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Cover of British Archaeology

Issue 65

June 2002



Wealthy early Roman graves near St Albans

Dig in West Midlands reveals empty landscape

Medieval enclosed garden found at Welsh border castle

Porcelain finds show changes in 18th century taste

Medieval parchment from site of Canterbury’s friary

In Brief


Fortress Britain
Simon Denison on Britain’s Second World War defences

Great Sites
Paul Bidwell on the Roman legionary baths at Exeter

Engines of Change
David Gwyn on the landscape archaeology of railways

Lord of the Hrungs
David Hinton on the influences behind Tolkien’s epic


Armoured jacks, human sacrifice, and a ‘lost’ Roman town


Stop demolishing Victorian terraces, by George Lambrick

Peter Ellis

Regular column


Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World by Katherine Dunbabin

Migrants and Invaders by Malcolm Todd

The Molecule Hunt by Martin Jones

Britons and Romans edited by Simon James & Martin Millett

The Archaeology of Shamanism edited by Neil Price

CBA update

favourite finds

John Lewis on realising the truth about the Stanwell cursus.


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Simon Denison


World of mosaics

Reviewed by Martin Henig

Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World
Katherine Dunbabin
CUP £25.00
ISBN 0-521-00230-3 pb

Many readers of British Archaeology will approach the subject of mosaics after having seen a few pavements from Romano-British villas such as Fishbourne, Bignor or Chedworth, or after having been overwhelmed by the expanse of figural mosaic at Piazza Armerina in Sicily or on the walls of the Bardo in Tunis. Until recently there was no way of putting these into context. Then in 1998 Roger Ling brought out a splendid little book for British Museum Press called Ancient Mosaics - though this, valuable as it is,was only a taster for what was to come.

Now Katherine Dunbabin has written a book which will be the basis of future work on mosaics in general for decades to come. As with most other crafts in the Roman world, the origins of mosaic lay in Classical Greek times with the pebble-mosaics of Greece. Tessellation, the actual shaping of the stones, began in Hellenistic times. The technique then naturally spread to Italy, not just the Greek South but the North as well. There used to be a tendency to see the art of the Roman world as drearily unified, but recently increased attention has been paid to local styles and influences. These are especially apparent in mosaics but it has taken Dunbabin's book to make this easy to demonstrate.

Britain is very properly given a full chapter all to itself. Apart from a few early examples like the 1st century monochrome floors at Fishbourne which essentially belong to the Italian and South Gaulish tradition of the time, Britain's 2nd century and even more the 4th century floors are distinctive stylistically, with their bold linear designs, and in subject matter, with mythological and religious scenes demonstrating the patron's learning and education. The traditions of British archaeology have perhaps resulted in a more careful analysis than is common elsewhere, including the definition of regional schools; but the full complexity of British mosaics will have to await the publication of Steve Cosh and David Neal's definitive Corpus in the near future.

What is useful is to be able to set the British mosaics alongside those of other Western provinces such as Gaul, Iberia, North Africa or Sicily. In general, mosaicists in most other parts of the Empire created realistic pictures in their mosaics, like paintings. Many North African mosaics and the floors at Piazza Armerina, for example, are overwhelmed by gory scenes of wild-beast fights and gladiatorial scenes. Such realistic imagery is virtually absent in Britain, where mosaics are typically more abstract. Now, when returning tourists inform me how much 'better' the expanses of Piazza Armerina are than the mosaics of Britain, I can, with pictures and text, show that we are not comparing like with like. But it is shameful that while the Sicilians show Piazza Armerina, the equally spectacular masterpiece at Woodchester near Stroud remains covered up.

Many of the most fascinating mosaics are in the East. Of especial interest are the mosaics from Edessa in the Roman frontier province of Osrhoene and the Jewish and Christian mosaics of Palestine, some of which are Byzantine in date, showing how the craft of mosaic ran on and on. Indeed, the climax here is the wonderful suite of 8th century mosaics from the Umayyad palace at Khirbet el-Mafjar. These demonstrate to me that, as in the case of the 4th century mosaics of Britain, the medium benefits from stylisation, not realistic figurative representation.

Dunbabin gives us much much else, including the fascinating Pagan mosaics of Cyprus (to be compared and contrasted with those from Britain), Greece and Constantinople. We look at the beginnings of wall and vault mosaics but not their full flowering in Byzantine Ravenna, Rome and Constantinople - as this is a subject in itself, which has been quite well treated in the past. There are useful chapters on techniques, craftsmen and workshops, and patronage.

This is a beautifully written book by a scholar of exceptional sensitivity. While there is doubtless more to be said, for example on the subject of interpreting figural scenes, as a textbook this has to be the book of the year for anyone with the slightest interest in Graeco-Roman culture.

Martin Henig lectures on Roman art at the the University of Oxford

One migration after another

Reviewed by Heinrich Härke

Migrants and Invaders
Malcolm Todd
Tempus £17.99
ISBN 0-7524-1437-2 pb

In this book Malcolm Todd covers an admirable range of peoples on the move, from the Celts around 500 BC to the nomadic Avars and Bulgars in eastern Europe in the 7th century AD.

The book opens with a refreshing look at recent population shifts and refugee movements in Europe, highlighting the potential contribution of archaeology to a long-term perspective on migrations. Thereafter, however, the book loses the plot and degenerates into a series of descriptions of one migration after another.

The advantage of this narrative approach is that it provides coverage, albeit brief, of some of the lesser-known societies of early historical Europe, in addition to the Huns, Goths, Franks and other key players of the Migration Period. The disadvantage is that the book hardly ever ventures beyond description, and lacks intellectual cohesion.

The book's short overview of migration studies is commendable in that it introduces the reader to the continental tradition of research. On the other hand, there is not a word about the anti-migrationism of processualist archaeology, and there is no discussion at all of the methods and problems of inferring migrations from archaeological evidence. The author pays lip service to recent critiques of ethnic identification, but then uses conventional ethnic labels for archaeological finds throughout the volume. There is no systematic treatment of the processes of migrations. All too often, the reader is left to work these out from the narrative. And the conclusions are far too short to pull the strands together.

There are also numerous signs that the author's Durham University lectures were thrown together too hastily to make up this book. Among many other shortcomings, proof-reading deteriorated so much towards the end of the book that duplications of entire paragraphs went unnoticed in the last couple of chapters.

For the reader who wants an overview of the major 'tribes' who migrated, raided or expanded in Europe between about 600 BC and AD 600, this may be a useful introduction if read in conjunction with a historical atlas. But for anybody who wants to learn about causes, processes and consequences of early historical migrations, this book is likely to be a disappointment.

Heinrich Härke is a Migration Period specialist at the University of Reading

Ancient DNA

Reviewed by Michael Richards

The Molecule Hunt
Martin Jones
Penguin £18.99
ISBN 0-713-99423-1 hb

Many of the most exciting new discoveries in archaeology today are made in laboratories, not the field. The application of scientific methods borrowed from physics and chemistry has been going on since at least the 1950s and has allowed us to get absolute chronologies for sites and regions. Perhaps more important is the use of methods from biology and biochemistry, particularly the use of DNA analysis.

The extraction of ancient DNA from archaeological remains is exciting (and not only to journalists), as are a number of other methods involving the recovery and analysis of the damaged, but often still preserved, organic remains recovered from archaeological sites. A great success of ancient DNA research has been (almost) definitively showing that the Neanderthals were our close cousins and not our direct ancestors, while DNA and other techniques have provided much more detailed information on the biological processes that occurred when we first starting manipulating our environment and domesticating plants and animals.

Martin Jones has been at the forefront of bioarchaeology as the subject has matured in the 1980s and 1990s. This book is an account of his personal experiences with the research, as well as an accessible and enjoyable introduction to the science and the archaeology. Most of the book focuses on ancient DNA, explaining the intricacies of the methods as well as chronologically outlining the early work in this area. He highlights the remarkable work undertaken on amplifying Neanderthal DNA, as well as his own work on DNA analysis of ancient domesticated plants. In later chapters he discusses the newer developments of DNA analyses, as well as briefly discussing other techniques such as organic residue and stable isotope analyses.

Martin Jones explains the often complex science behind the various methods is an easily accessible way. However, he includes a great number of examples in an effort to make this book 'state of the art'. This will make it a valuable introduction for students, but may be too detailed for the more casual reader. A number of the scientific discoveries he discusses, especially involving ancient DNA and blood residue analysis, are controversial, and are presented uncritically.

In addition, a section discussing the ethics of bioarchaeological research would have been welcome and timely, especially in discussing the genetic manipulation of plants; and the dangers of looking for 'racial' groups in the past using human DNA, as well as of using human tissues for research. But these are minor criticisms of a generally excellent book.

Michael Richards is a bioarchaeolgist at the University of Bradford

Roman Britain's future

Reviewed by Neil Faulkner

Britons and Romans
eds Simon James & Martin Millett
CBA £15.95
ISBN 1-902771-16-8 pb

Despite the amount and high quality of archaeological research into Roman Britain, Roman Britain studies remain something of an archaeological backwater. Why?

Partly because archaeologists have been too preoccupied trying to fit their evidence into historical frameworks derived from classical texts. New information from fieldwork is used to tweak the narrative details, but data from different sites are not synthesised and allowed to tell their own story independent of the texts. No overall research strategies are worked out, and rescue digs continue accumulating data in a theoretical vacuum.

What needs to be done? Contributors to this volume - which seeks to advance a research agenda - stress the need to use data to create new archaeological categories which challenge the received wisdom of ancient writers. Should we just go on using Roman legal terms like colonia and civitas-capital, asks Martin Millett for instance, or should we create a new settlement hierarchy based on ground-plans, structures and finds? Is it not time to reject 'the strait-jacket of AD 43' imposed on us by Claudian propaganda, argues John Creighton, and reinterpret evidence from sites like Gosbecks and Fishbourne as indicating a gradual Roman takeover in alliance with native rulers? Can we not compare small finds (Lindsay Allason-Jones), pottery (Jeremy Evans) and animal bones (Keith Dobney) from different sites to test established classifications and perhaps create new ones?

All very sound. But there are also dangers inherent in the fashionable theory of 'post-processualism' with which the volume is saturated. The deconstruction of existing categories by the 'not necessarily' school could leave us with no categories at all. Society does, after all, involve long-term structures and processes which shape people's lives. Cultural identities do not float around in the ether - they are rooted in the hard realities of class and power. Simon James tells us the Romans had no word for 'the army' (only 'armies') and that soldiers and civilians were integrated in frontier societies. But that does not mean the army did not exist. Roman soldiers did kill people. Roman emperors were imperialists.

This is an interesting volume full of ideas, but only part of the research agenda is here. What is missing most is the overarching framework - Rome as a world system of domination and enrichment. I recommend a dose of good old-fashioned 'processualism' to set things right.

Neil Faulkner is an archaeologist and author of 'The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain'


Reviewed by Christopher Chippindale

The Archaeology of Shamanism
ed Neil Price
Routledge £18.99
ISBN 0-415-25255-5 pb

This splendid and fresh collection of papers - compactly and well written, faultlessly presented - appears at a timely moment for British archaeology. We can now tell a precise story for British prehistory of material change and economic transformation within a controlling environmental frame. It has become obvious, however, that central issues - what it was like to be prehistoric European, just how Neolithic human beings experienced and understood their world - are not answered that way.

One way to tackle these sorts of questions is modern social theory; another is to try to think oneself into a prehistoric frame of mind. Price's book offers a better approach, at once more imaginative and more soundly based. As Lévi-Strauss said, 'Against the theoretician, the observer should always have the last word, and against the observer, the native.'

At the beginning of the book the editor introduces the idea of the shaman in the narrow sense, taken from the name of the specialists amongst the Evenki peoples of central Siberia who sent out their souls to communicate with beings of the spirit-world. Shamanism is the generalized term invented to describe this singular way of knowing the world. Then Lewis-Williams sketches, lucidly and compellingly, the fullest worked example of using shamanism to make sense of archaeological material - his and colleagues' explorations of meaning in the recent San rock-art of southern Africa.

Following this introduction to the idea of shamanism and how it can inspire archaeological interpretation, the book offers twelve papers concerning three regions. The first is Siberia and central Asia, the region where modern shamanism is so well documented, and where one can therefore reasonably attempt a 'direct historical' approach, starting from distinctive patterns in the recent world and seeing if they track back towards prehistory. Two papers report shamanic knowledge as it is alive and strong today, from western Siberia (despite Soviet oppression) and the Nepal Himalayas.

Turning to the archaeology, three papers report congruence in imagery and iconography so close that it decisively links modern shamanism in Siberia back to the Bronze Age, as it is hard to conceive such a match arising by chance coincidence.

Since the Americas were settled by populations deriving from North-East Asia, shared elements in belief have long been explored between Siberia and North America, especially Arctic America; these are further developed in the next section, dealing with North America.

The book then moves to northern Europe. Dowson & Porr explore the under-regarded Aurignacian mobiliary art of South-West Germany, with its compelling human-cum-animal imagery and - once again - some key subjects depicted such as bears. Watson further reports his novel studies of the systematics of sound in British Neolithic monuments, tellingly placing them side-by-side with ethnographic reports of shamanistic ritual among the Siberian Chukchee.

Williams interprets a strange and striking element in the human cremations of Anglo-Saxon England, the co-occurrence of animal bones with human bones, which reaches over 60 per cent in the young adults cremated at the great Spong Hill cemetery in Norfolk. This part of the book ends with an extraordinary confessional report of shamanistic themes in contemporary neo-Pagan and neo-Druidic beliefs, an essay which boggles this reader's mind.

Like most archaeological approaches of original merit, an archaeology of shamanism raises profound issues of method. Is 'shamanism' a strong regular feature of human societies - or a falsity created by the excessive energy of academic researchers who, determined to find common and uniting factors, duly invent them by the selective choice of 'correct' fragments? Is there a distinctive iconography of shamanism, which is archaeologically visible and diagnostic - or is shamanism so varied in its expressions, and in the varied metaphors by which it is understood, that the 'shamaniac' researcher can find 'evidence' for shamanism in any striking old stuff?

In the usual way, time and further research will tell. For now, I am startled by the closeness of common elements between these studies and recent work in Aboriginal Australia (of all places), where we can also trace an enduring visionary element from an astoundingly early date until it becomes one part of a complex of integrated beliefs in modern times.

Christopher Chippendale works at the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

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