Digging up art
Bronze bog hoard
tv in ba
Editor Mike Pitts
Reviewed by Melanie Giles
Past Poetic: Archaeology in the Poetry of WB Yeats & Seamus Heaney
Finn's study of two Nobel prize winning poets ('Yeats died in 1939, the year of Seamus Heaney's birth') reveals archaeology as both an inspirational subject matter and a key metaphor. Her skill lies in bringing to light the artefacts which inspired the writers: we follow her as she 'excavates' archives, libraries and personal collections.
With Yeats, she revisits the rooms he worked in, the objects he owned or admired, and notes in the margins of his books. Through such 'reconstructions', she tests the unreliability of his memory: the selective focus of the poet's eye. She identifies sculpture as of critical importance: his comparisons of his contemporaries to classical statues a metaphor for the circularity of history. The bestowal of the Nobel Prize may have given him the financial freedom to visit ruins on the Continent, but the building in which the ceremony was held – the Stockholm Stadhus – also left its mark. Its classical architecture, Byzantine style mosaics, mythology and symbolism embody what Finn sees as the key elements of Yeats' work: how through nationalist mythology and symbolism, the past was used to construct modernity itself.
For Heaney, the aesthetics of ancient 'things' are less interesting than the process of archaeology: 'digging' as a metaphor for the making of poetry. Archaeologists are probably most familiar with his lyrical, shocking and tender 'bog body' poems. Revisiting the bog landscapes of his childhood, Finn witnesses Heaney's excavations of his own memory, and suggests that, for him, there is no 'right' way of telling history. What surfaces there, is brushed off, reclaimed, or wiped clean, is intensely bound up with the needs of the present. Thus verses are revealed as surrogate elegies for victims of the Troubles. Interestingly, Finn also recalls the problems Heaney faces with returning to this subject matter, following the success of this work in the archaeological community.
She closes by drawing out analogies between the poet as seer and the archaeologist as diviner. Both involve interpretation, the use of metaphor, the creation of new meanings. Both also involve a sensitive awareness of the world of objects, people and places that are from the past yet are with us in the here-and-now.
Finn's book is a must for anyone interested in Yeats and Heaney, but also as a study of the transition from modernism to the postmodern, through the lens of archaeology's effect upon literature.
A lady writes
Reviewed by Paul Stamper
Antiquaries: the Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain
Antiquaries were mocked as early as 1628 – 'He will go 40 miles to see a saint's well' – as credulous pedants submerged in detail. Whatever the shortcomings of those early scholars, this fine book shows that between the late 17th and early 19th centuries people like William Stukeley, Richard Gough and the Lysons laid the foundations of modern understanding of the past. With astonishing curiosity and energy records were transcribed, monuments illustrated, sites dug, architectural styles ordered, societies founded and studies published. Sweet orders her material in thematic and excellently referenced chapters, treating the individuals and bodies which brought this about, how attitudes and beliefs influenced perceptions of Ancient Britons, Romans and the rest, the stirrings of the conservation movement, and the transmission of this new knowledge to a wider, popular, audience.
This is revisionist stuff. We still tend to the inherited view of such men as slapdash, Romantic, and unworldly – the last unless joining together in bibulous clubs and societies, such as the Dilettanti. As in other areas of life, we owe such perceptions at least partly to those outwardly respectable and sober Victorians. In place of rag-bag volumes on the history of towns and parishes illustrated by dubious quality engravings, the mid 19th century saw the publication of constitutional histories employing methodologies borrowed from German academic scholarship, and instead of speculations about Druidic circles came master narratives by men like Clarendon and Macaulay.
In the 18th century, while women were encouraged to collect natural history specimens, antiquarianism was almost exclusively 'manly'. George Lipscombe believed ladies would find county histories irksome and disagreeable (if true, one rather sympathises with them). Very few female correspondents wrote to Mr Urban of the Gentleman's Magazine (the 18th-century British Archaeology?). One rare exception was Anna Clark, who excitedly communicated the discovery of a James I penny in her garden; good Mr Urban tactfully declined her offering. Sweet argues that few women were schooled to read Latin or Greek, and that they rarely learnt to read old legal documents as men did in the course of estate management or business. Fieldwork was even more a masculine enterprise; a rare exception was Elizabeth, daughter and amanuensis of William Cunnington, the early 19th century Wiltshire antiquary. It is seemly that this excellent study appears in a year when the Society of Antiquaries, the Royal Archaeological Institute and the Institute of Field Archaeologists were all headed by women.
Trethurgy: Excavations at Trethurgy Round, St Austell: Community & Status in Roman & Post-Roman Cornwall
Trethurgy, typical of small enclosed settlements called Rounds which are common in Cornwall, was totally excavated by Henrietta Quinnell in the early 1970s. It remains the only such enclosure of which we have the complete plan, to be compared with Walesland Rath, Pembrokeshire, where such enclosures are also numerous, which was totally excavated in 1969. Both sites reflect a distinctive local social structure with strong indigenous traditions in building styles and material culture. Throughout its life from the Late Iron Age until the early post-Roman period Trethurgy was a small embanked enclosure surrounding stone houses and ancillary buildings. A fine colour reconstruction as frontispiece gives a rapid insight, while 10 clear period plans offer more detail. Environmental data were not collected to modern principles and 30 years is a long time to wait for what is still the standard site of its type in Cornwall. Nevertheless this is a pioneer study on which future researchers will build. Geoff Wainwright
Urban Growth & the Medieval Church: Gloucester & Worcester
Nigel Baker & Richard Holt
One of the most significant urban studies for some time, the results of a major inter-disciplinary, Leverhulme-funded analysis of two outwardly similar, but in fact very different cathedral cities. Gloucester emerged among the ruins of a major Roman city, whereas Roman Worcester, while defended, was primarily an iron-making place. Already a minster place, Gloucester was founded as a royal burh on the Wessex grid model c 880. The broadly contemporary burh at Worcester was episcopal and not formally laid out, although much of the early plan was obliterated in a number of major town planning episodes after the mid 10th century. Both towns seem to have had many pre-Conquest churches; the picking apart of the fluid parish boundaries is methodologically innovative. Densely but well written, it really is important and a fine collaborative effort. Special mention for the 60-odd new plans, which are exemplary. Paul Stamper
Behaviour Behind Bones: the Zooarchaeology of Ritual, Religion, Status & Identity
Sharon Jones O'Day, Wim Van Neer & Anton Ervynck
The first of a shelf-load of edited volumes from the 9th ICAZ Conference, this book is the perfect antidote to the processualist claim that bones are the inert and valueless waste products of a meat-based economy. Case studies demonstrate how closely animals are entwined with human ritual and identity, and how the notion of consumption extends way beyond nutritional necessity. To whet your appetite, the 35 contributions include (for starters?) prehispanic guinea pig sacrifices in southern Peru, proto-mummification of an aurochs at predynastic Hierakonpolis, Egypt, and the imaginative interpretation by Austrian monks of the Carthusian rule forbidding the consumption of warm-blooded vertebrates. Also present are studies of the origins of kosher butchery, and the intricacies of Roman mystery cults – but for Constantine the Great we would all be sacrificing chickens at the summer solstice in honour of our lord Mithras. Andrew Chamberlain
It is encouraging to find so much clear writing – and thought – in a book devoted to public understanding (not always the case in the same-titled journal), now given added interest for the editor being among the first 27 Clore Leadership Fellows (described by programme director Chris Smith as 'people who will become part of the next generation of leaders in the cultural sector'). For anyone wondering why they do archaeology (and if you do not wonder, what are you doing?) this will be a fascinating, educational and provocative read, as well as valuable resource. Of Merriman's two 'publics' (institutional and individual), it is the view from the first that dominates: what archaeologists think about museums, the press, collecting, alternative narratives, the internet and so on, though the occasional personal voice is raised ('The monuments are too breathtaking for words', says a visitor to Egypt. 'And now they can't mend a toaster'). Mike Pitts
The Victoria History of the Counties of England. Stafford vol IX: Burton-Upon-Trent
Institute of Historical Research
A few years ago one great British institution, Marks & Spencer, moved from selling sensible big pants to scanties. The share price plummeted. Now another old-timer has apparently sloughed off its own flirtation with modernity and bite-sized local history and returned to its core business: hurrah for the big red topographical volumes. Burton heralds a new style, and very creditably the VCH has managed to update the appearance and content while retaining the heavily footnoted scholarship (as well as a disproportionate number of church photos). Subheadings guide the reader through a text leavened with linking and contextual sentences. While the physical heritage is generally treated adequately, questions are sometimes left unaddressed: for instance, Burton had a busy and bloody Civil War, but while we are told it was unwalled, any temporary defences (which surely there must have been) go unmentioned. Maps are disappointing. PS
Archaeology, Ritual, Religion
This starts heavily, with definitions that make academic texts like house conveyances. Soon, however, it is a compelling analysis of religion, with 20 pages of bibliography to complete a valuable text for the thinking archaeologist and student. With reference to specific cases in modern west Africa and Neolithic Europe, the usual culprits (shamanism, trance, Çatal Hüyük) are placed in a wide context. Insoll argues convincingly that archaeologists should not be frightened of religion: instead they should recognise its significance and eschew it as 'the “dustbin” for otherwise inexplicable data and far-fetched interpretations which it sometimes resembles'. Religion is about emotion, time and the 'numinous' as well as materiality. Ethnographic analogy will not provide templates for the past, but its power to enlarge the interpretive imagination makes it an essential tool. MP
Charter Quay: the Archaeology of Kingston's Riverside
This is a very different model of an excavation report: short, written for the general reader, and excellently illustrated. Normally such publications sit alongside the conventional academic study with its bone tables and sherd counts. Not here – this is your lot, although at the end of the bibliography specialist reports (although not the historian's – why?) are listed with the website where they can be found (www.wessexarch.co.uk/projects/london/charter_quay/charter_quay.html). Does it work? Well, I'm bold enough to say it does. Although extensive (and presumably fantastically expensive), the excavations revealed a story of only local interest, with Medieval and later expansion by Kingston upon Thames via a series of revetments into the river. Bits of a 12th-century building were recycled in the revetments, while a 19th-century gold dental plate was the only find to catch my eye. PS
Richard Fawcett & Richard Oram
Melrose was a Cistercian monastery, and its superb only half-ruinous church is 'the most important illustration of late Gothic architecture in Scotland'. Resembling an extra-length Ministry of Works blue guide, the book has rather an old-fashioned feel to it – an observation, not criticism. The lengthy introductory chapter on the abbey's history is largely without figures, as is the final section on estates and possessions. In between is the principal fare, a treatment of the site's architecture, detailed and generally well illustrated but with a woeful general site plan. Overall it is a strange hybrid, carefully written and explaining technical terms such as lavatorium to make it accessible to the general reader, yet outwardly – by modern standards of book design and production – very, very, dull. Perhaps one for those who decry blue guides' usurpation by colourful flimflam. PS
Places of Special Virtue: Megaliths in the Neolithic Landscape of Wales
Vicki Cummings & Alasdair Whittle
New techniques have a danger of drowning inquiry, leaving scant room for questions like 'why?'. Not so with Cummings' circular diagrams, drawn on location to illustrate all-round site views. Once you get your eye in, they are extremely effective: in this study of megalith settings, the insight achieved by looking and recording is clear (GIS 'simply cannot … replicate the experience of being in the landscape'). From muddled megalith classes, while emphasising diversity, the authors extract new categories incorporating views, and propose that the monuments evolved in a mobile culture (with strong 'indigenous', ie Mesolithic input) different from southern England. With nearly 300 figures and a site inventory, this book makes a real contribution to Neolithic studies. MP
Human Evolution Cookbook
Harold L Dibble, Dan Williamson & Brad M Evans
On my first stay in the Dordogne, Glynn Daniel's The Hungry Archaeologist in France took me from one Ice Age painted cave to the next bottle of Monbazillac. This punchier little book, also inspired by France (Dibble is currently excavating at Pech de l'Azé), mixes well-informed but very tongue-in-cheek essays on human evolution, recipes by Williamson and Evans' acutely funny cartoons. The viewpoint is American ('Boxgrove Beach Barbeque' starts 'This one should be made a day ahead so the flavors develop. "Flavor?" you say. "How can there be any flavor if this is an English dish?"') and the price a bit above a cheap gift, but jokes, recipes and content will add value to any excavation. MP
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005