British Archaeology, no 18, October 1996: Reviews

No decline and fall in the Roman army

by Jon Coulston

P Southern and KR Dixon
Batsford, UKP30.00
ISBN 07134-7047-X hb

This book sets out to present the Late Roman army to the `general reader' and it is the first to attempt to do so in a comprehensive manner. The huge nature of the subject, and the narrow remit allowed by Batsford, mean the book is thin in places. There are some extraordinary slips, notably that the emperor Valens (wounded by Goths and incinerated in a burning building at the Battle of Adrianople in AD378) is said to have died of `natural causes'! However, this book is justifiably optimistic about the subject, and the mistakes do not detract from its basic achievement of providing an accessible starting-point for students, and of giving Late Romanists a structure to kick against in future.

The Late Roman army has traditionally been neglected by scholars seduced by comfortable assumptions of the success, uniformity and modernity of the army in the 1st-2nd century. They recoiled from the perceived decline, barbarisation and failure of the 3rd-6th centuries. In fact, there is much to be found of institutional continuity in the late period - how could it have been otherwise for an army which included some units which maintained their titles and traditions for over 600 years?

Vibrant change, adaptation to new circumstances, and continuing success mark the history of the late army. Officers were not the dilettante gentlemen of earlier periods, but career soldiers. The unwieldy, 5,000-man legions had gone, to be progressively replaced by smaller, specialist units. A new hierarchy of formations developed (guards, mobile army, frontier troops - the latter not to be despised) to allow flexible build-up of armies and to impart new pride and ‚lan.

The old canard of `barbarisation' sapping traditional virtue does not stand close inspection. Much of what used to be thought of as `Germanic' military equipment can now be seen as material supplied by the Roman state. The Franks, Vandals, Goths and others who served at all levels did so in the main faithfully. The tapping of German manpower and warrior commitment did nothing but strengthen the empire in the 4th century and was perhaps detrimental thereafter only in the west. The Roman empire provided a framework for a rich melange of cultures, open to influence and change from within and without. The army reflected this and had always been `barbarised' in its religions, fighting skills, equipment, war-cries, and so on.

Dr Jon Coulston is a Lecturer in Ancient History and Archaeology at the University of St Andrews

Few advances in Mesolithic Scotland

by Christopher Tolan-Smith

eds A Pollard and A Morrison
Edinburgh, UKP25.00
ISBN 0-7486-0677-7 hb

Leading archaeologists gathered at Glasgow in 1994 to mark the 40th anniversary of Armand Lacaille's The Stone Age in Scotland and the centenary of his birth. The conference papers have now been published, and the editors make it clear the aim of the conference was not only to commemorate Lacaille's work but, more importantly, to assess advances made in the early prehistoric archaeology of Scotland over the previous 40 years. Judging by the papers in this volume, such advances have been limited.

Although radiocarbon dating has extended the range of the Mesolithic back to the early postglacial, evidence of a Palaeolithic prelude remains elusive and the Mesolithic still marks the beginnings of human settlement in Scotland. Mesolithic research in Scotland has remained mainly focused on the west coast and islands, and a Mesolithic presence is now established from Campbeltown to the Orkneys, and possibly in the Outer Isles as well if disruption to vegetation recognised in pollen profiles can be blamed on humans rather than natural agencies.

It has often been said that this picture of island-hopping hunter-gatherers is a distortion arising from the absence of fieldwork in the interior. Work in south-west Scotland adds support to this view, but elsewhere the challenge to explore the glens and valleys of the west and north has not been taken up. For a view of the early Stone Age archaeology of interior northern Britain readers have to refer to an innovative paper on northern England, one of several which challenge the use of `Scotland' in the title!

This rather eclectic collection of papers provides useful accounts of several current and recent research projects, but use as a work of reference would have been facilitated by an index, and the multiple bibliographies, many of which are repetitious, are a waste of space.

Dr Christopher Tolan-Smith is a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Newcastle-upon- Tyne

Photography is not just point-and-click

by Roger Thomas

Peter G Dorrell
CUP, UKP16.95
ISBN 0-521-45554-5 pb

For some 140 years, photography has been one of the most useful recording tools for archaeology. The skilled use of photographic techniques has enabled archaeologists to move the boundaries of our understanding of the past.

However, photography and archaeology have long been uneasy bedfellows. Archaeological photography is akin to forensic or medical photography, and in order to maximise the amount of information recovered, the photographer needs to have the broadest technical knowledge and a variety of types of equipment. The photographer needs to be able to handle landscapes, architecture, close-ups, and studio work, as well as having to work in often very adverse conditions. Unfortunately, however, most people who take archaeological photographs are not even trained photographers.

This book by Peter Dorrell, formerly lecturer in photography at the Institute of Archaeology in London but who sadly died recently, sets out to address this problem by providing a sensible step-by- step guide to the basic photographic skills. It discusses equipment, materials and technique, and it is pleasing to see often-neglected basic concepts discussed such as composition and use of supplementary flash.

Very few criticisms can be levelled at this book, over two-thirds of which is devoted to techniques particularly applicable to archaeological subjects, whether field or laboratory-based. Well-informed technical sections deal with a variety of subjects which are frequently shrouded in `professional mystique', including ultra-violet, infra-red, macro and photomicrography.

Roger Thomas is a Higher Photographic Officer with the English Royal Commission

All the fun and games of a good battle

by John Carman

Ken and Denise Guest
Harper Collins, UKP19.99
ISBN 0-00-470968-3 hb

Battlefields are places where issues of political legitimacy, moral authority, and religious and ideological orthodoxy were contested and decided - with flesh and blood as the currency of these conflicts. This book is structured as a guide to the sites of 56 such violent encounters in Britain, from Maldon in 991 to Culloden in 1746, including all those on the English Heritage Register of Historic Battlefields.

All but four have a colour plan of the battlefield showing troop dispositions and movements on the day of the battle, modern viewpoints and carparks, and the extent of the battlefield as shown on the register. Sadly, the lack of location maps means that the preceise site of each battle will not easily be found from this book alone; and some plans provide insufficient clues to help prospective visitors.

The authors aim, however, to do more than provide a useful guidebook. They wish instead to `convey something of the experience of battle', using a combination of text incorporating contemporary description, and photographs of modern re-enactments. The photographs, taken at events organised by English Heritage who co-sponsor the volume, dominate the book.

Re-enactments, however, are not real battles. It is all too obvious that the `medieval' encounters pictured here are really between people trying hard not to hurt each other. The musketry and gunfire shown produce only smoke, not death. In one photo from the chapter on the Battle of Towton (1461), an `undaunted' figure in pristine silver armour advances. Nothing is evident of the bitter cold, blinding snow, terror, or the fierceness and desperation of the hand-to-hand butchery of the bloodiest battle of the Wars of the Roses. Battles were never fun - a fact the authors must know from their own experience as war reporters. A book which conveys the horror that battlefields represent would be valuable, but this book is not it.

Dr John Carman is a Research Fellow in Archaeology at Clare Hall, Cambridge

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