First humans in Britain
Editor Simon Denison
Story of mining
Reviewed by David Gwyn
Mining in World History
This book is a history of the last 500 years of mining, though of course the historical record begins much earlier. The pre-modern history of mining is dealt with in a necessarily rather breathless prologue ('... Let us now jump ahead to AD 1000. After a period of damaging civil wars, Imperial China was once again prospering ...'). The tale proper begins in 1453 with the invention of the liquation process for liberating silver from copper.
The tale, when told, is handled in a narrative that is controlled, directed and easy to read. Martin Lynch, who works as a researcher in the mining industry in Australia, takes the reader from Slovakia to Peru without ever losing his thread or causing confusion, a remarkable achievement in so potentially complicated a subject. He describes the trials and tribulations of mine managers and captains, the movement of capital and the needs of statesmen and governors.
Oddly enough, for a book written by someone in the industry, there is comparatively little emphasis on technology. This doubtless reflects the author's remit, yet the successful extraction and processing of minerals depends on machines and devices of one sort or another, and their diffusion worldwide is as much a part of the story as the activities of bankers and politicians.
The mineral-carrying primitive railway, with its roots in the medieval period if not the Roman era, is only introduced after about 100 pages, to be dismissed as a technology instantly made redundant by the arrival of the steam locomotive in the early 19th century. Horse-whims and flat-rods, which enabled power to be distributed over a wide area, are nowhere mentioned. For this reason, this book will be of comparatively little interest to archaeologists anxious to interpret traces of human activity on the ground, though it will provide useful and readily-accessible contextual information for anyone anxious to place particular sites within the broader picture.
An even more striking omission is any extensive reference to the world of the working miner. Chinese coolies, skilled Cornishmen and German master miners all figure in the story, yet essentially as adjuncts to the needs of industry, rather than as individuals in their own right. Admittedly, it is difficult to encompass all the important aspects of the miners' experience from a global perspective - though this volume might have been just the place to make the attempt.
The difference between bond and free workers is fundamental to the way mines were run, reflected, for example, in the reluctance of mine managers in South America to invest in machines when slaves were so readily available.
Mining was never anything other than back-breakingly hard work, so consolations as various as religion and alcohol loomed large in their lives. Their distinctive settlements are to be found all over the world, in places as different as Kalgoorlie and the Rhondda. Yet here the miner only makes his presence felt, and his identity known, in the evocative photograph on the dust-jacket, standing with a drill bit in his hand between the point blades in a level.
David Gwyn is an industrial archaeologist and Director of the Govannon Cunsultancy in North Wales
Past in the past
Reviewed by Mike Parker Pearson
The Past in Prehistoric Societies
Prehistoric societies are supposed, by definition, to have had no history. Caught in a web of cyclical time and with only a murky, distorted, selective and short-term repertoire of oral traditions, our prehistoric forbears might be caricatured as adrift on the seas of time.
Richard Bradley's latest book dispels any such notions. He argues that, although they may not have been able to write, they were certainly able to use materials and monuments to enshrine and create memories of past ages and events. The past might have been interpreted through such materiality, and might alternatively have been legitimated or suppressed. Remains of the past - unavoidable fixtures in the landscape - demanded explanation and consideration. They required incorporation into the present and future, or may have been left well alone.
Archaeologists have been aware of the concept of the past in prehistory for at least two decades now but this is the first book-length treatment of this important subject. Bradley embeds the prehistoric evidence into an account of 19th century investigation of this distant past, together with case studies of early historical societies' reuse of prehistoric monuments. His scope is European, from the Neolithic onwards, and each chapter develops local or regional examples to illustrate different themes: the distant past in the present, the immediate past in the present, and the future in the present.
Not everyone will be persuaded by each and every case study - just how deliberate or coincidental was any particular juxtaposition of past and present? Nor will everyone accept that prehistoric people could have possessed curiosity or knowledge about their ancestors. Yet I find this a persuasive book - and a milestone of a book. It is an essential read for anyone interested in how the past is constructed in the present.
Like a hall of mirrors, we study prehistoric societies studying themselves with that backward gaze. How their concepts of time and history changed - how, for example, Neolithic conceptions of past/future become transformed into those of the Iron Age - are themselves now objects of our scrutiny.
Much of our analysis in Britain and northern Europe is hampered by poor preservation and survival of remains - Bradley's examples are mainly drawn from plough-damaged sites where only the deeper features survive in truncated form - but we should be able to gather far more compelling and detailed evidence from tells (settlement mounds in the Near East) and other deeply stratified prehistoric sites.
I wonder if we are even aware of the half of it, of just how fully prehistoric people may have shared our quest for knowledge about their pasts. Were they themselves, in their own ways and for their own ends, 'historians' or even 'archaeologists'?
Mike Parker Pearson is reader in Archaeology at the University of Sheffield
Reviewed by Sue Oosthuizen
Shaping Medieval Landscapes
Tom Williamson's new book on the origins of differences between the 'champion' landscapes in central England of medieval open fields and nucleated villages, and the more wooded landscapes of eastern England characterised by greens, smaller fields and more dispersed settlement, has been much-heralded and does not disappoint either in terms of its content or its readability.
The book takes as its study area the region ranging from Leicestershire to the Suffolk coast, and from the Wash to North London, including both champion and woodland landscapes. It is divided into three sections - the background to the debate, a description of the characteristics of open field and woodland landscapes, and the presentation of arguments for the differential development of these landscapes during the late Anglo-Saxon and early medieval periods.
Williamson, with characteristic creativity, asks a fundamental question: what was the underlying reason behind the evolution of these two different forms of medieval landscape? His answer is innovative and interesting, suggesting that it is related to variations across the country in the distribution of soil type, rainfall and contours of the land.
His hypothesis is that a combination of soil type and rainfall patterns meant that heavy Midland clays were only capable of being ploughed and harrowed on relatively few days each year, an argument given additional weight by the visible effects of prolonged rainfall last winter on these soils.
He also argues that streams capable of supporting hay meadows - whose crops also need a quick response to weather conditions - tend also to be found in the west, as those in the east are more likely to be filled with peat and unable to grow hay. This means that it was more important for greens and commons to be retained in eastern England to support cattle and other animals over the winter.
Williamson suggests that the necessity in the Midlands to take immediate advantage of good weather conditions for ploughing or harrowing on the one hand, or cutting, turning or getting in the hay on the other, stimulated the development of nucleated settlement. People could be brought together to do the work without the delays involved in collecting a dispersed workforce. By contrast, access to the large and irregular commons in eastern England encouraged more dispersed farms and hamlets.
This is an extremely interesting and original argument, fully justifying Christopher Taylor's opinion, cited on the cover, that this is 'Williamson's best yet'. Research on the history of the medieval landscape has neglected the influence of environment and geography in recent, years and this book places them firmly back on the agenda.
Sue Oosthuizen is a Staff Tutor for Landscape History and Field Archaeology at Cambridge University's Institute of Continuing Education
Town of wood
Reviewed by Mark Hall
Novgorod: the Archaeology of a Russian Medieval City and its Hinterland
The medieval Russian town of Novgorod was built almost entirely of wood, including houses, streets, drains, furniture, tableware, toys and documents. The exceptional preservation of this wood makes it possible to reconstruct the layout of both properties and streets, and has enabled dendrochronological dating of finds to within 15-20 years.
This high level of preservation has allowed archaeologists to explore a wide range of personal and domestic wooden objects, including some truly remarkable finds - such as 915 birch-bark letters, many containing the names of people living in the town. These letters constitute the earliest documentary evidence for Novgorod.
This book is a collection of 18 conference papers, arising from the 1999 European Association of Archaeologists conference in Bournemouth. They give an overview of the whole Novgorod project, and cover such aspects as the role of Novgorod's hinterland, medieval town planning, dendrochronology, trade with the Hanseatic League, building construction, wooden artefacts, jewellery, bone artefacts, pottery, plant remains, animal bone and birch-bark letters.
The work summarised here consists chiefly of the result of projects that have taken place over the last 10 years or so. These have been supported by European funding, enabling collaboration between Russian archaeologists and colleagues from Sweden, Germany, Ireland and the United Kingdom. In one of the UK projects, the standard approach of large open-area excavation (giving a broad understanding of the town's evolution and the typology of buildings and contents) was dropped in favour of 'single context' excavation, which allows a more detailed exploration of the techniques and materials used in individual buildings. Future projects, one hopes, will marry these two approaches together.
Novgorod remains the most fully-excavated medieval urban environment in Russia and possibly in Europe, one that has been under excavation since 1932. This book reminds us how important and rich the results of the excavations have been, and how they can contribute insights into medieval urban archaeology in Britain.
Although a number of the papers have a provisional flavour, they cover a wide range of subjects with insight in a succinct, jargon-free style. The book should whet anyone's appetite about Novgorod and it deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the behaviour of people in the medieval period.
Mark Hall is an archaeologist at Perth Museum
Reviewed by Simon Mays
Raising the Dead
On 19 July 1545, the Mary Rose, one of the Tudor Navy's most important warships, heeled over and sank during a confrontation with French forces in the Solent. In 1982, in a landmark of marine archaeology, the wreck was recovered for study and permanent display. As well as myriad artifacts, skeletal remains of the some of the crew who perished on that July day were also recovered. Stirland was given the job of conducting scientific analysis of the skeletal remains, and this book is an account of her work.
The opening chapter describes the sinking, and the discovery and raising of the wreck. The following three chapters give historical background on various aspects of Tudor Britain and her navy, including a brief account of the nature of 16th century society, and a description of the organisation of the navy and the crewing of its ships.
The core of the book is the account of the scientific work on the Mary Rose bones. The bones consisted of the disarticulated, mixed remains of over 100 individuals, or about one quarter of the ship's complement. As anticipated, all proved to be male and most were young adults. Traces of various growth problems and childhood disease were found, most of which were fairly typical of early populations.
The most interesting parts of the osteological work are Stirland's attempts to relate changes seen on the bones to occupations known, or reasonably inferred, for the men serving on the ship.
She produces evidence for men who were regular archers by looking at alterations to the shoulder bones, and for putative gun crews who showed premature arthritis of their spines, presumably reflecting the arduous nature of their work aboard ship. Although some of the patterning in the results is, to me, not completely convincing, the evidence is discussed in a clear and even-handed way.
Stirland, based at the Institute of Archaeology in London, attempts to write with both a 'popular' and a professional audience in mind. This is a difficult trick to pull off, but she manages it with aplomb. The writing style is pithy and easy to read, yet there is enough detail and footnotes to satisfy the purists, with a useful bibliography. The book is handsomely produced and, although some colour pictures would have been nice, the black and white illustrations are clearly rendered.
Simon Mays is a human bones specialist at English Heritage's Centre for Archaeology
History of smallpox
Reviewed by Charlotte Roberts
The Greatest Killer
The United States claims to have enough stocks of the smallpox vaccine to vaccinate the whole of their population in case of a biological warfare. It seems incredible that a disease once thought to be conquered in 1979 is rearing its ugly head again.
Smallpox, like other infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and the Black Death, has made a considerable mark on history. Victims of this infection carry distinctive skin lesions and were instantly recognisable. Historians and artists were particularly drawn to diseases that changed a person's external appearance, especially if there was a high mortality and effect on society and the economy.
Smallpox, of course, has not been the only infection that, when epidemic, has affected how a population functioned but, as this book clearly shows, it impacted considerably on the world throughout time, 'changing the course of history many times' as the author writes. Hopkins, a doctor who worked for the World Health Organisation, uses a range of historical and pictorial sources to provide a fascinating insight into the history of smallpox from the earliest evidence up to more recent times. While smallpox does not affect the skeleton commonly, mummified remains have been identified with skin lesions. Thus, most of the evidence for smallpox comes from historical data.
The book takes a global perspective considering the history of smallpox in Europe, India, China and Japan, Africa, and the Americas from the earliest evidence to the mid-20th century in separate chapters. The final chapter documents the attempts made to treat the infection over time, red objects appearing to have figured prominently in treatments as far back as 10th century Japan. But it was, of course, the development of a vaccine that finally controlled smallpox.
The book is a fascinating addition to the literature on the history of medicine and will appeal to historians and archaeologists alike.
Charlotte Roberts is a palaeopathologist at the University of Durham
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005