|ISSN 1357-4442||Editor: Simon Denison|
The final report on the Mithras affair
by Gustav Milne
THE TEMPLE OF MITHRAS, LONDON
English Heritage, £20.00
ISBN 1-85074-628-1 pb
The excavation of the London Mithraeum in September 1954 hit the headlines like no other archaeological site in post-war Britain and won a CBE for the excavator, WF Grimes. It also provided problems for prime minister Winston Churchill and set back the cause of urban archaeology for a quarter of a century: `If you wish to see building contractors cower and property developers turn pale, you need only whisper the words, "Temple of Mithras",' as the late Ralph Merrifield of the Museum of London used to say.
This, then, was not just another interesting site but a cause célèbre, an excavation which significantly influenced the development of British archaeology. Although interim statements did appear, the results were never fully published during the lifetime of Prof Grimes, who died in 1988. It is only now, over 40 years after the fieldwork was completed, that the `final' report has appeared.
Has the site stood the test of time? Was it worth the considerable effort which John Shepherd and his team devoted to the publication of this much discussed but misunderstood excavation?
The answer is a resounding yes: the report begins with a fascinating account of the political and media storm which surrounded the investigation of a modest 3rd century temple uncovered on a bomb site in 1954. There is then a full account of the results of the excavations themselves. The detailed finds reports include comment on the famous mithraic sculptures and there are also new reconstructions of the temple in Phase 1, when it served as a 3rd century mithraeum, and also in Phase 4, when it may have been a 4th century bacchium (a temple to Bacchus).
There is much to absorb the interest of mithraic scholars, Romanists and London archaeologists, for this is a `type site', supported by a detailed, user-friendly report full of description, discussion and scholary disagreements.
Dr Gustav Milne is a Lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology, London
A serenade to the Wiltshire downs
by Christopher Gerrard
THE LAND OF LETTICE SWEETAPPLE
Peter Fowler and Ian Blackwell
ISBN 0-7524-1415-1 hb
I once explored Fyfield Down, Wiltshire, in the company of Peter Fowler and a group of blind archaeology students. We touched and felt our way across the chalk down, hollering to one another to try to give a sense of scale to the lynchets and earthworks all around us, pausing here and there to press our hands on sarsen stones.
For Fowler, it seemed to me that day, every stone had its story to tell and in this book about Fyfield and Overton Downs, written with Ian Blackwell, he brings a sense of drama and lyrical observation to nearly 40 years of intermittent fieldwork here.
This is not a textbook but a personal account, in places almost an illustrated diary, filled with figures from the past and aimed at the interested general reader who will enjoy its `unashamedly discursive' approach. Academics should read it too, if only to learn how to write attractively - but many will want to see the more formal detail in the academic monograph which is expected shortly.
Over the years the authors have explored the ground between Avebury and Marlborough - Fowler who directed the Fyfield and Overton Project from 1959-98 and Blackwell who managed it from 1995-98. We learn how maps, documents, surveys of all sorts, excavations and standing buildings can be combined to tell a story. I took from this book a real sense of how the project developed as Fowler and colleagues walked back and forth over the downs many times, learning something new on each occasion and developing a keen scent for the landscape. I also enjoyed the summaries of work on prehistoric and later enclosures, field boundaries, cemeteries, settlements and the 13th-14th century sheepcote and longhouse at Raddun - all revealed in a mere spade's depth of stratification between grass and bedrock.
In the final chapters, the stories of these places and spaces are woven together into a more straightforward chronological narrative leading from 8000BC to Lettice Sweetapple herself. She lived in West Overton two hundred years ago, but she is not the star of this book - that billing is reserved for the landscape itself.
Dr Christopher Gerrard is a Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at King Alfred's College, Winchester
Looking for history under your feet
by Jane Grenville
Jane Fawcett (ed)
ISBN 0-7506-2765-4 hb
What is so good about this book is that it addresses conservation in its proper context: it explains why the items to be conserved are important enough to deserve such treatment, how they should be recorded and researched to enhance the understanding of that importance, and then how to conserve them.
But isn't the subject a little obscure? Why choose floors, in isolation to the rest of the building? There seem to me to be three excellent reasons. The first is that floors, being at our feet, are rarely looked at. This book will make you look down and you will be the richer for it. Secondly, they form the uppermost level of the archaeological palimpsest, and wear patterns, subsidence, earlier repairs and discoloration all have something to tell us about the former uses of the building. Thirdly, they are the most vulnerable element of the historic fabric, constantly worn away by the passing of feet.
Two magisterial chapters from the editor set the scene by discussing ecclesiastical and secular floors of all periods by their material (from tiles to mosaics to monumental brasses to carpets). Contributions from archaeologists, surveyors, photographers and archivists discuss research methods and are full of really practical advice about levels and methods of recording, photographic techniques and record keeping, always keeping an eye firmly on the significance of the record: this is not a volume about the making and keeping of records for its own sake.
Architects and conservators take up the baton with case studies, offering explicit discussions about the process of arriving at complex and sometimes controversial decisions and providing practical guidance on the methods and materials described. Again, it is the historical significance of floor that is paramount in the process. Philosophy and practice march hand in hand and recording and conservation are rightly seen as inter-dependent. The volume is lavishly and appropriately illustrated and the book as a whole is well-produced.
Dr Jane Grenville is a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of York
Study of an 8th century masterpiece
by Ian Wood
THE ST ANDREWS SARCOPHAGUS
Sally Foster (ed)
Four Courts, £14.95
ISBN 1-85182-415-4 pb
The Saint Andrews sarcophagus is one of the great pieces of late 8th (or possibly early 9th) century sculpture from western Europe. Its discovery and the history of its various reconstructions are admirably chronicled, and a series of archaeological, historical and art-historical contexts, Pictish, Anglo-Saxon, Irish and continental, are usefully provided.
The Picts rightly get the greatest attention, not least in Dauvit Broun's challenging reassessment of the Pictish kings of the 8th and 9th centuries, which underlines how meagre our narrative sources are. The heart of the book, however, is contained in two remarkable chapters by Isabel Henderson of Newnham, Cambridge, the first being a painstaking descriptive catalogue of all the sections of this extraordinary `corner-slab shrine' - now on public display in St Andrews Cathedral - and the second being an iconographic study of the monument, with its great figure of David killing a lion, its hunting imagery, and its animal and interlace ornament.
This is a study which is acutely sensitive to the objects from which the sculptor drew inspiration - and these are seen at least in part, and convincingly, as objects in a treasury. This is an approach which, one senses, could be pressed harder to tell us about Pictish kingship and its cultural context. Although Henderson has long argued that the sarcophagus is a royal monument, replete with Christian symbolism of kingship, death and the afterlife, this is almost as full a statement on the issues as one could hope for.
There may, however, be one or two minor tricks left: if, for instance, the dress-fastener of the large figure of David were to be seen as a tasselled brooch (an interpretation rejected by Henderson, perhaps rather too quickly), it would fall into the very precise category of Kaiserfibeln, imperial brooches, and would add yet further distinction to the figure or its model. In this context, one may regret the absence of any contributions by continental scholars to the volume - which is certainly intended to gain international recognition for the sarcophagus.
Ian Wood is Professor of Early Medieval History at the University of Leeds
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