ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 4, May 1995


Two shots at a building revolution

by Jason Wood

Colin Platt
UCL Press, £30.00
ISBN 1-85728-315-5 hb

In this authoritative and well-illustrated book we are invited to reconsider the development of English domestic architecture during the 16th and 17th centuries. Platt's theme is an explanation of how the medieval house plan became obsolete and was replaced by the `neat compact boxes' of Restoration England.

An interesting feature of the book is the copious use of contemporary writings, which bring back to life the people who actually built, furnished and lived in these houses. Through his study of this material, as well as the buildings themselves, Platt - Professor of History at Southampton University - helps us document the changing social attitudes and the political and economic upheaval which influenced the revolution in housing design.

The idea of a single Great Rebuilding confined to rural England between 1570 and 1640 was first put forward by the doyen of landscape history, WG Hoskins, over 40 years ago. Often criticised for its broad-brush approach and narrow dating, Hoskins's model has been developed and refined since the 1950s. Platt takes the debate further and argues for a Second Great Rebuilding in both town and country after the disruption of the Civil War. The First Great Rebuilding saw medieval open halls floored over, new chimneys and staircases inserted, and the introduction of glazed windows and new furnishings. The distinguishing mark of the Second Great Rebuilding, Platt maintains, `was less the final disappearance of the hall, than a fresh traveller-led emphasis on regularity'.

Early in the 17th century England's isolation from continental Europe ended and the Grand Tour began. A result was the introduction of new architectural styles borrowed mainly from France and Italy. This, coupled with the increasingly sophisticated tastes of `polite' society, was the spark for the Second Great Rebuilding. From the 1650s (but a generation later in the north) the town and country house assumed a double-pile plan more reminiscent of the houses of today. The emphasis was now on compactness, symmetry, and the provision of private accommodation for every family member.

Jason Wood is an Assistant Director of the Lancaster University Archaeological Unit

Hearing the mute stones speak

by Heather James

Charles Thomas
University of Wales, £35.00
ISBN 0-7083-1160-1 hb

The `mute stones' of this book's title are the early Christian, inscribed memorial stones of 5th-7th century date found in western Britain and Ireland. In the hands of Charles Thomas, who deals mainly with Dyfed and Cornwall (with offshoot chapters on Breconshire and Lundy Island), these early Christian monuments, or ECMs, form the framework for the history of these areas between the 5th and 7th centuries.

The stones are the memorials of Irish immigrants and their descendants who formed a new ruling dynasty in 5th century west Wales. They reached an accommodation with the native aristocracy which included the acceptance of Christianity. They founded a sub-kingdom in Breconshire, and later sent colonists to Cornwall, where Christianity only became widespread in the 7th century, primarily through evangelisation from west Wales.

This is heady stuff for students of the period accustomed to scholarly reservations on how far we can take the meagre source material. Prof Thomas's formidable abilities are brought to bear on problems he has studied for some 30 years, in a long book, deployed through the skills of a persuasive and vivid writer. But is he right?

At the core of the book is a new typological sequence based on the languages used for the brief commemorative inscriptions on the ECMs. First Irish ogam script, then, bilingually, ogam and Latin, then Latin alone to which overtly Christian formulae (such as hic iacit) are added. Date ranges are assigned and distributions are mapped. More controversially, this sequence, and with it the historicity of the people commemorated, is validated by linking in the few surviving texts of the period: migration accounts, king lists, saints' lives. These are taken more literally, and assigned closer dates, than many scholars would wish - or dare. However, I find the argument convincing.

Heather James is a Principal Archaeological Officer at the Dyfed Archaeological Trust

Discovering man's true antiquity

by Christopher Evans

A Bowdoin van Riper
Chicago, £13.50
ISBN 0-226-84992-9 pb

The subject of this volume is the establishment in the 19th century of the long antiquity of human origins, in contrast to short biblical chronologies - dropping the bottom out of history through the demonstration that `men' lived `among the mammoths'. Van Riper's agenda is interdisciplinary, particularly in terms of the relationship of archaeology/prehistory with geology and ethnography, in opposition to earlier historical ties.

Beginning in the 1820s, the volume hinges upon Pengelly's investigations at Brixham Cave. Van Riper, an independent archaeologist based in Atlanta, Georgia, is thorough in his analysis of its `staging' and impact, drawing on extensive study of notebooks and committee minutes. This is clearly the crux of his thesis, as elsewhere the employment of primary source material is limited.

On the whole, this narrative of disciplinary upheaval is enthralling and accessible. Its strength and originality lie in the analysis of disciplinary politics and boundaries: the orchestration of change and the mustering of consensus, alliance building by a dominant set, the inter-relationship of amateur and professional interests and the enlistment of rhetoric in the denial of empirical evidence.

Although at the mercy of events, the volume unfortunately deflates the reader. It drives along in a compelling manner, only to announce that within the context of Victorian society this debate was all something of a straw man. It was superseded by Darwinian evolution, and whereas early dates could be accommodated, the nature of human origins was the real source of contention.

Thereafter, the book turns to the establishment of an historically independent prehistory. What unites this final quarter of the book with the rest is van Riper's premise that the source of prehistory's liberation was geology. Yet the wedding between the portions of the book is awkward and the argued division between historical and geological archaeology is not so rigid as claimed.

Christopher Evans is Executive Director of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit

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