ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 5, June 1995


From Pliny to Montreal

by John Percival

Pierre de la Ruffiniere du Prey
Chicago, £51.95
ISBN 0-226-17300-3 hb

It would seem that the Plinys, uncle and nephew, have a relevance far beyond the immediate content of their work. The late CE Stevens used to argue, on the basis of a passage in the Elder Pliny (AD23-79) that the Romans were familiar with the Eskimos. Now, in a fascinating study, Pierre de la Ruffiniere du Prey establishes lines of influence from the Younger Pliny (AD61-113) to such seemingly unlikely beneficiaries as the former Prime Minister of Canada, M Pierre Trudeau.

Du Prey's book is about the better known of Pliny's villas. Those which most interest him are two on the shores of Lake Como, the Tuscan villa in the foothills of the Apennines, and the one on the sea-coast of Latium called by Pliny `Laurentinum'. For British readers, perhaps, it is this last example that will be most familiar: there is a model of it in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford which has figured in several studies of villas in Roman Britain.

The detailed architectural descriptions of these houses have led to an astonishing number of attempts at reconstruction; and it is the history of these, and in this sense the history of Pliny's influence on the design of great country houses, that forms the subject of this book.

The scale and extent of this influence is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that none of the houses described by Pliny have been located on the ground or convincingly recognised in excavated sites. And yet the descriptions alone have inspired, not only the numerous reconstructions, but buildings as disparate and as far flung as the Villa Giulia at Rome, the Villa Medici at Fiesole, a restaurant at Cordoba, the Trudeau house in Montreal and a Color Television HQ in Buenos Aires.

The book is beautifully produced and illustrated. On this subject it has to be definitive, and it is hard to see it being superseded. Du Prey does also seem genuinely to have invented a largely new and surprisingly rewarding genre, an architectural history certainly, and a history of culture, but one which springs from literary rather than material sources. For once, the publisher's blurb is right: the book will be of interest to `classicists, archaeologists, cultural historians, and contemporary architects and landscape designers'. No mean feat.

John Percival is Professor of Ancient History at the University of Wales, Cardiff

Breathing new life into Roman towns

by Tim Copeland

eds TJ Cornell and K Lomas
UCL Press, £38.00
ISBN 1-85728-033-4 hb

It is increasingly difficult to get beyond the growing amount of archaeological data to a picture of what life might have been like in Roman towns, particularly in Roman Britain. Even visual reconstructions tend to use people only as a scale against which to set the buildings. Yet this study of cities in Italy succeeds in bringing towns alive, through a potent combination of archaeology and documentary and literary evidence, coupled with imaginative research questions.

It is a collection of papers that deals with cities and towns at a range of scales, and from a wide variety of perspectives. Janet DeLaine's study of the development of the Insula of Paintings at Ostia, for instance, highlights the human effort involved in building it, and the complex series of changes the area went through during its development. Surprisingly, it was accident rather than design that prompted at least one major remodelling of the insula, when a lintel cracked and put the whole building at risk. Papers on Pompeii explore the official control of the high-status areas of the forum and temples, and the competition for land on the through routes, implying a closer relationship among townsfolk with the countryside than with fellow inhabitants.

Italy was not a typical part of the Roman Empire, but these papers do have many resonances for the study of towns in Roman Britain, and many current issues in Romano-British archaeology are represented. Romanisation is examined in the Greek areas of southern Italy. The relationship between city and countryside is explored through papers on the villa and religious practice. The influence of war is evaluated on the development of provincial towns and cities. Each of these papers is lively and accessible.

Tim Copeland teaches at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education

The wrong route to Saxon England

by Alex Woolf

NJ Higham
Manchester, £14.99
ISBN 0-7190-4080-9 pb

This book is yet another attempt to wring historical blood from the stone of Gildas's De Excidio. As the only literary work emanating from sub-Roman Britain, Gildas's book has long been seen as some kind of baroque panel behind which we shall find a secret door to this most mysterious period of British history, if we can only locate the catch.

In fact, however, Gildas was not concerned with recording details which were either irrelevant to his theme or well known to his audience. His purpose was to show his countrymen that the vicissitudes they had faced were the result of their sins and the victories the result of their virtues, and that they should learn from this lesson how to behave in the future.

Thus far Higham runs with the pack. His reading, however, is far more metaphorical than most. He sees, behind references to sinful British kings' and prelates' relationships with `the devil their father', an almighty Saxon king already ruling Britain through its ecclesiastical and imperial structures as early as AD441. By this date, Higham claims, the modern Anglo-Welsh border was all but established and southern England set firmly on the course that would carry it through the Middle Ages.

Unfortunately, neither the text nor external evidence can support such an interpretation. When Gildas writes of devils and hell he is being quite literal. Equally, the model Higham constructs of a barbarian warlord ruling an imperial diocese through its established institutions is exactly what the period does see in Gaul and Spain, yet in those countries very little Germanisation took place. The very different character and language of Anglo-Saxon England demands an alternative model.

In this book Higham consistently spells the name Maelgwn as Maelgwyn, confuses the terms `kingship' and `kingdom', ignores recent work on the dating of Gildas, and generally writes as if he has a set agenda which demands the creation of England at the earliest possible point in time. It is a shame that a scholar who has proved himself the outstanding Romano-British landscape archaeologist should have allowed his own devils to lead him astray.

Alex Woolf teaches history at Sheffield University

A long look to archaeology's future

by James Symonds

Martin Biddle
Oxbow, £2.95
ISBN 0-946897-80-8 pb

`What future for British archaeology?' asked Martin Biddle in his address to the IFA conference in 1994. The prognosis, if you believe excavation and discovery are central to archaeology, is not good. Biddle argues that we have retreated to a `position of self-doubt and indecision', turning our backs on large-scale excavation, and stumbling to `conserve what we do not understand'.

This important statement, from a leading urban archaeologist, contributes to current debates over `excavation versus preservation'. Biddle's critique centres on a trajectory which, he argues, was laid out in 1990 by a few fateful words in PPG16: `Where nationally important archaeological remains, whether scheduled or not, and their settings, are affected by proposed development, there should be a presumption in favour of their physical preservation in situ'.

Though agreeing with the tenor of PPG16, Biddle contends that, by over-emphasising in situ preservation, it has contributed to the decline of research-led excavation, and contains the seeds of its own downfall. PPG16 is indiscriminately applied by some local planning authorities, with the qualifier `nationally important' ignored, and with `preservation' employing unproven methods such as piling.

On the indiscriminate use of PPG16, Biddle is surely right, though this has much to do with the absence of adequate regional research agendas. The issue of preservation, and attendant mitigation measures, is more complex. An example of a town with a sophisticated policy on preservation is York. York City Council's archaeological policy is a pragmatic response to high levels of urban development, and is a 10-year, research-driven `holding policy' incorporating the possibility of research excavation.

Should we take up Biddle's challenge, and re-establish archaeology as a research discipline? The answer is emphatically `yes'. One undoubted side-effect of PPG16 has been the privatisation of archaeology, encouraging contractors to compete for business. This runs counter to the concept of scholarship as a shared endeavour, and discourages research-led archaeology in the private sector.

But how far the lack of research excavation should be attributed to PPG16 is a contentious matter. There is also the wider issue of funding for large-scale projects to be considered. Mortimer Wheeler did not, after all, excavate Maiden Castle with money from the Highways Agency. Biddle is right to say how much we lose by not excavating, but PPG16 is the symptom not the cause of the problem.

James Symonds is Executive Director of ARCUS (Archaeological Research and Consultancy at the University of Sheffield)

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