ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 52, April 2000


Gold through the ages

Reviewed by Rob Ixer

Richard Herrington, Chris Stanley & Robert Symes
Natural History Museum £7.95
ISBN 0-565-09141-7 pb

Beginning with, but long outlasting, the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages, we have had the Gold Age - for gold is humankind's first-used and best-loved metal. Most societies have fashioned it to display their finest aspirations, only to be betrayed by their acquisitiveness into showing their worst.

Few aspects of human life are immune from gold-fever, and indeed the search for buried treasure was, if not a parent, at least a maternal uncle to archaeology itself. In archaeology today, an understanding of the raw material/commodity aspects of gold is vital before the true value of this high status element can be appreciated and its role and influence in history and prehistory determined.

This abundantly and beautifully illustrated paperback achieves much of this. Although only 64 pages long it carries a text that outshines many other longer books on gold. The book separates into three; the first third explains the chemistry, mineralogy and geology of gold. This section is both authoritative (the authors are all senior members, or former members, of the Natural History Museum's department of mineralogy), and very up to date. The middle section deals with present-day exploration for, and exploitation of, gold, and many of the environmental issues associated with it and its uses.

The rest of the book discusses the prehistory, history and sociology of gold, including the many scandals that have surrounded the yellow metal. Here, there is much that is familiar, Jason, Atahualpa Inca, the 49ers and the Yukon; but, alongside these, discussed also are Scythian gold work, West African gold, the Islamic empires of the Middle Ages and the 19th century Siberian gold rushes. It is only after reading the earlier sections of this book that the full import of these mythical, historical or scandalous events can be appreciated and enjoyed.

Although aimed at the popular market and despite an idiosyncrasy - Mother Russia, her art, history and gold feature heavily - this is an excellent little book to buy, use and trust.

Rob Ixer is a mineralogist at Birmingham University with an interest in ancient metallurgy

Archaeology of death

Reviewed by Simon Mays

The Loved Body's Corruption
Jane Downes and Tony Pollard (eds)
Cruithne Press £16.50
ISBN 1-873448 -06-6 pb

This book on the archaeology of death contains papers from two conferences plus a few extra contributions. The standard of the papers varies widely. Subjects covered include mortuary practices in the ethnographic record; burial in Iron Age East Yorkshire and Neolithic Malta; infanticide in Viking Scandinavia; palaeopathology and forensic archaeology.

A number of contributors draw on van Gennep's concept of funerals as rites of passage, involving rites of separation of the deceased from the society of the living, a period of transition or liminality, followed by rites ensuring the incorporation of the departed into the society of the ancestors.

Pollard notes that human bones are often found on Scottish Mesolithic shell middens and suggests they may have been sites of excarnation. He indicates that the shoreline, a liminal location between land and sea, would have been a suitable spot for corpses of the deceased who were themselves in transition between the living and the dead.

As an `experiment', the editors asked contributors to discuss their personal emotional responses to working with funerary remains. This was clearly a mistake, as the insights offered are banal, and the air of personal reminiscence lends the whole volume a lightweight feel. I would also have hoped to see more contributions of a scientific bent, as advances in this area (particularly in the biomolecular field) will play an increasing role in the archaeological study of human burials.

Simon Mays is an osteoarchaeologist at English Heritage

Men who dig graves

Reviewed by Blaise Vyner

The Early Barrow Diggers
Barry M Marsden
Tempus £18.99
ISBN 0-7524-1427-5 hb

The first edition of this book appeared in 1974. It is a readable and well-illustrated account of what might be considered the very English preoccupation with investigating ancient burial mounds.

This activity reached its floruit in the 19th century, and this book presents a good if somewhat unadventurous account of the main protagonists arranged in approximate chronological and topographical order. It is revised largely by the addition of a number of illustrations culled mostly from 19th century publications.

I am not convinced that the author's relentless fixation on alleged 19th century improvements in scientific and chronological techniques is justified by the information cited. Nor, despite the presentation of a good deal of information on activities and results, is there much suggestion as to why anyone would have been interested in burial mounds except out of idle curiosity or the suspicion of treasure.

Not least because of its subject, and the fact that it is a second edition, this book invites specific criticism in respect of its bibliography and referencing. The main text contains few direct references, while in the `revision' of the volume little use appears to have been made of material published in the past quarter century. The index is poor, and the list of modern studies of barrow diggers - anything published this century - runs to four items. It is unfortunate that laziness on the part of author and publisher have conspired to render this new edition useless to the researcher.

Blaise Vyner is a consultant archaeologist and author

Ancient chemistry

Reviewed by Richard Evershed

Traces of the Past
Joseph Lambert
Perseus, £12.50
ISBN 0-7382-0027-1 pb

This book - subtitled Unravelling the Secrets of Archaeology through Chemistry - is quite simply the best chemical archaeological text available. Joseph Lambert, Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern University in the States, is a chemist of high reputation who has done a tremendous service to this diverse interdisciplinary field.

He has used his chemical training and archaeological experiences to demonstrate, in a highly stimulating and accessible way, how chemistry can enhance conventional approaches to archaeological interpretation, and in many instances, provide answers to otherwise intractable questions.

The book is well-written and amply referenced, but the underlying appeal lies in the logic of the layout. There is coverage of the application of analytical chemistry to the investigation of all the major classes of material encountered by archaeologists - stone, soils, pottery, glass, metals, organic residues, human remains and colourants.

What will be most appreciated by the archaeologist (and indeed the chemist) is that Lambert has made the chemistry accessible without oversimplifying it. He has done this by choosing examples in which the archaeological questions are well-formulated, and describing the most appropriate analytical chemical techniques that might be used to provide solutions. The archaeological questions are drawn from numerous cultures and time periods.

Lambert brings his expertise to bear on his tactfully critical assessments of the techniques used by some scientists in particular areas, leaving the reader with little doubt as to the shortcomings and likely future of certain approaches.

The appeal and accessibility of the book benefit from the many images reproduced from original published works, suggestions for further reading and a comprehensive glossary.

Richard Evershed specialises in archaeological chemistry at Bristol University

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