ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 45, June 1999


Ceramics in Georgian polite society

by David Barker

Sarah Richards
Manchester, £45.00
ISBN 0 7190 4464 2 hb

This book's title is somewhat misleading. The reader should not expect a study of ceramic developments during the 18th century. Rather, we are given a fascinating account of the changing life-styles of the 18th century middle classes.

Material possessions, and ceramics in particular, were defining factors in 18th century polite society, as increasing levels of comfort were expected. Their significance is examined through evidence from probate inventories, newspaper advertisements, literary references, cookery books, manuals on etiquette, and contemporary observations. Richards, a research fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University, uses these to good effect in addressing subjects such as the significance of the new beverages tea, coffee and chocolate; the role of entertaining and the etiquette of dining; advances in personal hygiene; and a new interest in plants and horticulture.

Ceramics are, of course, central to any discussion of changing material culture, being essential from the first for the consumption of hot drinks, and becoming increasingly important during the later 18th century at the dining table. The author charts the progress of home-produced ceramic teawares at the expense of imported oriental china, and demonstrates how fine ceramic tablewares came to replace vessels of wood and pewter. Evidence shows that these changes occurred at different times in different parts of the country, and with different levels of society.

Overall the viewpoints are those of the consumer. The manufacturer is not well represented in this book, and the changing nature of technology which made possible the wider range of ceramic products is only hinted at. The emphasis is - as always - upon polite society. It would be unfair to say there is no reference to the masses who had their own patterns of ceramic consumption, but a further chapter on this would have provided some balance.

David Barker is Keeper of Archaeology at the Potteries Museum, Stoke-on-Trent, and a specialist in post-medieval ceramics

A dry book about archaeological shells

by Ken Thomas

Cheryl Claassen
CUP, £17.95
ISBN 0-521-57852-3 pb

This book, a Cambridge Manual in Archaeology, takes itself very seriously and deals with the analysis and interpretation of shells from archaeological sites. It covers marine shells in some detail, and freshwater and land shells in outline. Coverage is world-wide, although North American examples dominate, reflecting the author's background. The style is self-consciously academic - intense, pedantic, densely argued, and liberally sprinkled with multiple citations and quotes. This is a book for the specialist.

Shells can be found in a wide variety of sites of various periods. Indeed some sites, such as shell middens, or `shell-matrix sites', as Claassen prefers to call them, have shells as the main constituent. Analysis of shells can give information about past environments, exploitation of shellfish for food, raw materials (shell artefacts), decorative objects (eg, shell beads), and about trade and exchange. Such information can be gained from knowledge of the biology and ecology of the species concerned. The physical and chemical analysis of shells, including measurements (of size and shape), shell growth patterns and shell structure (seen in thin sections under the microscope), shell mineralogy, and the analysis of stable isotopes in shell carbonates, can sometimes enhance interpretations by giving information on the ages of individual shells collected, the environments from which they came, and possibly the time of year when the shells were collected.

All these aspects are discussed in great detail. Not all specialists who work with shells will agree with some of Dr Claassen's opinions or conclusions, though. A particular minefield is the author's refutation of various techniques and approaches which other workers have attempted to bring to this field. There is so much negative commentary here that one might wonder if there is anything left worth doing with archaeological shells other than to identify them and (perhaps) measure them with a pair of callipers.

Dr Ken Thomas is Reader in Human Palaeoecology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London

Sweeping from the Near to the Far East

by Dilip Chakrabarti

Charles Keith Maisels
Routledge, £40.00
ISBN 0-415-10975-2 hb

Very few people have the necessary scholarship, courage and clarity of thought to range over such a dispersed and diverse ground as is covered in this book - the formative histories of Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, India and China.

Chapter 1 is introductory but manages to put in many interesting pieces of information relating to the emergence of archaeology as a discipline in the areas under study. This chapter, which begins with a reference to the social basis of the development of Classical antiquarianism in 18th century England, ends with the enunciation of a 12-point checklist for identifying urban revolution following Childe, and a brief note on the roots of Mao's thought-process in the `strong, structuring continuities' of Chinese culture history.

Chapter 2 opens with an introduction to the geography of ancient Egypt and moves through the entire archaeological sequence leading to the `state formation process' which itself produced the First and Second, and Third and Fourth Dynasties. This process is visualized on four levels, each competing for dominance within its own orbit - farming villages, agricultural towns, fortified towns, and regional capitals - and eventually leading to the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. The comparison of the Egyptian situation with the checklist of Childe's Urban Revolution model provides an opportunity for a terse but valid and useful summary of its material and scientific basis.

Spanning the archaeology of the entire area from the shores of the eastern Mediterranean to the Gulf, the scope of Chapter 3 is much wider and consequently more diverse. The grip on geography is admirably tight and the discussion on the major sites and problems is up to date and thorough. The major focus is, of course, on the Mesopotamian heartlands where the discussions on the social order and the state are particularly valuable. Maisels ignores the area to the east of Mesopotamia up to the Indus. Perhaps Elam could provide a separate focus of attention; it appears from time to time as an item of cross-reference but not in its own right. In the examination of Childe's check-list, I find helpful the observation that `internal production and distribution systems are determinant' of the `formation and structure' of the Sumero-Akkadian civilization and that `foreign trade, while present, was merely an adjunct'.

Chapter 4, on the Indus civilization, has some good points and some bad. Among the good points is the realization that the drying of the Sarasvati is the simplest explanation of the collapse of the socioeconomic basis of this civilization. Another valid point is that `there is no evidence of a state Church, but much evidence for diffuse, diverse and often domestic ritual practices, unified by a set of shared themes (`cardinal tenets') and beliefs'. In ancient, pre-Islamic India there never was a `state church' or a state religion.

The bad points are many too. The so-called egalitarian and non-aggressive character of the civilization has been unduly emphasized. The emphasis on cultivation being dependent on river flooding gives a seriously distorted view of this civilization's agriculture. Everything we know of the pre-British agricultural regime of the Indus valley speaks of the existence of an effective canal system in Sind. A reasonably detailed picture of the evolution of the Indus civilization, including that of its script, has now been obtained from Padri and Dholavira in Gujarat, Kunal in Haryana and Harappa in Punjab. There is no reason to infer that the Indus civilization was `the shortest lived' of all the pristine civilizations; this civilization developed its mature form before 2600BC and maintained, in certain areas, its literacy and external trade contacts up to c 1400BC and later. I do not accept that there was no `state' in this civilization.

Chapter 5 on ancient China is easy-flowing enough to serve as a good introduction to Chinese archaeology in English. Chapter 6 or `conclusion' discusses a whole host of theoretical issues: the usefulness of Childe's criteria of `urban revolution', his concept of `Neolithic revolution', political economies, politics and the state, social evolution, and a final warning that `societies exist at the edge of chaos'. Whether one agrees or not, the author's ideas merit careful study.

Dr Dilip Chakrabarti is a University Lecturer in South Asian Archaeology at the University of Cambridge

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