Burial with the Romans
Editor Simon Denison
Bond of brothers
Reviewed by Tony Wilmott
Garrison Life at Vindolanda
One of the most startling discoveries in Romano-British archaeology was made by Robin Birley in 1973 at the fort of Vindolanda, just south of Hadrian's Wall. Slivers of wood were found bearing cursive handwriting in black ink. Almost 30 years later, continued excavations in the deep, waterlogged levels of the site have produced a wealth of documents - letters, lists, reports - which have opened a window upon the lives and concerns of a military garrison on the northern frontier of Britain between the governorship of Agricola in the early 80s and the building of Hadrian's Wall in the 120s.
Many of the texts have been published in two academic corpus volumes, and a third is awaited. A number of popular books and booklets featuring some of the tablets have also appeared, and spectacular finds, like the famous invitation to the birthday party of Claudia Severa, have been reported in the press. In this new and comprehensive book, Prof Anthony Birley, brother of the excavator, weaves together the texts with the history and archaeology of the site, in particular highlighting the archaeological context of the finds.
Deploying his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Roman world, he presents a vivid and accessible, yet highly scholarly picture of the activities of the soldiers and officers of the First Cohort of Tungrians and the Ninth of Batavians.
One of the most important aspects of the texts is their illumination of the minutiae of military routine. A strength report of the Tungrians shows that over half of the cohort were absent on duties elsewhere. An official return from an outpost has a postscript stating that the beer had run out, and asking for more to be sent. Other documents refer to travelling expenses and leave applications, legal cases and petitions, supply receipts and building work. A derogatory term for the locals, Brittunculi, probably refers to the inadequacy of conscripts in training.
The soldiers listed their purchases of anything from horses to hobnails and wrote to friends and family. One received socks and underpants from home, others sought news from friends and comrades, usually called 'brother' (hence the subtitle, A Band of Brothers). In several cases the lending of money seems to have strained friendships.
Several officers wrote from Vindolanda, but most documents refer to the household of the commander Flavius Cerealis, and his circle of 'brothers' from other forts. Cerealis and Brocchus, for instance shared an interest in hunting. The families of these men also wrote; the birthday invitation is one example, a poor piece of homework by a child, another.
It is the common human touches which bring the past to life, for instance the man unjustly beaten who seems to have protested to Hadrian himself, and the letter from Major, which was written in bed, and covered in ink blots. In this book, Anthony Birley has ensured that the tablets - with their mixture of official and highly personal and idiosyncratic detail - truly bring to life the people of this outpost of the Empire.
Tony Wilmott is a Senior Archaeologist with English Heritage. He has excavated at Birdoswald on Hadrian's Wall
Reviewed by Rob Young
Grahame Clark was undoubtedly a seminal figure in the development of British and World archaeology. He is best known for his Mesolithic research, his excavations at Star Carr, and his pioneering interests in economic and environmental archaeology. His career spanned a remarkable period of change in archaeological thinking and practice from the 1930s to the 1970s.
He was also an important influence on my own Mesolithic research; so I jumped at the chance to review this biography. Unfortunately I was disappointed, and I can't agree with Peter Rowley-Conwy's dust jacket comments that it is 'destined to become a classic'. Brian Fagan writes well. But the book provides neither a detailed insight into the make-up of Clark himself, nor does it really explore the roots, evolution and development of his thinking. Given that the book styles itself 'an intellectual biography' this is a serious failing.
It may be that to write in detail about Clark the man was an impossible task - he destroyed most of his personal correspondence, and Fagan found that interviews with his former colleagues and students proved 'disappointingly uninformative'. Most descriptions of him highlight the fact that he was somewhat aloof, withdrawn and intimidating. We are told that he was 'private', 'austere', 'forbidding', 'conservative', 'rude', 'single minded', 'not gregarious', 'elitist', that he was not a popular teacher at Cambridge and that he 'acquired a reputation for poorly prepared lectures'.
Was he simply an elitist conservative - the extreme, unquestioning product of a public school and Oxbridge education? Fagan's comments on the way he ran the Cambridge archaeology department would seem to bear this out. But there must have been more to him than this, and Fagan hints at a well-hidden vein of kindness. But what impact did his wife and children have on him? His wife is relegated to simply being a travelling companion in Fagan's account. What were the qualities that enabled him to sustain long-lasting relationships with people like Harry and Margaret Godwin, Eric Higgs, and numerous European and American scholars? It is a pity that these personal interactions were not explored in rather more detail.
The book contains a clear précis of Clark's writings, set down in chronological order. But there is very little on his influences. If the aim was to write an intellectual biography of such an influential scholar, you'd think the book might contain rather more social and political contextualisation of Clark's work than it does.
We are told, for example - in relation to the work of the Fenland Research Committee and Clark's emerging interest in environmental archaeology - that 'the Godwins convinced Clark that it was time that British archaeology developed from the stage of surface collection of finds . . . to a stratigraphic approach.' How did they do this? We are not told.
Elsewhere, Fagan writes that 'Clark's emerging ecological approach was part of his growing awareness of the complex interrelationships between human culture and the natural environment. His other emerging interest was economic archaeology . . .' But where did this awareness and these interests come from? There is nothing more than hints, and the text quickly turns once again to narrative.
Fagan gives almost no consideration to how Clark's personal politics impacted on his writings. His development of the concept of 'World Archaeology' was clearly a colonial project, and as professor at Cambridge he actively encouraged his students to make their careers abroad. At the time of his retirement, one of Clark's proudest possessions was a map of the world with coloured pins showing the location of Cambridge graduates 'as far afield as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States'. At the very least, he had a Eurocentric attitude to African and Indian archaeology - and that might be putting it mildly. Fagan expresses surprise at Clark's 'clear disdain for the achievements of black Africa' but he never really tries to contextualise the roots of these ideas.
Rob Young is the Archaeologist for the Northumberland National Park Authority
Reviewed by Paul Stamper
The Archaeology of Mills and Milling
Drunken, bald-headed, red-bearded, and with a nose-wart signing his lechery, Robin the Miller is every schoolboy's favourite Canterbury Tales pilgrim. Chaucer's stylised and inaccurate characterisation of the miller as brawny, truculent, and above all dishonest, continues strongly to colour our thinking about the middlemen who stood between those who grew and harvested grain and those who consumed or sold it.
In this accessible and well-illustrated overview of the physical evidence for mills and milling since the Roman period in Britain, Martin Watts does much to dispel this stereotype. Writing with the authority of someone involved for 30 years with the repair and maintenance of traditional mills, he shows that mills 'were complex crosses between buildings and machines', whose construction, maintenance, and operation demanded skill, long experience, and presumably sobriety.
A fascinating chapter sets out the growing antiquarian interest in mills and milling from the mid-18th century, which Watts attributes in part to a backward looking curiosity as industrialisation took off. Especially in the western and Celtic fringes, travellers and antiquaries such as William Borlase and James Boswell noted the continued use of querns and hand mills, while in 1814 Sir Walter Scott wrote in some wonderment about a horizontal mill that he saw near Lerwick in Shetland, 'a hovel about the size of a pig-stye!'
Soon afterwards, parts of mills began to be recovered from peat bogs in Ireland, while 19th century barrow diggers sometimes dug excavation trenches in windmill mounds believing them to be tumuli.
As for deliberate excavations of mills, there were few until the later 20th century. Notable early examples included Gerald Simpson's excavation of a mid-3rd century watermill at Haltwhistle Burn Head just south of Hadrian's Wall in 1907-8. Now over 170 likely Roman mill sites are known, mainly through the presence of millstones. Similarly, while it was not until 1956 that the first detailed report on an Irish horizontal mill was published, over 80 examples have now been analysed, 70 per cent of the datable ones constructed between 770 and 870.
In mainland Britain, by contrast, fewer than ten pre-Conquest watermills have been excavated along with a slightly larger number of medieval ones. As for the stones, used to cut (not crush) the grain, Watts shows how by the mid-13th century cheap locally-sourced stones and black German lava millstones began to be joined by markedly more expensive, and presumably technically superior, French ones.
This was a boom time for milling; windmills such as that depicted on the Luttrell Psalter with a wooden shed-like structure and canvas sails set on a central post began to be erected about 1180, horse mills and fulling mills at about the same time, and stone tower windmills by the 1290s. Watts notes that the appearance of new types of mill in the late 12th century coincides with major advances in carpentry and timber framing techniques including the introduction, probably from France, of sawing as a means of converting large timbers to supplement cleaving and hewing. Final chapters consider post-medieval mills of all sorts, and offer some thoughts on recording. All but the most expert molinologist will learn much from this study. And as further mills come to light - such as the very large late 12th century example which began to erode out of the banks of the River Severn near Welshpool last year, probably representing an investment in plant by the nearby Strata Marcella monastery - the book is likely to be the first port of call for excavators seeking understanding and parallels, not least via the well-marshalled bibliography.
Paul Stamper is an Inspector at English Heritage. In the late 1970s he took part in the excavation of an Anglo-Saxon and medieval mill at Wharram Percy
Reviewed by Brian Philp
The Roman Shore Forts
This is a most welcome book, easily read, well researched and including excellent chapters on several related and relevant subjects. It clearly surpasses all recent and somewhat superficial books on these enigmatic coastal forts. Predictably, it cannot match the charm of Jessie Mothersole's The Saxon Shore, published in 1924. That inspired me as a schoolboy to a 50-year programme of excavation and publication on the Reculver and Dover forts which continues yet.
The obligatory site descriptions (Chapter I) are followed by a look at the Roman Empire in the 3rd century (Chapter II), the Development of the Coastal System (Chapter III), the Building of the Shore Forts (Chapter IV), the Landscape Settings (Chapter V), Strategy (Chapter VI), Occupation and Economy (Chapter VII) and the Closing Years (Chapter VIII).
The chapter on Building the Shore Forts is especially useful with its consideration of the sources of the materials used, the quantities and even the labour-force estimates. I was also delighted to note that Caistor-on-Sea, Norfolk, has been included in the list of shore forts (now 11), thus accepting my proposal first published in 1981. Equally applaudable is the effort to record information from divers in the surviving wreckage of Walton Castle, near Felixstowe, which was visible at low tide in 1964.
Sadly, Andrew Pearson is still unable to accept Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight, as a certain twelfth member. Surely architectural, typological and topographical considerations are not contradicted by the sparse evidence from limited excavation. The inclusion of Shadwell as a London area signal station seems plausible, though some non-military archaeologists are now describing it as a mausoleum or even a water tower (see news).
There are a few small errors and omissions in the book, but criticisms are happily few. This book will long serve as essential reading for all future students of Saxon Shore Forts, or even students of Late Roman military fortifications in general. It will also be at my elbow, as a most useful aid, whilst I write the final research reports on the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit's extensive excavations on the shore forts at Reculver and Dover - English Heritage and global warming allowing.
Brian Philp is the Director of the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit
Reviewed by Douglas Speirs
Heads and Tales
If the ultimate aim of archaeology is to bring the past to life for a wider audience, the 'new science' of facial reconstruction must surely rank as one of the most significant advances in archaeology in recentyears.
Many archaeologists would perhaps disagree - and facial reconstruction is a technique which has undoubtedly found more favour with producers of popular archaeology tv programmes than with archaeologists themselves. Indeed, some have been quick to dismiss this 'science' as a media gimmick, aimed more at boosting viewer figures than furthering the public's knowledge of the past.
But this dismissive interpretation ignores two important points. First, archaeology is fundamentally about people; and secondly, this 'gimmick' is as reliable and real a science as any other employed in modern archaeology. The main strength of this little book is the way that it highlights this very point.
Although the book is short in length, the reader will find packed into its 50 pages one of the most comprehensive accounts of the techniques involved in facial reconstruction to be found anywhere in print. Everything from the origins and history of the technique through to the practical stages of its application are considered.
Along with a profusion of expertly produced illustrations and photographs, the practical application of the technique is critically assessed through the consideration of six widely varying case studies.
These case studies range from a Bronze Age warrior to a Victorian teenage murder victim, and highlight the strengths and limitations of the technique. No grand claims are made, and proper emphasis is given to the importance of hair-styles, eye colour and facial hair - where reconstruction is inevitably speculative - in creating any individual's appearance. But the underlying scientific basis of the technique, and its capacity to bring to life the faces of the ancient dead, is clearly demonstrated.
Dougls Speirs is the Regional Archaeologist in Fife
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005