Editor Mike Pitts
AD 43 brought about more changes than the omnipresence of military chaps in skirts and the erection of square buildings with colonnades. Pottery, formerly used to denote ethnic identity, was now used in the kitchen; bogs once used to chuck metalwork in were now drained and used for agriculture; coins marking the hegemony of kings were now used for shopping; earthwork enclosures on hilltops were replaced by sensible farm enclosures; meals, instead of being thrown untasted into ditches as some kind of ritual, were now eaten; entrances which faced south-east in signification of something were replaced by entrances that allowed people to get in and out of rooms; etc etc. Basically, before AD 43, Britain was full of curious, ritualistic, driven activities, which, in the full light of the Roman day, were replaced by sensible logical things. What happened to bring about this amazing change has therefore been the focus of recent academic research, and much effort is now being expended on analysing the transition from Iron Age to Roman.
However it’s just possible that the difference is of our making and not a real one. In British archaeology all the prehistorians are turned back at the AD 43 frontier to let the Romanists take over. For the student of archaeology passing the frontier is a bit like going from primary to secondary school. Prehistorians are enthusiastic child-centred Montessorians who don’t really bother too much about a received line but let everyone join in. They cycle into school with their scarlet scarves flying, and in class are eager to hear anyone’s point of view. Romanists on the other hand are a much older and staider lot. They are those grey secondary teachers in jackets and ties getting out of their Vauxhalls. Anyone can have a new idea in prehistory but with the Romanists your job is to learn it up, not have any ideas about it. If you’re very lucky you might get a footnote in the journal Britannia about some additional point you’ve found. Just as in the primary school there are lots of splashy colours on the wall while in the secondary school there’s just the blackboard and the clock, so all the fun tends to go out of things when the Romans landed. All explanations after AD 43 are sensible and rational, all explanations before are bizarre and weird.
Perhaps we ought to have a compulsory reshuffle and swap all the professorships and specialisms round. Prehistory could do with a bit of solid economic analysis while the Romans might respond to the phenomenological approach. Prehistoric pottery could have its numbers crunched while decoration on Roman pottery could have some symbolic order work done on it. Though the Roman rubbish pit might at first baffle the delicate analyses of the prehistorian they’ll surely come to a theory in time.
But this might not do the trick. There’s a deeper socio-cultural factor involved. Our society has convinced itself that it thoroughly understands the Romans and has bought the Roman line that everyone before them was barely human. Thus prehistory took place, according to popular perception, amid endless swirling fog, lit by an occasional cave fire and to the sound of a lone flautist. The Roman period, in contrast, with its fora and baths was a thoroughly worthwhile effort at proper civilised behaviour.
This is all nonsense. Basically everyone has always lived lives that are full of curious rituals and odd unaccountable activities but we don’t like to admit it. So instead we pretend just the opposite – that we are rational people doing sensible things in an orderly fashion. That’s why we invented Roman civilisation – to bolster up this line. It’s time to come off it. Roman Britain was just as odd and unaccountable as prehistory. If we could start seeing it that way then we needn’t bother with analysing the transition from the Iron Age. Just let loose some of our wilder prehistorians onto the Roman period and they’d soon make it so you wouldn’t notice the difference.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005