ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 43, April 1999


Getting it all wrong about shipwrecks

by Martin Dean

Valerie Fenwick and Alison Gale
Tempus, £18.99
ISBN 07524-1416-X hb

This visually attractive book is primarily a catalogue providing information about the 47 sites designated under the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act. Each is briefly described and supported by one or more illustrations, usually too small to be useful. The final chapter, cleverly entitled Stern View, is a critical view of the working of the Act. Unfortunately the book is marred by out-of-date and inaccurate information, and these mistakes severely undermine the authors' opinions.

They do make some reasonable points, such as about the deplorable state of certain notice-boards about the wrecks and the need for more information panels. What they fail to acknowledge is the significant progress made over the last decade as a result of pressure from the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee. These advances now provide a solid foundation for the sound management of Britain's underwater cultural heritage.

The authors rightly indicate that a Government department (DCMS) may not be the best organisation to administer the Protection of Wrecks Act. However, it has been known for some time that as soon as the Government's parliamentary timetable will allow, English Heritage will take over responsibility. The book also repeats the common misunderstanding that designation `prohibits or effectively rules out diving' on historic wrecks. In fact, diving is actually encouraged on protected sites through a licensing system, although some important wrecks may not be as accessible as many would like.

The location of each designated site given in the book follows information published by the Archaeological Diving Unit and not, as claimed, information given in the designation orders. It is surprising that the authors did not reference the ADU's Guide to Historic Wreck Sites, which was published in 1994 and has been available in updated form on the Internet ever since.

Martin Dean is Director of the Archaeological Diving Unit at the University of St Andrews. These are personal views and may not reflect those of the DCMS

Peasant Gauls became urban Romans

by Guy Halsall

Greg Woolf
CUP, £40.00
ISBN 0-521-41445-8 hb

This book seeks to explain how the Gauls became Romans. This was a process of no mean scale or importance. In the early part of the 1st century BC, Gaul was a diverse area, more or less unurbanized, whose inhabitants (to simplify the situation) lived in hill-top oppida or dispersed lowland villages, in timber and wattle-and-daub buildings. By the beginning of the 2nd century AD, Gaul was firmly part of the Roman Empire, perhaps 10 per cent of its population was town-dwelling, and the elite lived in country houses of recognizably Roman form. On all types of site, material culture and even diet was strongly influenced by Rome.

Greg Woolf, Professor of Ancient History at St Andrews, examines this transformation by considering the ideologies of Roman civilization and how they facilitiated the absorption of the Gallic aristocracy into the `empire of cities and empire of friends', by looking at urbanization, change in the countryside, the material culture of Romanization and religious change. Woolf is at pains to dissolve the binary polarities which can bedevil studies of these processes - Romans versus Gauls; towns versus countryside, and so on. Not only is 200 years a long time, Gaul is a big place, and this book usefully emphasises regional diversity as well as chronological change.

Woolf stresses the active nature of the choices made by Gauls, as well as the role of imperial rule and ideology, without turning the social history of this period into a crude one of domination versus resistance. In sum, this is a better, and more sophisticated, study of Romanization than is available for the British provinces.

However, one is left with the impression that some pretty central issues are left unresolved, or even avoided - the precise nature of elite transformation, for example. I also strongly suspect that Romanization was very often, very largely, a more violent and unpleasant business than Woolf would care to admit.

Dr Guy Halsall is a Lecturer in Archaeology at Birkbeck College, London

Claiming Finnish origins for Picts

by Ross Samson

Paul Dunbavin
Third Millennium, £9.95
ISBN 0-9525029-1-7 hb

Paul Dunbavin is no professional academic, but this book resembles books by scholars. Half of it contains translated extracts of ancient sources that mention Picts, ancient Britons, and Scythians. The edited sources copied here, such as those of Skene, Jackson, and Anderson, are all trustworthy. The book's strength is therefore as a source-book.

Dunbavin's thesis is that the Picts were `Scythians', as Bede said. Scythians have come to the world's attention recently through the discovery of frozen tattooed corpses in central Asia, and Dunbavin sees these tattoos as the origin of the Picts' name - picti, `the painted ones'. But whereas Scythians were semi-nomadic Iranian-speakers who lived in Belarus or the Ukraine, Dunbavin's proto-Picts were maritime peoples of the Baltic who spoke a Finno-Ugrian language.

Dunbavin's evidence is the supposed Finnic origin of many of the tribal and place-names recorded by Ptolemy and other writers. Thus the Vacomagi are the v per thousand ki (`people')-miehet (`men'); the monastery Bede records as Peanfahel becomes pyhiinvaellus or `holy wandering'; the Pictish place-names in pit- are from pit per thousand ja, `parish'. But this is not comparative philology, it is looking for Finnish and Pictish words that are roughly similar in spelling. Similar results could doubtless be had by using any other foreign-language dictionary.

An attraction to the pseudo-magical appeal of words is a well-attested anthropological phenomenon. It, numerology, and magical-spriritual interpretations of the past are the holy trinity of the lunatic fringe.

Dr Ross Samson is a specialist in the Picts, and is based in Glasgow

Why Time Team is no frivolous show

by Simon Denison

Tim Taylor and Chris Bennett
Channel 4, £18.99
ISBN 0-7522-1327-X hb

This engrossing short book tells the story behind five episodes of Channel 4's Time Team, a series still sometimes dismissed by its sillier critics as a frivolous `challenge Anneka' type of show.

The fact is that each episode takes months of organisation and a small army of highly-skilled professionals (from both archaeology and television) to make. The archaeology is taken remarkably seriously, from site location, through careful excavation, to post-excavation work and publication. In some cases Time Team has made a major contribution to knowledge - producing, for example, the first detailed information about a medieval shipbuilding site (Smallhythe, Kent), and the earliest evidence for pottery manufacture in Stoke-on-Trent (Burslem). The significance of the work usually only becomes clear after filming, and is not broadcast.

One of the attractions of the programme is that each episode tries to tell a focused story (`Time Team have three days to find X') while remaining bravely open to anything happening during the shoot. This tension can make it critically difficult to get presenter Tony Robinson's scripted introductory piece-to-camera just right - that is, enticing to the viewer yet realistic. Five of these deceptively effortless little pieces are printed here, and stand as models of how to catch an audience's attention in archaeology by using the fewest number of words.

Another attraction is the sense of attempting the impossible - `a classic Time Team struggle against the odds', as Tim Taylor, the series producer and originator, puts it. Nowhere is this more true than with the reconstructions, such as the attempts to build a Bronze Age boat or to smelt iron in a Roman furnace, which experts had said couldn't possibly be done within the programme's timescale, before being proved spectacularly wrong.

This book is as much about pictures as words. Chris Bennett, a widely-published action photographer, has a knack of capturing the `decisive moment', and among many memorable images we have the first glint of newly smelted `Roman' iron at Beauport Park, Sussex, thousands of pieces of 18th century pottery pouring out of a mechanical digger's bucket at Burslem, and numerous shots of that splendid Time Team member, Phil Harding, roaring with laughter at every opportunity.

Simon Denison is Editor of British Archaeology

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