Years of pestilence
The medieval fleet
Editor Simon Denison
Industries of Swansea
Reviewed by David Gwyn
For over 150 years the lower Swansea valley was the most important copper-smelting area in the world, processing ore from Anglesey, Devon and Cornwall, as well as eventually from Cuba, Michigan, Chile and Australia.
The reason for this was that three times more coal than ore went into the furnace, so smelting had to be carried out near coal measures rather than copper mines. Swansea, in the earlier industrial period, was a particularly convenient area in which to win coal. The seams lay near the surface, so they could be reached by drifts or down shallow pits operated by a hand-windlass. They also lay conveniently near a sheltered anchorage so transport was comparatively easy, whether by cart or along a rudimentary wooden railway to the staithes.
By the end of the 18th century, the banks of the Tawe were lined, and its waters poisoned, by furnaces and refineries whose slender chimneys remained distinctive features of the landscape until smelting finally came to an end in 1924, creating in the meantime a distinctive industrial society and technical culture. 'The Great Workhouse', the long smelting hall at White Rock, was one of the first large-scale buildings of the industrial revolution. At Fforest the reverberatory calcining furnaces were encased in ornamental pavilions. Other industries were established - alum-production from 1735, porcelain from 1776, tinplate manufacture from 1747 at Ynys-pen-llwch. Copper-rolling was introduced in the early 19th century, and outlasted the other trades, the last mill closing in 1980.
Stephen Hughes of the Welsh Royal Commission has now published this important account of this important industry. Significantly, all of the industrial world is here - the copper works themselves, their water-supply, their power and transport systems, worker's and capitalists' housing, places of worship.
All are illustrated not only from the Royal Commission's own archive of photographs but also by attractive and clearly-drawn plans and elevations, and with reproductions of paintings and engravings from the 19th and previous centuries. Many of these are given full page treatment, though it is a pity to see some others reproduced at a very small scale.
As well as studying the material remains in great detail, Stephen Hughes has researched his subject with quite remarkable thoroughness. His approach deserves to be studied by any person or organisation contemplating future work of this nature - as well as by anyone interested in Welsh history.
David Gwyn works at he Gwynedd Archaeological Trust and is Editor of the Industrial Archaeology Review
Locals vs archaeologists
Reviewed by Hedley Swain
Debating the Archaeological Heritage
It has been argued that the American students who led the political correctness campaign in the early 1980s, although worthy in their concern to gain recognition and visibility for all who were not rich white men, actually lost sight of the real political campaign that needed fighting at the time - that against world poverty and the exploitation of the poor by global corporations. Could it be that a similar error is being made by some archaeologists now?
Robin Skeates's well written and accessible book chronicles the debates being waged by archaeologists around the world within the sphere of what is generally termed 'public archaeology'. This includes (and the book summarises well) a myriad of subjects including the Parthenon Marbles, aborigine skeletons, Hindu temples and Seahenge. But what most boil down to are the conflicting views of indigenous peoples and 'establishment archaeologists'. As Skeates explains, the debate is made more difficult by the post-processualist theory that archaeologists must admit that they have no authority of opinion in the understanding and management of the archaeological heritage.
So the argument goes that archaeologists must always respect the wishes of local people - the people that have most invested culturally in the past - and that archaeologists must always admit to their own limitations when interpreting and understanding the past. Both of these statements should be self-evident but they are most fiercely espoused, I would suggest, by academics who have only minimal practical contact with real people and real situations and have an irritating habit of 'cherry picking' their examples from around the globe but considering them universal. So, for example, if it is ethically unacceptable to excavate and display Native American skeletons, must this also be the case for skeletons in Britain? No - we are dealing with totally different cultural backgrounds in the two areas.
These arguments also break down in the particular. It is perfectly right, most of us would agree, that native American and Australian people should have the right to deny archaeologists access to the graves of their ancestors. But Skeates describes indigenous Eskimos who consciously 'loot' their own heritage, selling objects as part of the international antiquities trade, in order to survive. Do they have equal rights?
What is forgotten in this debate, and in the book, is why most archaeologists entered that career in the first place and what it is their duty to do - namely, to observe and record data, to synthesise and interpret data, and finally and most importantly to communicate their conclusions to as wide an audience as possible. And to do all this using common sense, experience and intelligence that can be judged by our peers. That is what public archaeology should really be about - telling as many people as possible, in as imaginative a way as possible, just how fascinating and valuable an understanding of the past can be. If we concentrate on that the rest will follow, because by doing that we will be engaging indigenous and all other people and empowering them to take control of their past.
This short volume summarises the many facets of 'the archaeological heritage' well. Its use will be almost as a dictionary of current archaeological debate. But it fails to get to grips with the bigger questions, too many of the views are given equal weighting, and there is no attempt to provide an overview of where the current debates originated and are going. If the book lacks anything else it may be a sense of humour, something else we would be well to remember as we go out and tell our stories to the world.
Hedley Swain is Head of Early London History and Collections at the Museum of London
Reviewed by Peter Ryder
In the three or four centuries of turmoil that the English/Scottish Border suffered, the response of the land-owning classes is well known - namely, to build castles and towers. The rest of the population could not afford such measures; the only stone-built and relatively fire-proof building they had recourse to for defence was the village church or chapel.
This substantial volume looks at these churches. It is unusual and valuable in that its remit includes both sides of the Border. Sandwiched between a brief but useful introduction and conclusion, the bulk of its pages are in effect a gazetteer of churches and other ecclesiastical buildings in the six Border Marches (from east to west, Scottish and English in turn). The text, setting a discussion of the buildings against a backcloth of their sometimes lurid history, is very readable, and lavishly illustrated with plans, old prints and clear black-and-white photographs.
Almost all the pre-1700 churches in the area are shown to demonstrate one or other of various criteria for 'defensibility', such as thick walls, vaults, draw-bar tunnels, and evidence of domestic accommodation in western towers. Sometimes alternative interpretations may be possible. The buttressing at Kirkwhelpington, and the wall blocking the tower arch at Hartburn, for example, could be interpreted rather as attempts to prevent badly-built structures collapsing rather than defences against Scottish raiders. Even so, this is an excellent book - far superior to many of those dealing with the better known secular strongholds of the region. It is rounded off by a series of appendices and an exhaustive bibliography.
Peter Ryder is a freelance buildings archaeologist based in Northumberland
Reviewed by Glenn Foard
Blood Red Roses
This book describes the first modern investigation of a mass grave from a medieval European battlefield - the Wars of the Roses battle at Towton, Yorkshire. The authors demonstrate major advances in excavation and forensic methodology since the excavation of mass graves from the Swedish medieval battle at Wisby, advances that must be considered in all future battlefield excavations.
Despite the technical detail in some of these discussions, there is much in the analysis about the life and especially the death of the soldiers that will fascinate the general reader. There are also very accessible chapters on subjects like weapons, armour and personal combat, which place the burials in a contemporary military context. The book brings together much of the expertise in forensic analysis, excavation, field survey, historic topography and historical investigation that battlefield study demands.
But, although various authors effectively present a mass of new information, the book remains just a series of separate papers. There is no effective integration or critical debate between independent historical, topographical and archaeological data sets and thus there are no major new insights into the battle itself.
One chapter shows what field survey can and can't yield on medieval battlefields. It also recognises the greatest threat to battlefield archaeology - unrecorded metal detecting - by intentionally omitting any plan of the artefact distribution recovered across the battlefield, because of concern it would be misused. Yet it is Simon Richardson's metal detecting work, not the excavation of the mass grave, which is by far the most important and immediate contribution of the Towton project to the investigation of medieval battlefields. It shows that in the absence of the ballistic evidence found on later battlefields, probably because most arrows unlike bullets were easily retrieved from the field by the combatants, metal detecting can still provide independent evidence as to the location of the fighting.
What was needed was to see this evidence presented in the context of the medieval landscape, effectively reconstructed using all available documentary and archaeological sources, and interpreted in the light of the evidence of the nature of 15th century military deployments and tactics.
Naturally the focus of the book is the burials, most of which had horrendous multiple head wounds which speak to us vividly over the centuries of the brutality of the hand to hand combat of medieval warfare. However the inferences about the weapons and the nature of the fighting drawn from the wounds are limited, in spite of the excellent work of the researchers. This is to a large degree because 37 burials from a single pit, possibly from the rout, cannot be representative of a battle in which thousands died. As a result, we are in danger of not seeing the battle for the bodies. Investigation of more burial pits elsewhere on the field would be valuable, but battlefield study also demands that the archaeologist look up out of the excavation trench.
The Towton research has shown that excavation and especially field survey can provide independent evidence that has the potential to transform the interpretation of the documentary sources. That potential has yet to be fully realised at Towton and we have to admit that, even when it is, archaeology will remain the junior partner in the study of historical battles.
Glenn Foard is the County Archaeologist in Northamptonshire and an expert in battlefield archaeology
Reviewed by Richard Morris
When the undergraduate Francis Pryor arrived in Cambridge in 1964, popular history books were telling us that hunter-gatherers had been 'animal-like' and were nowhere near as bright as Neolithic farmers. Prehistory in the days of Harold Wilson was a painfully slow crawl, advanced by rare individuals 'who could think better than the others'. Nearly four decades later Pryor has written a book which opens with the proposition that while places like Avebury and Stonehenge may seem 'alien and strange', their makers were indistinguishable from ourselves.
Seahenge loosely belongs to that genre already pioneered by Mike Pitts in Fairweather Eden and Hengeworld in which anecdote, autobiography, historiography, technical and interpretative discussion are interleaved. Sometimes filmic in structure, with short scenes, flash-backs and cutaways, chats in pubs and ideas while doing the washing-up, this is also a kind of literary fugue, in which different themes are set in motion and then run in counterpoint.
One theme is Pryor's professional life, his journey as an excavator from the epic excavations at Fengate begun in 1971 through Maxey, Etton and Flag Fen, culminating in the timber circle on the beach at Holme-next-the Sea in 1999. Seahenge is strong on time and place. Anyone who dug in the 1960s and 70s (or indeed more recently) will re-enter the world they knew; anyone who didn't will find it accurately recalled.
Another journey is intellectual, from early preoccupations with 'what' and 'when' to a softer, more imaginative engagement with 'why'. In large part, indeed, this is a study in the nature of archaeological reasoning. For those who share WH Auden's sympathetic scepticism about archaeology ('Knowledge may have its purposes' he wrote shortly before he died, 'but guessing is always more fun than knowing'), Seahenge is as good a reply
as any, for it repeatedly catches archaeology's flickering, back-and-forth dialectic between the particular and the general. At one moment Pryor is on his knees, looking at faint traces of late-Neolithic turf removal. In the next he is assimilating such detail to a discussion of what henges were actually for.
Seahenge sparkles with incident, humour, pithy asides, admonitions, opinions about environmental vandalism, and 'eureka!' moments when new insights are launched by chance. First and last, though, it is a book about landscape, and especially fenland. Pryor's fens are not undifferentiated flatness, but areas of local identity and subtle contrast. Some of his finest writing observes fens in different lights, weathers and seasons.
Seahenge re-peoples the fens four, five, six thousand years ago. The people do not stand in static poses but are involved in ceremonies, journeys, lives, communities, in surroundings as powerful and emotionally influential then as Pryor finds them now. Folklore tells that the dead walk on the other side of our footprints, as if hanging beneath the filmy surface of a pond. Seahenge explores similar symmetries on, below, and within the modern landscape. I have not read any book which does so better.
Richard Morris, formerly Director of the CBA, is an archaeologist and historian. His biography of Leonard Cheshire was published in paperback by Penguin earlier this year
Tax, gadgets (and roads)
Reviewed by Roger White
What the Romans did for Us
This book provides an answer to Monty Python's famous question, 'So what have the Romans ever done for us?' For a start, they taught us to live in nice, centrally heated houses with windows and tasteful décor as opposed to plain mud huts with smoky thatch.
They also brought more dubious pleasures to Britain, elements of their version of civilization - mass entertainment through the slaughtering of animals and people in the arena; tact and diplomacy, as epitomised by their treatment of the Iceni; and the glories of organised government through their greatest inventions, bureaucracy and taxation. No wonder the Victorians identified with them so readily.
Indeed the Romans brought all manner of benefits, many of which are explored in this sound, copiously illustrated, but basic book. It is not quite the book of the recent bbc programme with the same name, although presenter Adam Hart Davies writes an introduction and appears occasionally in its pages - for example peering into a vallus (reaping machine) that is incongruously equipped with what look suspiciously like old pram wheels, or (twice) brandishing a clean sponge on a stick in a suggestive manner. These to an extent sum up the programmes: archaeological reconstruction at is most basic and, to be frank, cheapest.
But let us not carp too much - it's all good clean fun, as the Wallsend bath reconstruction shows, and for those with minimal knowledge of Roman Britain this little volume will serve a useful purpose. The thumbnail sketches of the principal sites are useful and liberally dotted through the text, while the meat of the book is sound if plain fare.
I would quibble, however, with the old canard that the Romans never invented anything - it is always those much cleverer Greeks who got there first. For those who still believe this to be true, go and stand in the Pantheon in Rome for half and hour and see what a truly imaginative Dome really looks like. The one openly acknowledged exception to this, of course, is the Roman army who are presented here as not just the professionally trained killers they undoubtedly were but also as engineers, builders, architects, navvies, plumbers, and communications experts. Of course, even the Roman Army supposedly had to rely on the Greeks to supply their artillery, siege towers, and anything else that needed brains rather than brawn, but none the less the Romans do seem to have invented some things: txt mssgs via semaphore flags, for instance, and, God help us, fast food restaurants.
But then perhaps that is why the Romans appeal so much to a modern audience. Although they lived so long ago, their world seems so familiar to us largely because they not only had many of the gadgets that we too have invented, but also suffered from the annoyances and strains of urban life along with some of its pleasures.
Roger White is a specialist in the archaeology of Roman Britain at the University of Birmingham
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005