Friday, 20 March 2020

'Cutting Edge British Archaeological Literature' Reviewed: When will British Archaeology Grow Up?

"The overriding theme of the book is the
fascinating relationship between  Roman 
and Iron Age communities and the unique  
Romano-British material culture that this produced." 
Eine Hervorragend Nationale Wissenschaft,

Amy Brunskill has written a review for Current Archaeology of the PAS fluff-book: John Pearce and Sally Worrell, '50 Roman Finds from the Portable Antiquities Scheme'. I've not got the book and am unlikely to get it, but this review tells me all I need to know about it. It all sounds very 1930s/Mortimer-Wheelerish.

We are told the book's got "a range of carefully selected artefacts in a well-illustrated, brief volume, which highlights the way in which the material record vividly reflects life in the past". In other words, the PAS "data" (sic) are used merely as illustrations of the "history" that we know of from other sources, rather than being used as a source in their own right (the latter is, is it not, what archaeology is, innit?).

We learn from Brunskill's review that "the authors have chosen a wide variety of both exceptional and everyday objects that reflect the interactions between Roman and Iron Age cultures in Britain [...] Some of the objects chosen encapsulate the conflict, both cultural and physical, between the different cultures present in Britain". Cultures? In other words, this brand of British archaeology is still stuck in the culture-historical mould of Kossinna and his ilk? What sophisticated post-processual theories and buzz words do they apply to the "data" to investigate these interactions from these loose geegaws?

Look at this:
the Crosby Garrett helmet, a stunning and unusual example of military equipment used in parade drills (see CA 287), represents a clear ceremonial display of Roman power. This contrasts with the linchpins belonging to Iron Age chariots of the sort reported to have been used by the Britons against Caesar, which reflect the opposition with which the Romans were met
Is this archaeology or 'Jackanory'? With reference to the above, first of all, I wonder if this fluff book for the PAS considers the very real questions about the findspot of the so-called Crosby Garrett Helmet. This does not “represents a clear ceremonial display of Roman power” in the context in which it seems to have been found, quite the opposite. Also by the fourth century (the date of the layer through which the pit in which it was allegedly buried was dug) was there a need to demonstrate "Roman power”?

The next irritatingly text-driven (and text-illustrating) comment is also vacuous claptrap. Well, when Caesar venit, vidit, and vici-ed in his four-week second invasion, there was not much of a resistance, by his account, they submitted to him.

Now, who is this "Roman history in fifty PAS-recorded Finds" for? Take for example the book A History of Britain in Thirty-six Postage Stamps, who was that written for? Is that not a book written, first and foremost for stamp collectors? So who is "50 finds" written for, if not artefact collectors? The latter are a mere minority of the public that finance the PAS. And is there anything in "fifty finds" that would convert a collector to an archaeologist or is it all just a jumble of object centred glib narrativisation? What archaeological aims lie at the basis of its conception? Any?

British archaeology, surely you can do better than this in your (public-funded) archaeological outreach. No?

And the cover design is crap.


John Pearce said...

This was recently drawn to our attention. Always best to review by reading the book in question, rather than reviews of it. Lest your readers be misled, in c. 15000 words we use the term 'culture' twice:
'This book chooses 50 finds of Roman date to illuminate the society and culture of Roman Britain'
'to show their sophistication and familiarity with Greco-Roman elite culture'

And admittedly we do use the term 'cultural tradition':
'to explore the encounter between different cultural traditions, Roman and local.' but not in a way that Childe et al. would recognise as being culture-historical.

As for Crosby Garrett, see no. 4 in the book for what we say about it.
Still on sale from many outlets and Amazon will do you a used one for £4.99.

Paul Barford said...

But I am not "reviewing" this book (you can always have a review copy sent to me if you'd like to the book reviewed by me). I was referring to the account in Current Archaeology and my readers can access the text to which I refer and see whether I am accurately representing what it contains, they can even look at your book if they want to see if Amy Brunskill was misrepresenting it (was she, would you say?).

I am uninterested in any word count, what I am interested in is the ideological framework and approach to archaeological method in which such a work is based. The quote you supply confirms my point precisely. But the Amazon "look inside preview" gives enough of a flavour of what you are doing and there's no need to waste 4.99 quid plus international postage. And that is what it is for of course.

I was not referring to Childe of course but Kossinna.

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