My Lord Essex
Old stones and the sea
Riding into history
The folk that lived in Liverpool
So tyger fierce took life away
Editor Mike Pitts
Reviewed by Simon James
The Celts: Origins, Myths
Many people are startled to discover that although they 'know' Britain in pre-Roman times was populated by Ancient Celts, most British Iron Age specialists abandoned the idea decades ago. This shift has prompted ferocious attacks from some traditionalist scholars, but has been largely ignored or met with bemusement by continental Iron Age specialists. Yet the question is not why have so many British (and Irish) archaeologists abandoned the notion of ancient island Celts, but how and why did we come to think there had ever been any in the first place? The idea is a modern one; the ancient islanders never described themselves as Celts, a name reserved for some continental neighbours.
In his new book, John Collis, recently retired professor of prehistory at the University of Sheffield, explores the academic and wider roots of developing notions of ancient Celts since Medieval times. He also covers aspects of their historical implications, as they were taken up by others for cultural and political reasons, but his main subject and his key target are the academic world, especially continental archaeologists. His canvas is also far wider than the isles alone. Examining national archaeological literatures, especially those of France and Germany, and not ignoring those of Iberia and the important Irish and British contributions, he teases out the roots of modern ideas of an ancient pan-Celtic world which was primarily continental.
This broad effort of scholarship reveals the sheer complexity of developing ideas about a European Celtic past. It is a story of often mutually uncomprehending disciplines, from linguistics and classics to archaeology and early racist anthropology, with unquestioned assumptions about the nature of peoples and of evidence, most now known to be wrong. Collis performs a compelling demolition job, not only of the case for ancient insular Celts (which others, including the writer, have already attacked along similar lines), but also of the simple continental equation of the archaeological phenomenon of the so-called La Tène culture with references to Celts in Greco-Roman texts.
The book is extensively illustrated, but marred by some poor editing and, for an academic work, is at times frustratingly short of references. Non-specialists may find the detail daunting, but it is worth persevering—and essential to anyone studying the European Iron Age, or seeking to understand how the 'Ancient Celts' were invented as much as discovered.
Romans go home
Reviewed by Paul Sealey
Defying Rome: the Rebels of Roman Britain
This book should come with a health warning: some prehistorians might die of shock to learn that prehistoric Britain was 'founded on ignorance' because of a limited grasp of literacy (pp12–13). This is a bit hard on communities like Iron Age Fiskerton that built extensions to a timber causeway to coincide with lunar eclipses; and never forget just how hard it can be to milk a cow. But at least you know where you stand: this is an author who shoots from the hip.
He concentrates on individuals from Roman Britain who came a cropper at the hands of the Roman state. They are a mixed bunch. At one extreme we have Boudica, the murderous East Anglian matron who gleefully launched the ethnic cleansing of Romans from the home counties. At the other extreme we have Pelagius, the ascetic who toured the Mediterranean world in late antiquity expounding his views on theology to fellow Christians, and who was excommunicated for his pains. In between there is an exciting band of usurpers and would-be emperors.
This takes us to the book's central problem: just how much did these people have in common, and to what extent did they want a breach with Rome? People like Magnus Maximus – let alone Carausius, with his taste for Virgil—were not anti-Roman. They just wanted to be a Top Dog in the Roman world, but ran out of luck in the civil wars.
One of the greatest acts of defiance in Roman Britain is buried almost out of sight in the account of Constantine III, when a coup drove out the Roman administration in AD409 and set up an independent state (p196). Bearing in mind the attention given to coin hoards elsewhere in the book, it is a pity that this last act of defiance is not fleshed out with an account of the hoards of clipped siliquae coins that testify to the breakdown of Roman law at that time.
The characterisation of Carausius as an 'unbelievably impertinent … celebrity criminal' is a cameo masterpiece (p153), and the sheer bravado of the style sweeps all before it. This may not be the book that Roman Britain needs on alienation and disaffection but it certainly succeeds as a lively set of essays on the history of the province.
Environmental Archaeology: Approaches, Techniques & Applications
Keith Wilkinson & Chris Stevens
Do we need another book on Environmental Archaeology? Before this, I would have replied 'probably not', but such is its appeal I am glad to have it on my shelves and reading lists. The authors are two young environmental archaeologists whose impressive array of field and laboratory experience does not inhibit them from writing in clear, direct English. It assumes no previous knowledge, and is targeted particularly at first-year undergraduate students. There is an excellent discussion of aims and objectives, arguing that the 'environmental approach' is indispensable. They also consider the future in the light of recent archaeological theory. Techniques are introduced through examples illustrating their contribution to, say, the study of ancient landscapes or food production. The work is marred by trivial errors (eg schlerites for sclerites), but is well produced and illustrated. The beautiful cover photograph, of barley under a blue sky, reminds us what environmental archaeology should be about.
Landscapes & Desire: Revealing Britain's Sexually Inspired Sites
Catherine Tuck & Alun Bull
Written by Catherine Tuck (archaeological investigator with the old RCHME survey team) and photographed by Alun Bull (English Heritage), this is a lavishly produced gazetteer of UK and Irish sites inspired and infused with sexual connotation. Natural sexual landscapes such as the Paps of Anu extend the book's scope. The narrative starts slowly with prehistory—there are only so many times you can point out that a megalith looks phallic and that barrows are a bit womb-like. Moving on, Tuck steps up a gear and gleefully discusses the lucky charms of Roman builders, exhibitionist Medieval gargoyles and the peerage's obsession with pleasure gardens. The stunning photography invokes a sense of time, place and reverence. My only quibble is that maps are not included, but this is ideal for day-trippers interested in a liberating themed day out or for armchair enthusiasts desiring something more readable than Burl and less erratic than Cope.
Food, Culture & Identity in the Neolithic & Early Bronze Age
Mike Parker Pearson
Did Mesolithic Britons eat maggots? This book does not answer that question, but it leaves you wondering. Anthropologist Lévi-Strauss famously made a cultural parable of food, and archaeologists dig up kitchen waste by the barrowful. Yet we forget the cultural significance of eating. Parker Pearson argues this is a symptom of how we work: scientists look at bones and pots not societies, culture historians do not understand the science, and experimental archaeology is driven by our own culinary values. After a useful review of ideas about food and people, 11 papers that originated at a conference, several of them readable and most set in Britain or nearby, review topics such as the (controversial) change from marine to terrestrial animal protein c 4000 BC, organic pot residues and dairying, human tooth wear and caries, isotope analysis and residency, Thames-side herding and mead (bee-collected pollen in pots). Tempting starter.
In presenting itself with these collections of articles previously published in its own pages, the journal Antiquity might be thought to have gone a step too far in celebrating its 75 years. Anyone with access to an academic library (and several non-academic) could read the real things; many of the pieces are redundant reports on work now fully published, or just grossly out-dated. Yet for those who do not know Antiquity there is much of interest and value in these two books, even were only half the contents worth having. Megaliths (37 papers on long barrows, stones, and timber rings) includes good things on Stukeley, Stonehenge, Long Meg and astronomy; Celts (26 papers on mostly British Iron Age archaeology) on 'Celts' (yes, that issue), the Gundestrup cauldron, Bersu, Snettisham and brochs. They would have been even more useful to the innocent reader if cheesy self-congratulatory essays had instead commented specifically on the papers.
Life & Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda & its People
Alan K Bowman
Celebrating the Vindolanda writing tablets' place as No 1 in the BBC's 2003Top Ten Treasures, this is a brand-new popular edition of the book first published in 1994, that ups the full texts given in Latin and English from 34 to 50 and integrates new discoveries. Miracles of preservation, the tablets are also miracles of conservation and publication. Bowman draws on the scholarly editions by himself and JD Thomas (The Vindolanda Writing Tablets, 3 vols published in 1984, 1994 and 2003) to cover the story of the tablets' discovery and what they tell us about life on a frontier fort at the end of the first century AD. The information about literacy, military organisation, transport, communications, leisure, family life and trivia shines like a beacon through the fog of archaeological speculation. These are real people living real lives, free of pottery statistical models and theoretical waffle. Indispensable and unparalleled.
The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Worthy Park, Kingsworthy
Sonia Chadwick Hawkes with Guy Grainger
Mrs Hawkes, one of the most celebrated Anglo-Saxonists of her day, excavated 98 or so intermixed burials and 46 plus cremations from Abbotsworthy, north of Winchester, Hants, in 1961-2. Post-excavation work was protracted and the report was still incomplete at her death in 1999. Despite its shortcomings English Heritage rightly decided to press ahead with publication. The report is mostly taken up with the grave inventory which illustrates (in exemplary fashion) and characterises the burials and lists the finds, the usual range of weapons, brooches, buckets, and beads. Other chapters treat the human remains and textiles, the report ending with a gazetteer of early Anglo-Saxon sites in Hampshire. There is no discussion whatsoever of the date or significance of the cemetery; however provisionally, the effort should have been made.
Boundaries in Early Medieval Britain
David Griffiths, Andrew Reynolds & Sarah Semple
'Liminality' is an archaeological buzzword for the iPod generation. From the Latin limen, 'threshold', it is much used in the papers gathered here which consider boundaries of all sorts. In Anglo-Saxon England land at the intersection of territories was important, and accordingly was demarcated by burials and barrows or used as a place of assembly or execution, while group identity was advertised through distinctive styles in sculpture and pottery such as the 'lumpy' brown cooking wares of Wessex. The most important paper is by Andrew Reynolds, an impressive overview of excavations on Saxon settlement sites, some still not fully published. Using an intriguing sequence of figures with plans redrawn to a common scale he brings out how, from the 6th century, buildings and places became ever-more bounded and sub-divided, and the Medieval village began to emerge.
Sealed by Time: the Loss & Recovery of the Mary Rose
On 19 July 1545 Henry VIII's great warship the Mary Rose suddenly heeled over in the Solent during action against the French. Water poured through open gun-ports and she sank with most of her 400-strong crew, trapped under anti-boarding nets. Her televised re-emergence in 1982 after a pioneering ten-year excavation campaign remains fixed in the memory of all who saw it. And now comes the first of what over the next three years or so will build to a set of five volumes establishing what, to date, has been learnt about ship, crew, and contents—an astonishing time capsule of artefacts and weaponry. Sadly, given that 20-year gap, it is disappointing what a preliminary and incomplete assessment Sealed represents. Responsibility for publication has now passed to Wessex Archaeology; let us hope it can salvage reports of a quality the material demands.
Piltdown Man: the Secret Life of Charles Dawson & the World's Greatest Archaeological Hoax
If you are interested in hoaxes, and in Piltdown in particular, this is a book for you. Russell has brought together all the evidence one could ever need to confirm that Charles Dawson, the Uckfield solicitor at the centre of the Piltdown 'discoveries', was in fact a thoroughgoing rogue of the highest order. Piltdown appears to have been the glorious tip to an iceberg of deception, with some 33 cases of scientific fraud now proven against Dawson and many others still pending. While there is a great deal here that can be found elsewhere, it is an excellent read. For me at least, this puts Piltdown to bed once and for all, and for that alone Russell deserves our applause. It would be good to think that this was the last word on Piltdown Man. I somehow doubt whether we will be so lucky!
Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle
For what little we know about the historical Boudica, turn to Graham Webster and (promised for later this year) Richard Hingley and Christina Unwin. Scott is more generous – this is the first of three, the second (Dreaming the Bull) just out in hardback. Does she fatten a thin narrative, or conjure sheer fiction? Judging by reviews, her many readers want a story grounded in the reality of the Eceni (sic); 'Scott has done her research', says Jean Auel. Keep it within these pages, but actually this is Enid Blyton and weekend re-enactment, albeit bloody and dramatic, and not real society, certainly not an Iron Age Britain with its complex and (to us) alien cultures. To be read on a distant beach.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005