ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 36, July 1998


History from the great fire of Windsor

by Tom James

Steven Brindle and Brian Kerr
English Heritage, £9.95
ISBN 1-85074-688-5 pb

On almost every page of this highly illustrated booklet the authors reveal previously unknown information about the archaeology of Windsor Castle. It certainly fulfils its promise of casting `new light' on Windsor. The opportunity to mix well-known information on the castle with discoveries made following the great fire of 1992 is grasped and much information is packed in.

The authors demonstrate how the fire-affected parts of the castle - almost a quarter of the buildings in the Upper Bailey - yielded long-held architectural secrets. The most interesting discoveries related to medieval phases of the 12th to the 15th centuries. The high quality works of Henry III (1216-72) and Edward III (1327-77) are shown to be in sharp contrast to the cosmetic works of Sir Jeffry Wyatville (1766-1840) who, for example, bodged plaster, nails and string together to form a huge grand ceiling.

Reconstruction drawings aid understanding of changes, although the reader has to work quite hard to follow the sequence of reconstructions which are sometimes dated by reigns and elsewhere by century. Explanations of archaeological techniques and pictures of their results are impressive.

A short pamphlet such as this cannot give all the detail, for example on pottery and bone assemblages. Analysis of the discoveries at Windsor given in the `Medieval Britain' section of the journal Medieval Archaeology (1996) gives a much clearer exposition of what was found period by period than is possible here. So the booklet misses some tricks, especially with regard to work on kitchens under Henry III and in the creation of a vast undercroft by Edward III.

The book adds value post-fire to our understanding of almost the whole history of Windsor Castle. An interesting question is how much could have been learnt by painstaking study of the fabric without the intervention of the fire? The answer is that much in this book is both new and results from the fire.

Dr Tom James is Reader in History and Archaeology at King Alfred's College, Winchester

A study that puts history into houses

by Brian Ayers

Jane Grenville
Leicester, £59.95
ISBN 0-7185-1478-5 hb

This is an immensely rewarding and attractive book which engages the reader at the outset by stating that the study of buildings is to do with framing questions, and thereby contributing to the project of `writing history'. Jane Grenville, a Lecturer at York University, succeeds in showing how historical trends both shaped, and were shaped by, the development of housing.

The first two chapters provide useful summaries of approaches to the archaeological study of buildings and the practicalities of medieval building. However, while both chapters deal with the development of the discipline, they are written with concepts such as spatial analysis and the development of society in mind.

Her section on the post-Conquest hall illustrates this approach. The discussion starts with a review of the literature, but moves on to ask questions. For instance, she examines John Blair's contention that you find separate halls and chamber blocks in the post-Conquest period, and finds evidence from both stone and timber buildings which could support the idea.

Similarly, her chapter on urban buildings is prefaced by an exploration of the concept of a town, on the grounds that the type and function of buildings can only be understood if the idea of the town is understood. It has been said, for instance, that urban buildings merely adapted countryside traditions, but she argues that with an understanding of a medieval town in mind we can see that new urban forms were in fact developed.

Her critique of the seminal work on urban plan types of individuals such as WA Pantin and John Schofield is forceful, in that, having characterised the urban experience, it becomes easier to understand the function of urban buildings.

Brian Ayers is Principal Field Archaeologist of the Norfolk Archaeological Unit

Silbury Hill and the New Age angle

by Frances Lynch

Alastair Whittle
Oxbow, £24.00
ISBN 1-900188-26-0 pb

The New Age connotations of the title of this excavation report were no doubt carefully chosen, for the author aims to replace the currently-popular power-dominated interpretations of Late Neolithic society with a softer, more spiritual ethos of voluntarily accepted authority and religious enthusiasm as an explanation for the construction of great monuments in the Avebury region and elsewhere.

Like the rapidly built and quickly destroyed enclosures at West Kennet themselves, archaeological explanations have a short life and a cyclical progress. As Christopher Hawkes once said, the ladder of reliability is a long one, and these days one often watches it rising shakily through the clouds. The sight is frequently exciting, as in this case, but one has to admit that the end of the ladder may often be hazy at best.

The discussion here is managed in a reader-friendly way; the history of chiefdom theories is briefly outlined and several telling analogies are described, though not always convincingly.

According to Whittle, Reader in Archaeology at the University of Wales, Cardiff, religious fervour, arising out of less dense and settled communities than have previously been envisaged for Late Neolithic Wessex (here Whittle pushes his view of an essentially mobile Neolithic), produced a landscape of astounding structures which celebrate the `mythic, ritual and sacred dimensions of Neolithic life'. The discussion is subtle and the evidence is never so hard that it cannot be coloured and moulded by the stance of a commentator.

For those who want the unadorned facts I should add that this book provides the long-awaited report on the BBC's tunnel into Silbury Hill years ago and of Whittle's own excavations at the two large palisade enclosures beside the Kennet river where people ate young pigs and broke Grooved Ware bowls - amongst other things which remain hard to pin down. The factual elements of this book will undoubtedly remain of significance for generations after the speculation has moved on.

Frances Lynch is a Lecturer at the University of Wales, Bangor

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