Old ruins, new world
Lest we remember
Editor Simon Denison
Reviewed by Paul Bidwell
At first sight there could scarcely be two more dissimilar books on the same topic, one a classic archaeological account of Hadrian's Wall, first published in 1976 and now appearing in its fourth edition, and the other a history of the Wall as an ancient monument and a contribution to the growing literature of heritage studies.
But there is a strong connection between the two. Breeze and Dobson's book stands at the end of a century-long tradition of archaeological research designed to unravel the uniquely complicated history of the frontier works. Ewin describes a new world where the Wall is dominated by the sometimes conflicting demands of conservation and tourism, with archaeological research now one of many tools used to achieve the policies of planners, tourism promoters and heritage agencies. She also looks back, sometimes disapprovingly, to the era of research that made Breeze and Dobson's book possible.
This latest revision by Breeze and Dobson, respectively Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments at Historic Scotland and former Reader in Archaeology at Durham University, has been thorough but discriminating. Usually it results in no more than changes of emphasis. There is only one instance of wholesale demolition when, following the ideas of N Hodgson, the second period of the Antonine Wall disappears. It is sad to see some things go, particularly their succinct summation of the final phase: 'The soldiers of the Wall returned to the soil from which they had sprung'.
In the more detailed alterations we find a growing uncertainty about much that once seemed beyond dispute, ranging from the identity of legions building particular stretches of the Wall to the function of milecastles. These doubts, though, are not enough to cloud their vision of the Wall, as clear in the latest edition as in the first. The Wall was built to control movement across its line and not for defence. There was opposition to the Roman presence in the North but it had little influence on frontier policy. When military problems arose, the response was immediate and effective. Major changes on the frontier were caused by events elsewhere in the Empire, the death of an emperor and subsequent change of policy or the outbreak of war in another province. These views are not beyond dispute, however. Others are more willing to attribute changes in frontier policy to troubles in Britain.
Ewin, a Lecturer at St Martin's College Lancaster, is interested in how the Wall developed as a destination for tourism, and in its cultural history. She contrasts the presentation of sites in the care of state agencies unfavourably with those such as Vindolanda which have been interpreted with greater imagination and enthusiasm. This is not entirely fair. Sites such as Housesteads and Chesters had been excavated and laid out long before they came under state control and it is understandable that agencies chiefly concerned with conservation should leave them largely unaltered.
Although the scope of this small book is wide, it sometimes misses the point. Archaeological research is seen as having been a dilettante pursuit until the rise of the universities which, she says darkly, carried out excavations 'for their own purposes'. This is a travesty of one of the greatest programmes of problem-solving excavation undertaken anywhere in the world, which was started by the Victorians in a spirit of scholarly enquiry and carried forward with ever greater technical skill down to the 1940s. It is central to the story of Hadrian's Wall and as much of interest to visitors as anything else. Without its continuation the doubts and uncertainties which have accumulated through the successive editions of Breeze and Dobson's book will multiply.
We will never understand the entire history of the Wall, but if we are forced to rely entirely on the knowledge of previous generations, with all their preconceptions and blindspots, the results will be catastrophic. Eventually there will be a general realisation that the narrative presented in museums and at archaeological sites has become old, stale and unbelievable. Everyone will be the loser.
Paul Birdwell is the Head of Archaeology for Tyne & Wear museums
Reviewed by Paul Pettitt
Neanderthals are big business. They almost rival Darwin for the amount of literature generated about them. As debate continues to rage in academic circles as to whether or not modern humans were responsible for Neanderthal extinction, the media and popular press have tagged along in recent years with a number of programs and books ranging from the entertaining (Ian Tattersall's The Last Neanderthal) to the truly execrable (Paul Jordan's Neanderthal). Palmer's offering falls into the former category, and I can recommend it as a useful introduction to the world of the Neanderthals for the layman and student alike. His background in academic geology, and familiarity with science writing in geological and archaeological fields, has enabled him to create an intelligent narrative that is highly informative yet not patronising.
This is a tie-in with Channel 4's Neanderthal originally broadcast last autumn, and due for repeat alongside
a 'making of' programme this coming autumn. Being apparently the most expensive non-animated documentary ever commissioned (that is, after Walking with the Dinosaurs) and having generated a number of spin-offs currently in production, it is a good example of the high degree of media interest in human origins and things archaeological.
The Neanderthals' world was also the world of our own ancestors - the Cro-Magnons-and as Chris Stringer says in his foreword, 'in Neanderthal we are back in those dangerous times, in a vanished landscape alongside a vanished people.' An initial chapter presents an account of the initial discoveries in human evolution. All the famous names are there - Boucher de Perthes in the Somme Valley, Lartet and Christy in the Dordogne, Lubbock, Darwin, Dubois in Java - beginning with an initial picture of how the Neander Valley finds themselves were in 1856 blown out of the rock of the Feldhoffer Cave in the middle of a century ravaged by war, revolution, and scientific controversy.
From these unstable beginnings we are taken back to the equally unstable conditions of the Upper Pleistocene, or 'Neanderworld' as Palmer prefers. His account of how one reconstructs the highly fluctuating glacial/interglacial environments of the past 100,000 years is lucid, well-illustrated and includes evocative accounts of the environments familiar to Neanderthals. Even the famed frozen mammoths get a look in (the box is charmingly entitled 'ancient guts').
The main part of the book deals with Neanderthal biology and behaviour. First, Palmer describes their robust, muscular, physically stressed bodies, and deals with issues such as skin colour and clothing, interspersed with details of the prosthetic techniques used to turn Cro-Magnon actors into Neanderthals for the tv programme. He then moves on to consider birth, death, society and technology. Two subsequent chapters deal with their potential interactions with Cro-Magnons.
The book is well illustrated with colour photographs on nearly every page. Whilst screen shots from the television series are a little dull and often grainy, they can be easily overlooked. Boxes highlight major scientific issues and there are generous suggestions for further reading.
Paul Pettitt is the senior archaeologist at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit and a Junior Research Fellow at Keble College
Reviewed by Rosalind Niblett
Gladiators at the Guildhall
Gladiators and Caesars
These two books on gladiators are very different in both the material they cover, and the approach they take. Even so, anyone interested in the subject could not do better than to start here.
Gladiators at the Guildhall is a description for the layman of the important excavations undertaken at intervals between 1987 and 1999 on the site of London's Guildhall. It is beautifully illustrated and provides a fascinating account of the excavation of an extremely complex site, and one which provides remarkable new insights into different periods of the history of London.
In the course of these excavations parts of a large amphitheatre were uncovered, dating from the late 1st to mid-4th century ad, with remarkably well-preserved timber as well as masonry remains. These allowed detailed reconstructions to be suggested as well as providing a series of dendrochronological dates. The evidence for the amphitheatre is discussed in a clear and readable manner, and is supplemented by vivid descriptions of the function of particular elements of the structure, the various spectacles produced there, the evidence for amphitheatres elsewhere in Britain, and speculation as to the likely make-up of the audiences.
The amphitheatre, however, was only one element in the complex excavation of a site whose history covered nearly 2,000 years. Many of the most important aspects of the site for the overall history of London belong to subsequent periods. About half the book is therefore concerned with these later periods including an account of the evidence for Anglo/Scandinavian occupation on the site and the remarkably well-preserved 10th and 11th century buildings. This is followed by a discussion of the complex of important buildings that grew on the site between the 12th and 15th centuries. The book concludes with a survey of the largely documentary evidence for the site's history from the Reformation to the present day.
Gladiators and Caesars is a considerably longer book. It is a collection of essays by five continental scholars, originally written to accompany an exhibition in Hamburg. The present book is edited by Ralph Jackson and results from the decision to bring the exhibition last year to the British Museum (where it incorporated additional material from the Museum's own collection). With over 150 high quality colour illustrations, however, it can be read and enjoyed whether or not the reader has seen the exhibition.
While not aimed at the specialist (indeed, it does not assume any prior knowledge), it treats the subjects in considerable detail and covers all the types of mass entertainments in the Roman world - chariot racing, athletic contests and theatrical performances as well as gladiatorial games.
The authors tend to focus on Rome itself, and although some mention is made of provincial entertainments this is very much a secondary theme. All the contributors are primarily concerned with the entertainments and participants themselves. The buildings are not treated in such detail, and again rely largely on Italian examples.
The book starts by tracing the development of gladiatorial combats from their Etruscan origins as funeral rites, and emphasises the continued ceremonial and religious aspects of all types of entertainments. This is followed by an overview of the attitude to the mass entertainments of the dictators at the end of the Republic, and the emperors from Augustus to Constantine I. Discussions include the extent to which entertainments were used for propaganda purposes and as political tools for manipulating the masses. There follows a detailed discussion of games involving wild animals and gladiators.
Gladiatorial combats are dealt with in particular detail. The different categories of gladiators and the equipment and fighting techniques that distinguished them are carefully analysed. Their training is also discussed and their relative chances of survival. It is interesting to note the tombstones of apparently successful fighters, surrounded by wife and family and with every appearance of a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. These however were not the norm, and they appear side by side with chilling depictions of defenceless criminals sentenced ad bestias (ie, to be thrown to wild animals), and the evidence for the worsening of the odds for all classes of gladiators in the later Empire.
Alongside the detailed descriptions of gladiators are chapters on athletic contests and on Roman theatrical plays and pantomimes. Chariot racing is also discussed in detail with definitive accounts of how the chariots were constructed and of the organisation and timing of races. The inclusion of lesser-known types of entertainment serves as a valuable counterbalance to the widespread perception of Roman games as consisting only of chariot racing or gladiatorial combat. The book is extremely well illustrated and includes material from all over the empire, including many less familiar pieces not always easily accessible to the wider public.
Rosalind Niblett is the District Archaeologist for St Albans District Council
Reviewed by Paul Stamper
King Arthur's Round Table
What Martin Biddle gives us here, with himself in the role of Poirot, is an historical detective story of the first rank. The case is that of the Winchester Round Table, the massive wooden disk 18ft across and a ton in weight which for centuries has hung on the gable wall of Henry III's Great Hall at Winchester.
Painted with the red Tudor rose, a portrait of King Arthur, and radiating spokes marking out the named seating places of the fellowship of Knights, the Hall's guides would have visitors believe that this was indeed the real Arthurian Round Table, made in the 6th century. While this was, to put it mildly, inherently improbable, the real date and purpose of the roundel - even if it had ever been a table - remained a mystery.
Refurbishment of the Hall gave the opportunity in 1976 for Martin Biddle to assemble a multi-disciplinary team (17 contribute to this volume) to study the Round Table after it was carefully lowered to the ground. Many of the first thoughts held good over the 25 years that the study has taken to come to fruition - for example, that this had indeed been a table, as shown by the twelve deep mortices on its back from which the tenon of a table leg had been roughly snapped off; and (by Cecil Hewett) that a later 13th or early 14th century date was likely. Other thoughts have been amplified as scientific dating techniques have been refined, or reached as Biddle and his team read widely in medieval history, literature, and politics.
At the core of a complex study are three key conclusions. Most important is the identification of a likely context for the table's construction, namely a great tournament held at Winchester in April 1290 by Edward I to celebrate the arrangements made for the marriage of three of his children.
The Round Table is far from the only evidence of Edward's desire to recreate an imagined Arthurian Golden Age - 13 years earlier he was at Glastonbury for the translation of the supposed remains of Arthur and Guinevere to a new marble tomb - but it is by far the most tangible.
The second deduction is that the table probably stood in Winchester's Great Hall until 1348 when, as Arthurian fantasies were refocused on Windsor, its legs were knocked off and the roundel hoisted into the position where it has remained ever since. The third conclusion is that the painting, with Henry VIII depicted as heir to Arthur's ancient imperium, probably dates from 1516. This was blatant Tudor propaganda, created at a time when Henry had hopes of being elected Holy Roman Emperor.
This is no summary account but a full (560 page) and fully footnoted presentation of the evidence, some of it arcane - such as the ballistic evidence for a Parliamentary volley at the table during the Civil War - but all of interest and impeccably presented. The great detective and his team can feel rightly proud of themselves.
Paul Stamper is English Heritage's Inspector of Ancient Monuments for the West Midlands
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005