When Burial Begins
Editor Simon Denison
Reviewed by Paul Stamper
The Welsh Border
The Marches - the borderland between England and Wales - became so-known after the Norman Conquest, the term coming from the Anglo-Saxon mearc, meaning boundary. Long a frontier zone, and even now characterised by its Iron Age hillforts and by Offa's great frontier dyke, the Welsh proved as difficult to subdue after 1066 as they had a thousand years earlier when Wroxeter marked the western limit of Roman urban civilization.
Trevor Rowley's new book, a heavily revised version of his 1986 The Landscape of the Welsh Marches, is a sure-footed (although regrettably unreferenced) guide to the archaeology and history of the Welsh border, and its sites and landscapes. As a native Salopian he is especially good on its mixed English-Welsh character, and on the ebb and flow of the two peoples, their languages, customs, and laws. England and English were far from always on the ascendant. After the Act of Union between the two countries in 1536 many Welshmen moved east into Herefordshire and Welsh place-names replaced English ones, while as late as the 18th century the linguistic divide was about 20 miles into England.
But one period above all others defines the Marches, the two centuries and more between 1066 and the final - if somewhat nominal - subjugation of the Welsh by Edward I. Early on it became clear the Welsh would remain revolting, and so the March was made a semi-autonomous buffer zone subdivided between 153 lordships grouped under Chester, Shrewsbury, and Hereford. Within this, castles, towns, ecclesiastical foundations, and hunting grounds proliferated, each, to a greater or lesser degree, a means of control and exploitation.
Rowley emphasises the military impact of castles, garrisoned, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, by 'devils and wicked men'. Little wonder that the Norman military machine was viewed with hatred by the native populations, especially when among the privileges of the Marcher lords was that of 'private war' against the Welsh whenever the fancy took them.
Rowley also deals succinctly with one of the few other times when the Welsh border impinged on the metropolitan consciousness. As early as the late 16th century, the Golden Valley had been promoted as 'the Lombardy of Herefordshire', and channels and sluices had been laid out to irrigate the land and provide water transport. Then, in the later 18th century, the Wye Valley became one of the best-known destinations for the discerning tourist while the country around Downton and Foxley defined the Picturesque.
Ever since, the Marches have been admired by those, among them Kilvert and Housman, with taste and sensibility. And that, of course, still remains the case today.
Paul Stamper is the English Heritage Inspector of Ancient Monuments for the West Midlands
Reviewed by Paul Wilkinson
Digging up the Past
This book is destined to become a classic alongside Phil Barker's Understanding Archaeological Excavation. It draws on 40 years of archaeological experience and is aimed at students at all levels. It explains in detail what a 'dig' actually is, what is involved and what it can all mean. It is essential reading for anyone about to take part in an archaeological excavation - and should also be read by experienced diggers including site directors who, unknowingly, may have lost their way.
The book starts with the history of excavation, showing some charming photographs of General Pitt Rivers and Sir Mortimer Wheeler. It quotes Wheeler in saying 'there is no right way to excavate a site, but there are many wrong ways'. John Collis states, early on, his preference for the 'open area' excavation, as opposed to the 'trench and section' seen on many sites.
Great emphasis is placed on recording data and the use of computer systems, single context recording, and pre-printed forms. But Collis states throughout the book how essential it is to remember that excavation is a matter of deciding what one wants to know or obtain, and setting about finding it, even though what one finds may refute the original hypothesis. This should be as true for rescue excavations as it is for pure research.
The book addresses the great divide now apparent in British archaeology - that between the young professional archaeologist who should be, but is rarely, adequately paid and the enthusiastic amateur who is typically shunned by the professional archaeological community. Collis suggests that the future is bright for amateur archaeology in this country, but points out that many local amateur groups are open, quite rightly, to criticism that they are destroying the archaeological record by not using techniques that are up to required standards. Archaeology has become an accepted leisure activity but if the required skills are not communicated to the amateur by the professional it can become a pointless exercise. The book argues that part of archaeology's professionalism should be in teaching and communicating skills and information to the so-called amateur archaeologist without the patronising attitude occasionally displayed.
Paul Wilkinson is Director of the Kent Archaeological Field School
Reviewed by Bill Bevan
The Historical Archaeology of Britain c 1540-1900
This is a timely and much needed review of the post-medieval period, a subject area rich in the amount of materials surviving as artefacts, built structures, landscapes and documents - although the authors admit that such a large subject can only be encompassed in very summary fashion. The book was inspired as an update to David Crossley's Post-Medieval Archaeology in Britain (1990) and the result is more a companion to the earlier publication than a replacement.
The first four chapters are written by Richard Newman. In the introduction he defines his use of the term Historical Archaeology, sets out the scope of the book and discusses theoretical and methodological issues. The following three chapters are divided into major subjects: buildings of secular and spiritual authority, house and home, and landscape archaeology. Each one contains a wealth of information with examples, many from the often overlooked north and west of Britain, and regional variations are highlighted.
The two final chapters by David Cranstone and Christine Howard-Davies are on industrial archaeology and artefacts respectively, each focusing on its author's main interests - metal production and pottery. They stand alone from the remainder of the book and act as introductory essays on their subjects. Cranstone uses a traditional approach similar to that of Crossley's book while Howard-Davies attempts to incorporate more recent developments in social archaeology.
The book is packed with a vast amount of information but generally remains very readable. The themes addressed in each chapter do tend to be too segregated and, except in Howard-Davies's chapter, there are only limited attempts to interpret the material in social terms. The survival of such a vast range of landscape features, buildings, artefacts and documents makes the historical period ideal for the detailed interpretation of peoples' lives by looking at different types of evidence in conjunction with each other. The absence of such interpretation in this book is a missed opportunity.
Bill Bevan is an archaeologist with the Peak District National Park Authority
Reviewed by Keri Brown
Genetics and the Search for Modern Human Origins
Reviewing these two books together is a bit like reviewing the Bible and a Barbara Cartland book at the same time. One is a serious tome, with responsibilities for guiding and teaching the young, the other is pure tosh.
Ostensibly both books deal with the use of genetic information to resolve important archaeological debates. Relethford examines the debate over human origins and how DNA analysis of modern human populations around the world has been carried out to elucidate this most fascinating topic. His book was written with students in mind, but it can be read by anyone with no previous background in genetics.
He takes the reader through such topics as the 'African replacement model' versus the multiregional hypothesis (did all modern humans come out of Africa, or evolve independently in several places?), followed by the concept of species, how evolution works, and the fossil evidence. But the bulk of the book is taken up with explaining how DNA sequences, mostly obtained from the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), can be analysed to shed light on human evolution. He begins with simple concepts (DNA mutation, genetic drift and gene flow) leading to more complex ideas of phylogenetics, and always explains concepts with case studies.
Relethford thinks that modern humans came 'mostly out of Africa'. This is a fair summary of the state of play in human origins at the moment, although there is some evidence for back migration from Asia into Africa, as well as some other genetic evidence that needs further explanation.
One of the things that comes out of this book is how little we know about Late Pleistocene population sizes. This is the sort of information that phylogeneticists need in order to refine the statistical models used in DNA sequence analysis. For instance genetic diversity is greatest in sub-Saharan African populations, but - given that DNA mutations become more fixed when the population is either older or larger - does this reflect the antiquity or the size of the population? There are useful and clear diagrams, and the book is fully referenced throughout with an extensive and up-to-date bibliography.
Sykes's book appeared last year with much publicity and there have been many reviews in the broadsheets. It is written from the point of view of the 'hero-scientist', battling against the scientific establishment to get his ideas accepted. There are some good descriptions of scientific debate - and how academic criticism is often taken as personal insult.
Again mtDNA is discussed, here to examine the population history of Europe. It turns out that European populations contain a limited number of mtDNA lineages, and phylogenetic analysis shows that each of these lineages originated with a single female. Hence the 'seven daughters of Eve', because all mtDNA lineages coalesce back to a single female, dubbed 'Mitochondrial Eve', who lived in Africa 100-200,000 years ago. Unfortunately there are much more than seven lineages in Europe. The latest academic publication (of which Sykes is a co-author) describes 22.
This is the first of several serious errors in this book. Many of these lineages actually originate in the Near East, and many are far older than Sykes suggests. However the worst is yet to come. The last few chapters of the book are taken up with fictional accounts of the life, times and physical appearance of each of the seven daughters, whom Sykes calls 'clan-mothers'. Each one happens to be stunningly beautiful and several battle against a cruel fate - etcetera. These chapters are written in the style of The Clan of the Cave Bear and a reviewer in Nature called them 'banal, verging on the puerile'.
For £150 (discounted if you buy the book), Sykes's company will sequence your DNA sample and tell you who your clan-mother was. Would it be Helena, Jasmine, Katrine, Tara, Ursula, Velda or Xenia? Who cares? MtDNA is a little piece of DNA in the cytoplasm of your cells that has no effect on your physical appearance. Knowing which lineage you have will not change your life and there are far better things to do with £150 (if you can't think of any, send it to me!). Finally there are no references, bibliography or index to this book. Each statement of fact is unsupported, and for readers who want to find out more, Sykes provides little idea where to begin.
Keri Brown is a Research Associate in the Department of Biomolecular Sciences at UMIST
Voyage of Pytheas
Reviewed by Simon Denison
The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek
Pytheas was a Greek from Marseilles who explored the Atlantic coast of Europe, including Britain, in the late 4th century BC - the first literate adventurer by far from the Classical world to do so. The book he wrote on his voyage, On the Ocean, is lost; but enough clues survive in later Classical writers to have convinced modern scholars that he circumnavigated Britain, probably reaching the Orkneys and possibly even sailing on to Iceland.
The precise route that he took, however, the ports where he disembarked, and what exactly he saw on his voyage remain matters of conjecture. Step forward, then, Barry Cunliffe, éminence grise among British Iron Age archaeologists, for a sustained exercise in informed and entertaining speculation.
The historian Herodotus, Cunliffe tells us, 'wrote on [a] comparatively narrow theme . . . but like all good historians he provides his readers with a broad geographical and anthropological context against which to understand his epic story.' Exactly the same, albeit on a smaller scale, can be said of this little book on Pytheas's voyage. Here we learn, among other things, about the rivalry between Carthage and Rome, the folk-movements of the Gauls, trading links between the Mediterranean and the North, early explorers and the state of geographical knowledge in the 4th century, navigational aids and boat building techniques, Iron Age and later tin mining, the attractions of amber and the Classical book publishing trade.
Virtually the whole Iron Age world is here, but the voyage of Pytheas gives the book a focus and a narrative drive that is absent from the vast majority of period- or topic-based books that pour out yearly from archaeological publishers. Cunliffe avoids all the hallmarks of bad academic writing - jargon, cliché and self-protecting waffle. His style is lucid and self-confident, and he has a talent for colourful imagery: by 600 BC, Miletus, the eastern-Greek metropolis, 'sat like a bloated spider at the centre of a vast web of trading connections'. Because of their lightness, lumps of amber 'floated and were washed up, forming strand-lines on beaches . . . as polythene bottles do today'.
He makes a convincing case for Mount Batten, in Plymouth Sound, being the site of ancient Ictis - the principal market where British tin was sold to Continental traders. Also attractive is the idea (first suggested by CH Roseman) that Pytheas hitch-hiked on a series of local vessels, using the expertise of local navigators, rather than taking his own ship on his extraordinary voyage. Cunliffe is guilty of a great deal of special pleading, turning Pytheas into a scientist-hero who achieved everything one would like to imagine he achieved. But all is forgiven because the book is such a pleasure to read.
Simon Denison is the Editor of British Archaeology
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005