British Archaeology banner

Cover of British Archaeology issue 57

Issue 57

February 2001



Seahenge timber circle heading for reburial

New timber circle appears at Seahenge

Revolutionary steel factory excavated in Sheffield

Mercian watermill found near Welsh border

Criminals' skulls and chemistry experiments

Mesolithic hunting camp found on Scottish mountain

In Brief


Great sites
Ian Armit on an Iron Age tribal centre at Traprain Law

Power drinking
Bettina Arnold on the drinking politics of Iron Age leaders

Gateway to Rome
Simon Keay on a spectacular new survey of Rome's harbour


Political comment
George Lambrick wants an international heritage policy


Offa's Dyke, Early tin, Bells again


Simon Denison on anniversaries, events and archaeology

Peter Ellis

Regular column


Holy images by Simon Denison

Coastal sites by Gustav Milne

Food forward by Mike Allen

Thrill of the Chase by Chris Gerrard

Iron Age coins by Jonathan Williams

Flint mines by Peter Topping

CBA update

favourite finds

Ancestors of Odysseus. Sebastian Payne on finds made during a youthful excavation in a Greek cave.


ISSN 1357-4442

Simon Denison


Holy images

Reviewed by Simon Denison

The Way and the Light
Mick Sharp
Aurum Press £14.95
ISBN 1-85410-722-4 pb

Mick Sharp, this magazine's most-frequently used photographer, provides both text and images for this 'illustrated guide to the saints and holy places of Britain', as the subtitle puts it. The book is a kind of illustrated encyclopaedia in continuous prose, covering (it seems) every saint commemorated anywhere in Britain, giving a brief synopsis of events from each saint's life with details of places in Britain to which they are connected.

And there's an awful lot of these saints. Whoever's heard of St Dwynwen, for example, patron saint of Welsh lovers? Or St Decuman, who crossed the Bristol Channel with his cow on a cloak and was later beheaded, poor chap? Or St Kenelm, prince of Mercia, who is said to have been murdered by his own sister? Out of his severed head, the tale goes, rose a milk-white dove which helpfully flew to Rome and dropped a letter describing the dastardly deed on St Peter's high altar, where it was translated by English pilgrims and thus the news reached home. The book is full of odd and diverting stories like this.

The writing is fluent, clear, and a pleasure to read. It is also well-informed, following 10 years' research amongst the many archaeologists Mick Sharp has come to know through his photographic work in this field. However, it is certainly a book to dip into rather than read all the way through.

The pictures of churches, chapels, shrines, tombs, monuments, and other holy sites are as competent as one would expect from this most professional of photographers. Nearly all have a more or less straight representational style and are conceived of, and laid out on the page, as 'illustrations' of particular points in the text. This reflects, to some extent, Mick Sharp's primary interest in the stories rather than the places associated with the saints, and it certainly marks a change of direction from his early work, such as his monochrome Images of Prehistory, where it was the text by Peter Fowler that played the supporting role (CUP, 1990). Indeed some of the more lyrical and free-standing images in the new book are early black-and-whites included here alongside his more recent work in colour. For his next book, he should get back into the darkroom.

Simon Denison is editor of British Archaeology

Coastal sites

Reviewed by Gustav Milne

Britain's Historic Coast
Alison Gale
Tempus £19.99
ISBN 0-7524-1456-9 hb

The British coast is estimated to be 5,295 miles long, if all tidal estuaries and inlets are included. Alison Gale's book has therefore adopted a necessarily selective approach to the types of surviving remains on our historic coastline which visitors can explore.

She has written a series of summary chapters covering the principal uses of the coast - leisure, coastal defence, transport, waste disposal and extraction of resource (this includes fishing, salt, seaweed, quarrying and drilling for hydrocarbons). She also considers the support activities such as ship-building, provision of port facilities, customs officers, coastguards and lifeboats. These essays are followed by a modest 13-page gazetteer.

There is much to welcome in this book. However, there are also several themes which have been underplayed: writing this review at the end of a dreadfully waterlogged year, one is struck be how little our ancient flood defences are described and discussed; indeed the chapter on Coastal Defence refers only to seaborne invasions by humans, rather than to the far more dangerous incursions of the sea itself.

The book also concentrates overmuch on sites which happen to be on the coast today, rather than looking at the extensive areas of relict coastline such as that associated with several of the Cinque Ports. There is, remarkably, only one map (and that is of Mesolithic Europe), no references and only one page of further reading.

Nevertheless, it is a thought-provoking book, which will be successful if it opens the eyes of readers to the wealth of archaeological sites visible on the coast. But it is arguably too short to provide a substantial overview of this wide subject.

Gustav Milne lectures at the Institute of Archaeology in London

Food forward

Reviewed by Mike Allen

The Quest for Food
Ivan Crowe
Tempus £25.00
ISBN 0-7524-1462-3 hb

The author's own lurid colour illustrations are perhaps the most striking element of this book - certainly the lime green vegetation is eye catching. The text, however, has less immediate impact. Although this book claims to show how evolution and cultural development have enabled humans to find food, in fact it provides an argument for how the quest for food led to evolution and cultural development.

In four chapters he tracks hominid evolution from primate to Homo sapiens from a deterministic perspective. This is followed by three chapters on colonisation, migration and the quest for food. To conclude are four chapters on more traditional archaeological topics: settlement, domestication, urbanisation and civilisation.

Ivan Crowe, a teacher, uses the concept of a quest for food to provide a readable though sometimes simplistic explanation for hominid evolution. This evolution follows a typical Darwinian and progressive course, defining food type, location and availability as the impetus for evolution. His explanation of certain developments in later hominids, explained solely through the necessity to search for food, is less convincing. This is, however, the only book which attempts to tackle this topic.

Crowe has made extensive use of archaeology and physical and social anthropology, which provides the reader with a bibliographic entry into this relatively unfrequented topic. His arguments are less convincing in relation to urbanisation and civilisation as these topics have been explored more fully elsewhere.

For the earlier stages of hominid development I would have preferred more detail of the habitat and vegetation types that were so important to hominids' ability to find food. Nonetheless Crowe's illustrations of vegetation and landscape are carefully researched. This book represents an ambitious attempt to embrace a vast and complex subject in a single narrative, and on the whole it does it well.

Mike Allen is an environmental archaeologist at Wessex Archaeology.

Thrill of the Chase

Reviewed by Chris Gerrard

A Landscape Revealed
Martin Green
Tempus £14.99
ISBN 0-7524-1490-9 pb

Cranborne Chase, the gently undulating area of chalk upland just south of Salisbury, is among the best-studied archaeological landscapes in Britain. Amongst its wealth of monuments are the Dorset Cursus and the Knowlton henge complex, numerous barrow cemeteries, the hillforts at Hambledon and Chiselbury, the prehistoric settlements at Little Woodbury and Pimperne, and the late Roman defensive earthwork of Bokerley Dyke.

This was, of course, the favoured stamping ground of the eager barrow-diggers Colt Hoare and Cunnington, the masterful Pitt Rivers, and the Wessex flyers Crawford and Keiller. More recently, it has been the focus of fieldwork by Wessex Archaeology, the Royal Commission, and no fewer than five different university teams.

This book is a readable and lively account of both past and recent archaeological work on Cranborne Chase. It has been a full season for books on archaeological fieldwork with a personal 'memoir' feel about them. Here Martin Green, twice winner of the Pitt Rivers Award for the best 'independent' archaeological work, provides a compelling context for the results of his own considerable fieldwork over the past 25 years on his own land at Down Farm.

The most engaging parts of the text convey the excitement at the discovery of new sites, 'adding another small piece to the gigantic jigsaw'. What impresses is the patience needed to investigate a landscape in microscopic detail, the array of techniques in use and, perhaps most of all, the author's determination to collaborate and share his discoveries with others. Here is a lesson for all archaeologists.

Following the well-established pattern for landscape surveys, this book is divided by period into a series of 'time slices' with a final chapter bringing the story right up to the present day. Most detail is reserved for prehistory and dwells in particular on the astonishing new evidence for the Neolithic and Bronze Ages in the locality, including a useful chapter by Mike Allen on environmental change.

Just one of the many monuments clustered along the spinal earthwork of the Dorset Cursus in the Neolithic period is the ceremonial complex at Monkton Up Winborne, excavated to reveal an outer perimeter of 14 oval pits and a huge central pit containing a remarkable multiple burial dated to 3300 BC. Readers may remember this site from the BBC2 Meet theAncestors series in which DNA analysis, computer imagery and superb artwork combined to retrieve the intimate details of the three children and the 30-year old woman buried there.

It comes as no surprise that this site, like so many others described here, was not only first identified by Martin Green from aerial photographs, but was mostly excavated and recorded by him too.

Chris Gerrard is a lecturer at Durham University.

Iron Age coins

Reviewed by Jonathan Williams

Coins and Power in Late Iron Age Britain
John Creighton
CUP £45.00
ISBN 0-521-77207-9 hb

This book is the first major work on the iconography of Iron Age British coins for many years. Before the Roman invasion in AD 43 many of the gold, silver and bronze coins that circulated in south-east England already had legends in Latin, and designs in the latest Roman style. They were in step with the new repertoire of imagery (eg, sphinxes, Victories and capricorns) associated with the rise to power of the Roman emperor Augustus.

This represents clear evidence for what we might call Romanisation before the Romans, and has scarcely been given the weight it deserves in recent years - not since Iron Age and Roman archaeologists rebelled against the historical inclinations of their classically-trained predecessors, and started preferring to look at structured deposition rather than Tacitus for their inspiration.

The author discusses both knowledgeably and interestingly the sea-change in coin designs from 'serial' imagery (head and horse patterns that developed organically across successive coin issues) to the adoption of classicising types and Latin legends in the late 1st century BC. He must be right to draw parallels between the building of royal dynasties in southeast Britain (reflected on coins in such legends as 'Verica, son of Commius'), and the invention by Augustus of his own dynastic connections, as exemplified by his name/title on coins 'Caesar Augustus son of the God' (ie, of Julius Caesar).

The historian Fergus Millar has long argued that one of the most palpable indications that people all over the Roman world knew that things had really changed under Augustus was the appearance of his portrait and name on locally produced coins from Spain to Syria. Now we can add pre-Roman Britain to the long list of areas that participated in the Augustan revolution in politics, culture and style.

Where this book is less successful is in its explanation of how this happened. Creighton, a lecturer at Reading University, puts most of his money on the idea that young British princes were sent to Rome as hostages to be brought up at Augustus's court. This, he believes, is the best way to explain how Augustan imagery was imported so whole-heartedly into pre-conquest Britain. He may be right to an extent. Romans did entertain as hostages/guests the sons of barbarian kings, both as pledges of their fathers' good faith and as a means of inculcating them with pro-Roman sentiment. Britons may have been involved too, though there is no literary evidence.

But despite various striking similarities with other local coinages in north Africa and Gaul which, Creighton argues, indicate long-distance contacts between pro-Roman kings around the empire who may have all grown up together in Rome, the hostage theory will not alone suffice as an explanation. The possible presence of British kings in Rome (Augustus's own inscriptional autobiography says that two of them fled to him there, but as suppliants rather than hostages) is surely a symptom of increased contact with the Roman world rather than a primary cause of it. As an explanation, it feels too slender to bear the weight of the significant developments in élite society and culture to which the new coin types seem to point.

Despite appalling editing by the publisher - there are far too many typographical errors - this is an important book which will certainly draw attention to this material.

Jonathan Williams works in the coins department of the British Museum

Flint mines

Reviewed by Peter Topping

Flint Mines in Neolithic Britain
Miles Russell
Tempus £19.99
ISBN 0-7524-1481-X hb

It has been particularly difficult to write this review considering my involvement in what could be considered a competing title (The Neolithic Flint Mines of England, RCHME 1999). However, one tries to be fair and objective.

Russell's book includes chapters on the early excavations, date and distribution, morphology, underground and surface workings, the meaning of mines and a brief review of later flint mining. It ends with a list of sites to visit and tips for further reading.

Tempus makes great claims for this book - it is 'the first full account of the subject . . . bringing the Neolithic flint mines of Britain centre stage for the first time'. This is not true. Robin Holgate's Shire title of 1991 arguably first brought the subject to the general reader, followed by his academic treatment in 1995. There was also the RCHME national survey, and plenty of other literature over the past 20 years.

This book suffers not only from poorly-framed publicity but also bad timing, following the RCHME volume by little more than a year. The RCHME monograph produced the first detailed survey of the English flint mines (only two sites have so far been confirmed in Scotland, and one in Northern Ireland) including a new corpus of accurate analytical surveys, fresh archival research, a suite of new radiocarbon dates to develop the chronology of these sites, and a reinterpretation of the role of mines within the wider Neolithic. Indeed, readers of this earlier work will be very familiar with much of the content in the Tempus book. The strong sense of déjà vu is heightened by the heavy reliance upon the earlier survey from the use of a RCHME photograph on the dust jacket to all but one of the aerial photographs and the redrawn site plans. All this is acknowledged but it highlights how little original research is encompassed in this book.

There were opportunities to produce something new. Amore detailed study of the artefact assemblages, particularly from unpublished archives such as John Pull's who worked on the South Downs between the 1920s and the 1960s, would have been valuable. The fact that such a focus is not included is surprising considering Russell's own work on this very assemblage.

The text has few new interpretative insights. There is the occasional curiosity, such as the novel suggestion concerning human body parts in certain mine shaft fills which 'could suggest the practice of cannibalism', but this is not discussed.

This book does reproduce a good selection of photographs from various excavations, but it can only work as a general summary of recent research.

Peter Topping is a field archaeologist with English Heritage

CBA web:

British Archaeology

February 2000
April 2000
June 2000
August 2000
October 2000
December 2000

CBA Briefing

CBA Groups
Courses & lectures
Grants & awards
New books

CBA homepage