Guns of the Armada
Editor Simon Denison
Reviewed by Shane Gould
This book on the archaeology of gunpowder and military explosives manufacturing presents the results of the latest - and arguably the most ambitious - thematic survey by the former English Royal Commission (now merged with English Heritage). Nine chapters take the reader from the rudimentary techniques of medieval gunpowder production to the sophisticated rocketry of the Cold War era. Included are sections on the origins of the industry, the 18th century Royal Gunpowder Factories, gunpowder production in the second half of the 19th century, the development of the chemical explosives industry, manufacture during the two World Wars and the archaeology of rocketry.
Although the book considers history and technology, its main strength lies in the use of the surviving field monuments to explain the physical operation of these sites - their buildings, layout, manufacturing flow lines, power supply, safety and internal communications.
A large part of the book is devoted to the Royal Gunpowder Factory at Waltham Abbey, Essex, whose initial recording in 1993 provided the catalyst for this study. Having been recognised as the most important site in the history of explosives manufacture in Europe, the site received £12.8 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other bodies to create an interpreted landscape for the national explosives industry. It was opened to the public in May last year.
This book forms part of a wider programme of work on the defence estate which is currently being undertaken by English Heritage. Given the large-scale rationalistion of Ministry of Defence property in recent years, it became increasingly apparent that a full understanding of these sites and structures was needed if the best examples were to gain statutory protection. The work is producing a coherent body of knowledge on a range of subjects where archaeological analysis had been sadly lacking.
Dangerous Energy will be of considerable interest to industrial archaeologists, military and technological historians, and also to those involved in the recording, conservation and management of these enigmatic sites.
Shane Gould is the Borough Archaeologist for Sandwell Borough Council
Fighting for land
Reviewed by Simon Denison
This book by a medieval archaeologist-turned-local historian deals with the effects of 17th century enclosure by the lords of the manor on the community of Walberswick on the Suffolk coast. The 'Bloody Marsh' of the title was the site of a fight in 1644 between one of the landlord's cronies and a group of locals, in which the lord's man was fatally wounded. Three of the townsfolk were subsequently hanged.
The fight might be regarded as the climax of the story but is hardly mentioned in the book because so little is known about the event. The book nods occasionally towards archaeology but is mainly an examination of records of legal actions between landlord and tenants, interleaved with chapters on the economic background, enclosure and religion. The subject matter is interesting, as it touches on the impact of long-term historical trends on real lives; and it is intriguing to read of bitterly contested events of the 1640s that had almost nothing to do with the Civil War.
The book received a glowing review in BBC History magazine from a leading academic specialist in the period. General readers, however, might find it more of a trial because of constant lapses in writing style. The narrative meanders, repeats itself, and too often becomes bogged down in detail. We find sentences without verbs, hanging nominatives, spelling mistakes, sentences strung together by commas rather than divided by full stops, apostrophe plurals and various other annoying misuses of punctuation.
Strangely enough, much of the book reads reasonably well as though two hands are at work - or as if a poor draft was only half-edited at the publisher's. There is no doubting Peter Warner's mastery of the sources; but the writing lacks the imagination to allow us ever to become engaged with the characters of the story.
Simon Denison is the Editor of British Archaeology
History in buildings
Reviewed by Peter McCrone
Vernacular Buildings in a Changing World
This book outlines what can (or may) be achieved in understanding the societies of the past by utilising the archaeology of vernacular buildings to complement the work of historians. It is a collection of papers from a conference held in Oxford in 1998, and demonstrates that in vernacular building study a diversity of players - from academic institutions and local authorities to amateur research groups and individuals - all have a valuable role to play.
At the same time it outlines some of the shortcomings of officialdom. Baker's paper in particular sets out in considerable detail the documentation and approach which should be required to inform the process of change and conservation when proposals to alter historic buildings are made. This should be read, and acted on, by every conservation officer, planner and architect in the country - as experience of the system over many years demonstrates that even the basic requirements of ppg15 (the government planning guidance on historic buildings) are rarely fully applied.
Morris's contribution on the frustrations of the commercial recording contractor also makes some telling points about work carried out through the planning process. This type of work generates a large number of site reports on individual buildings without, in most cases, an overarching research agenda, or research funding, which would allow the information in to be synthesised into regional or national publications, which (in turn) would elucidate the development and use of vernacular architecture. This is a familiar gripe of 'below ground' archaeologists producing reports generated under ppg16 (government planning guidance on archaeology), and similarly needs to be addressed if we are not to end up with an unwieldy mass of almost inaccessible primary data.
As a whole, the volume demonstrates the potential for increasing our level of understanding of the past by using vernacular buildings. The future lies in the better application of existing techniques, the application of existing policy guidelines and the awareness that, even if a building was recorded in the past, there may be much more information to be gleaned by re-recording it when the opportunity allows.
It should be on the essential reading list of all conservation officers, planners, architects, elected councillors and anyone else involved in decisions concerning historic buildings. It probably won't be read by most of them but it certainly should be.
Peter McCrone is the County Archaeologist for Lancashire
Reviewed by Simon James
Dying for the Gods
Few topics are more blood-curdling, yet horribly fascinating, than human sacrifice. It is something which we would rather not believe has really happened and, indeed, its past occurrence can be difficult to prove.
In her latest book, Miranda Aldhouse Green presents a wealth of gruesome information about the often startling and enigmatic ways in which people - or at least bodies - were treated in Europe during the last centuries BC and Roman times. Some of this, she argues, constitutes testimony for the sacrifice of people to supernatural powers. That the case needs to be made arises from problems with both our principal sources of evidence - archaeology and contemporary writings.
It is actually difficult to distinguish archaeological evidence for human sacrifice per se from a range of other practices, ranging from judicial punishment (eg, smothering people in marshes) to bizarre treatments of the already-dead (eg, exposure to carrion birds and dismemberment, or possible cannibalism), especially since categories such as execution and blood-sacrifice can overlap.
On the other hand, while we possess a number of lurid accounts by Greco-Roman authors alleging human sacrifice among the Ancient Gauls, Britons and Germans, Aldhouse Green rightly draws attention to the anti-'barbarian' bias of these descriptions. There is good reason to suspect distortion, if not deliberate fabrication. So, how far was human sacrifice a reality?
After outlining these difficulties, Aldhouse Green explores the nature of sacrifice in antiquity, and then examines what was done to human bodies, looking at rites of fire and of blood, special treatment of heads, evidence for suffocation and drowning, leading to discussions of how victims were selected, what for, and by whom.
She concludes that, while human sacrifice was not an everyday occurrence, it was a widely-practised special rite across later prehistoric Europe, which seems to have continued under Roman rule. Indeed, not the least important theme of the book is that Romans and indeed Greeks indulged in human sacrifice - or at least practices remarkably close to it - more often and until much later than is commonly realised.
Human sacrifice certainly sells books, and this one will be of value to students and archaeologists, but lack of a glossary will make some of its terminology off-putting to non-specialists. They may also be surprised at the unexplained near-absence of the word 'Celtic', especially from an author who has written several books with it in the title, and who deals here with Druids.
The reason is that she has embraced the major shift among most Iron Age archaeologists in Britain who have, for very good reasons, rejected the cosy idea of a 'Celtic' Iron Age for these islands and even the continent. One of the less welcome effects of this shift is that archaeologists are in danger of creating an equally romanticised past, in which heroic warrior Celts are replaced by a new picture of relatively egalitarian and pacific farmers (BA September 1996, March 1997).
This book reasserts, and illustrates very clearly, the violence and grisly practices which constituted an important part of many, probably all, Iron Age societies. The ancient ways of bloodshed may seem mysterious and horrifying to us, but the facts of violence reflect the darker side of the humanity we share with these earlier peoples.
Simon James is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Leicester
Reviewed by David Longley
The Vikings in Wales
This book is subtitled 'an archaeological quest' - and Mark Redknap's quest here has two objectives. The broad aim is to place the evidence for Viking impact on Wales before a wider audience. It is appropriate that this should be so. Viking interaction with the Welsh kingdoms of the early Middle Ages was a very significant factor in their development. There were raids, but there was also trade, intermarriage and political alliances. The Isle of Anglesey lies only 60 miles from Viking Dublin and the Viking connection was instrumental in the eventual triumph of Gwynedd under Gruffudd ap Cynan and Owain Gwynedd during the 12th century.
The second, more personal, quest concerns his discovery of Viking-period artefacts at Llanbedrgoch on Anglesey and the subsequent investigation and elucidation of what has become one of the most important archaeological discoveries in Wales in recent years.
The book, in appearance and presentation, targets a wide audience. An introductory section - Heathen Men, Birth of a Viking Myth and Charting New Waters - outlines the growth of popular and scholarly interest in all things Viking during the 19th and 20th centuries. This is followed by a historical outline, and a context for the period, during the course of which particular emphasis is placed on specific themes and locations including Buttington, Chester, Rhuddlan and Anglesey.
The larger part of the book, however, details the material evidence. There are sections on the Viking Warrior, Seafaring, Traders, House and Home, Dress, Crafts and Ornament. Welsh material is well used to illustrate the discussion. Highlighted features within each section focus on, for example, sites such as Chester and Rhuddlan; individuals such as Cnut; incidents like the Battle of the Menai Straits in 1098; and archaeological and craft techniques.
The presentation relies heavily on the results of Redknap's own excavations at Llanbedrgoch on behalf of the National Museum. This is rightly so as the evidence of both artefacts and settlement sequence there provides one of the richest assemblages of the early Middle Ages from Wales, and much of this information will not have been generally available before. The book concludes with a section on the rather limited evidence for death, burial and religion.
This is a very attractive book, in colour throughout. Good use is made of maps, plans and diagrams (the use of colour in illustrating the detailed site drawings from Llanbedrgoch is particularly well done) and the photographs are well chosen.
David Longley is the Director of the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005