British Archaeology, no 27, September 1997: Reviews

The tale of our ‘oldest recorded town’

by Patrick Ottaway

Philip Crummy
Colchester Arch Trust, £14.95
ISBN 1-897719-05-1 hb

Visitors to Colchester are greeted by signs proclaiming it to be ‘Britain’s Oldest Recorded Town’. This refers to Colchester’s origins as the Colonia Claudia Victricensis founded c AD47 on the site of Britain’s first legionary fortress and adjacent to one of its greatest Iron Age oppida. Another of Colchester’s claims to fame is that it was the scene of the first urban rescue excavation when, in 1930, Christopher Hawkes dug at Sheepen in advance of the bypass, thereby initiating a long and distinguished programme of archaeological investigation. Since 1972 this has been the responsibility of Philip Crummy, Director of the Colchester Archaeological Trust.

Crummy’s watch has coincided with urban redevelopment on a massive scale which has made large areas both within and immediately outside the walled town available for excavation. We now have one of the most complete pictures of a Roman town anywhere in Britain, and Crummy reviews all the great discoveries including the recently revealed Iron Age burials at Stanway complete with a unique gaming board, the site of the legionary fortress, the colonia buildings converted from barracks, the Boudiccan burning layers, and the Late Roman cemeteries and church at Butt Road. Unaccountably, Colchester was overlooked by the Batsford/ English Heritage series of popular archaeology books (many of them on much less interesting places), but this gave Crummy the opportunity to design and produce the book himself with a full-colour format to accompany his authoritative and readable text. A particular feature is a series of dramatic reconstruction paintings by Peter Froste which enliven each episode in the town’s history.

On reading this book one is bound to reflect on the value of a long-term urban archaeological research programme under the aegis of a single organisation able to evaluate and interpret each successive discovery and make it part of an overall picture. Now that the blight of competitive tendering for archaeological projects has settled on our land, academic responsibility for towns like Colchester is becoming dispersed, if not abandoned altogether. As a result, books like this which tell a coherent and exciting story, are in danger of becoming, in more ways than one, a thing of the past.

Dr Patrick Ottaway is a Senior Field Officer at the York Archaeological Trust

A short book with a grand ambition

by Mark Bowden

Simon James and Valery Rigby
British Museum, £9.99
ISBN 0-7141-2306-4 pb

This book sets out to be, according to the Preface, a companion to the new Celtic Europe gallery at the British Museum and, according to the Introduction on the opposite page, a brief introduction to the Iron Age of Britain in its wider European context. Somehow, in the space of only 90 pages, it manages to approach the latter, grander aim.

The book begins with a concise history of Iron Age studies and a critique of the notion of Celticity, an 18th century antiquarian invention (so why do the titles of both book and gallery retain it?), and proceeds through chapters on the people, the economy, settlements, ritual, and chronological change culminating in the Roman conquest. The subject is generally well covered, though there are noticeable biases – towards portable artefacts at the expense of sites and landscapes, towards the South and East at the expense of the North and West. James and Rigby, respectively a research fellow at the University of Durham and a curator at the British Museum, admit to this in their Preface, and indeed they could legitimately have claimed that the pitifully thin coverage of the ‘highland zone’ accu rately reflects the current state of Iron Age studies. It is astonishing that the well-preserved late prehistoric landscapes of northern England, for instance, have been so neglected by the majority of archaeologists.

The text reads easily and the results of the most recent scholarship are well deployed. The illustrations are generally excellent. In their concluding section, discussing the future of Iron Age archaeology, the authors remark that ‘Detailed studies . . . will explore the richness of regional diversity, particularly to counteract the long-standing bias towards the seductive archaeological riches of the south, especially Wessex’. Well, let’s hope so.

Mark Bowden is an Iron Age specialist at the English Royal Commission in Newcastle

A very solid theory of ethnic identity

by John Hines

Siân Jones
Routledge, £13.99
ISBN 0-415-14158-3 pb

This is a book for those who like archaeological theory, and like it like Turkish coffee – dense and pungent. Little of the book involves analysis of archaeological evidence; instead there is much discussion of views of ethnic identity found in scholarship of the last 150 years. These, according to Jones, a research fellow at Southampton University, are inconsistent and inadequate. She therefore seeks to provide a new conceptualization of ‘ethnicity’ appropriate to archaeology – and thus to history in general. She shows a good sense of the problems that ethnic identity poses as a general topic: how it is real, yet highly fluid; how its significance varies from context to context; and the serious political and moral responsibilities that accompany its study.

Jones eventually tries to reconcile a ‘primordial’ concept of ethnicity, which sees it as a reflection of the fundamental human need for group identity, and an ‘instrumentalist’ one which emphasizes its pragmatic functions. She argues that a satisfactory merger of these two views can be found by adopting a concept of ‘habitus’ from Pierre Bourdieu, thus recognizing personal experience and psychological motives in the interpretation and deployment of cultural tradition to mark group identity. Hence her definition of ethnic groups as ‘culturally ascribed identity groups, which are based on the expression of a real or assumed shared culture and common descent’.

It becomes clear that it is only self ascribed identity that she includes under this definition, thus sidestepping the problem of externally ascribed identities. Most debatable, however, is that ethnic identity is based on ‘shared culture and common descent’ (real or ascribed), for this effectively makes cultural unity a precondition for ethnic identity.

There is little attempt to apply the theory in this book. It would have benefited from more work to convert a thesis into a form more appropriate for publication. The tortuous style of theoretical archaeology cannot always excuse itself in terms of scientific innovation and precision. Bibliographical fetishism (here nearly one page of references to every six of text) becomes a dangerous fault when the explanation or illustration of an important point is evaded with yet another Harvard-style reference.

Dr John Hines is Reader in English at the University of Cardiff

Peak archaeology, but not for novices

by Ray Marjoram

John Barnatt and Ken Smith
Batsford, £15.99
ISBN 0-7134-7529-3 pb

If you thought of the Peak District as an archaeological desert then you should read this book. Ken Smith and John Barnatt are archaeologists who have been working in the District (for Derbyshire County Council and the Peak National Park respectively) for many years and know their subject well. The book claims to be ‘the first popular introduction to the archaeology’ of the area, and certainly it is the first systematic study of how the historic use of the Peak has contributed to and formed the present landscape.

The authors take the reader from the earliest hunter-gatherers, period by period, to the present era and show with new insights, syntheses and interpretations the causes of the changes and the legacy that they leave. Other chapters discuss sacred landscapes in prehistory and expressions of power in medieval times.

There are, of course, some difficulties. Although it calls itself an introduction, there is little concession to the novice archaeologist or newcomer to the area. The authors go straight into the technology of their subject assuming a good starting knowledge and keen eyesight. Numerous maps and plans, otherwise well produced, have keys and annotations that are far too small for comfortable reading. Many of the photographs are magnificent but some of the ‘dark grey and not quite so grey’ ones do have some difficulty in conveying their message. Thankfully the captions, usually extensive, indicate what we should be seeing. There are no direct references to the original data but a good further reading list is included.

Ray Marjoram is the former Chairman of the Derbyshire Archaeological Society

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