A few sites are attested in Africa, including the Dufuna canoe from Nigeria (5,500 BCE). Menotti also mentions contemporary pile-dwellings on Lake Nokoué, Benin (misspelled Naboue on the map). Chapter 3 discusses a cluster of issues such as resource potential and adaptability, population ecology, and migration, and speaks against environmental determinism – it is the “landscape learning process” and the “flexibility of sociocultural adjustments that determines success or failure in settling new environments” (101). A case study on red deer overexploitation in the Lake Zurich region follows (111-115). In Chapter 4 Menotti considers evidence from many of the sites presented in chapter 2 in light of settlement, transportation, trade and other factors. Menotti discusses houses in wetland settlements from Biskupin to New Zealand, with an enchanting presentation of wood construction techniques of Circum-Alpine houses (132-139) and of Irish/Scottish crannogs, artificial islands with retaining walls built for habitation (143-144). A section on trackways (163-168) was to be expected (1300 toghers in Ireland alone!), and, while probably over-emphasizing their functional importance, Menotti also puts forward interesting hypotheses: “the numerous repairs of trackways, as well as some peculiarly marked planks obtained from the same trees but found 40km apart [in the Lengener Moor] suggest a regional service responsible for the construction and maintenance” (168). Menotti reconstructs the life of wetland settlements from their material culture, from water transportation (100 canoes dated 5,000 to 500 cal BP in Florida’s “canoe cemetery”, Lake Newnans, here (p.171 misspelled Newmans) and fishing utensils (Maori fish hooks made of human bone) to the countless uses of birch bark (mending pottery, wrapping axe handles.), to musical instruments (e.g. panflutes), to basketry and cordage, hats made of bast (woody fiber), and insole moss pads (“with therapeutic properties”). Sacred practices are illustrated by deposits of wheels, weapons, boats, or tools. Mortuary practices in the wetlands are perhaps best documented in the US. The so-called “bog bodies” in Europe in turn have nothing to do with funerary practices. A surprisingly short discussion (two pages and two photos) of this phenomenon concludes the chapter. Questions raised by Menotti concern mainly palaeopathologies (the Yde girl, the Zweeloo Woman, the Grauballe Man). Interpretations of these bodies might go way beyond accident, punishment, or human sacrifice, and Menotti invokes the case of the two individuals reburied under the floor of the Cladh Hallan BA house in Scotland: both bodies had been dug up from the bogs when they were already 300-500 year old, and were made up of remains of 5 different individuals.

Chapter 5 is dedicated to field methods, to the extent to which they differ from dryland archaeology, whether it is aboutthe inadequacy of conventional geophysics, such as ground-penetrating radar, to waterlogged artifacts; the recording problems when the peat surface fluctuates up to 10 cm in a few days; or the need for wellpoint dewatering techniques on flooded sites (which may have to be reflooded during the night). The removal of sediment with pressurized water, cofferdam (caisson) techniques, and, for underwater lacustrine marl matrixes, water-jet pipe excavation are discussed. A section deals with preservation issues, among others anti-erosion measures, e.g., laying geotextiles reinforced with wire-mesh on the lake bottom with anthropogenic layers. The conservation of quickly warping objects is key: waterlogged wood eventually becomes a lignin framework filled with water, which must be replaced by conservators with a consolidant (polyethylene glycol (PEG) or a sucrose solution) and subjected to freeze drying or supercritical drying. Chapter 6 deals with the multidisciplinary structure of wetland archaeology, focusing on archaeobotany, archaeozoology (with ancient DNA studies related to both) and geoarchaeology. Archaeoentomology is still underdeveloped, with palaeo-parasite studies on coprolites making progress (see also photo 6.3 of human louse found between the teeth of a Roman comb). Here and elsewhere in the volume Menotti emphasizes the importance of a carefully designed sampling policy. Fine mesh (< 0.5mm) sieving goes without saying so that, Menotti adds tantalizingly, opium poppy seeds are not missed, and a photo (6.1) of a modern seed is shown.2 Insights from experimental archaeology are presented in Chapter 7 (reconstructed pile-dwellings on Lake Chalain). Chapter 8 is a plea for placing wetland sites in the wider context of whole regional landscapes, or in fact “taskscapes”, seeing how they are “encultured” (these two terms can be traced back to T. Ingold and C. Tilley, respectively) by means of wooden trackways and other activities which mold social identities.

Wetland sites are destroyed every day by peat extraction for fuel and by the lowering of groundwater tables. Chapter 9 focuses on wetland cultural heritage and harbors no illusions: “it is important to realize that preservation of historical environment is not about preventing change [by development], but managing it.” (338). Outreach is improving, although at the cost of simplification: museum exhibitions, instead of transporting people to the past, often “import a distorted past into the present” (339), and quality popularization book are rare. Menotti’s admiration for Japan’s model of cultural heritage management is apparent here again, see also 74-5: “should be an example for all of us to follow”.

Throughout this volume, Menotti discusses major questions, such as why there is no evidence for funerary practices in the Circum-Alpine region, or whether Neolithization was an unavoidable process. At other times he only points out interesting situations without attempting an explanation and the reader is left wondering why the Bronze Age Italian terramare (the “tells” in the Po plain) declined after five centuries of occupation, or why lake dwelling sites disappeared from the Circum-Alpine region after 3,500 years. One might wish that evidence for art had received a separate section, rather than being scattered throughout the volume (for example, the Key Marco masks, the Ozette wooden whale fin with otter teeth and, across the Atlantic, the man and woman on the trackway XLII at Wittemoor andthe ornamented heart shaped paddles from Tybrind Vig). Menotti resorts to ethnographic analogies to interpret some of the artifacts (288-9), and whether or not a particular trapezoidal wooden structure from Lake Zug can be explained by contemporary Cambodian fishing methods, ethnographic examples can certainly help interpretation in other cases (dugouts filled with rocks and sunk in winter “to prevent warping”, dugouts with fireplaces on them “to provide heat and light for night spearing of eels”).

Appendixes are substantial, half as long as the text itself. There is an index with the sites most often mentioned; an excellent 90-page bibliography, of which half is publications post-2000, and as much as 15% are titles in languages other than English, and a short glossary (but from the book’s first few pages one runs into words which could have also been included in this glossary, such as morainic, cladistics, wiggle matching). The more than 30 maps are unfortunately gray satellite maps with no modern state borders added and no other names than those of the sites referenced in the text.

To conclude: Menotti reviews the contribution of wetland archaeology to our knowledge of past societies (Mesolithic to Middle Ages) and strives for a good balance between description of the material culture and new theoretical approaches. However, compared to the material culture overviews from chapter 2 and 4, which are real tours de force, the more theoretical chapters appear less savvy. The full integration of theoretical with empirical approaches, advocated by Menotti and others, has not been fully achieved yet in wetland archaeology.3 Also, Menotti’s critique of the processual character of wetland archaeology is occasionally at odds with his own confidence that advancing computer technology will eventually be able “to simulate reliable accounts of past ways of living” (318). This high quality volume however is the perfect way to get one’s feet wet with wetland archaeology.


1.   Tilley, C. (1991), review of B. and J. M. Coles [1989], Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 56: 214–15; Van de Noort, R. and O'Sullivan, A. (2006), Rethinking wetland archaeology, Duckworth.
2.   While not as often as implied, opium poppy seeds (for cultivation) are indeed found in wetlands since the early Neolithic, cf. the site of La Marmotta in Lake Bracciano, Merlin, M.D. (2003), “Archaeological evidence for the tradition of psychoactive plant use in the old world”, Economic Botany 57(3), 2003, 295–323.
3.   E.g., the section entitled “methodology” of the otherwise remarkable Lillie, M. and Ellis, S. (2007), Wetland archaeology and environments, Oxford 2007 (143-245) still deals with “what has been found”, rather than with “why and how has this been looked for”.

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