Tag Archives: archaeology

On Robin Fleming’s ‘Britain After Rome’

Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400 to 1070 should perhaps have been a different book altogether.

The product of ten years’ work on the part of Robin Fleming, a professor at Boston College (Boston, Massachusetts, USA), Britain After Rome was commissioned by David Cannadine within the Penguin History of Britain series. It covers the huge span of time — nearly seven centuries — that elapsed between the departure of the Roman legions and the arrival of William the Conqueror. As such, it follows in the footsteps of at least two other Penguin volumes: The Anglo-Saxons (James Campbell et al, 1991) and The Beginnings of English Society (Dorothy Whitelock, 1963).

Based on all this, it would not be unreasonable to assume that Britain After Rome was intended as a general introduction to this large, complex and in many ways intractable subject — a book for students, clearly, but perhaps also for the casual museum visitor who has been stunned by the splendour of the Staffordshire Hoard and wants to know more, the casual reader wondering to what degree The Lantern Bearers (1959) makes any sort of historical sense, the anxious observer of current affairs hoping acquire a longer view regarding the challenges, curiosities and catastrophes of our own time.

Yet Britain After Rome in fact strongest precisely at the point where it stops trying to pass itself off as a generalist introduction. Far and away the best thing about the book is the final chapter, “Living and Dying in Early Medieval Britain: The Fifth to Eleventh Century” [sic]. Here, with the end in sight, as it were, Professor Fleming is at last able to bypass aspects of human experience that don’t seem to engage her quite so fully — religion, politics, warfare, agriculture, craftsmanship, linguistics — and can concentrate fully on the part of her subject to which she brings the most obvious energy.

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Heritage under the hammer: the Crosby Garrett Helmet (re)visited

Later this morning, the Crosby Garrett helmet, about which I have written here, will be put to auction at Christie’s South Kensington, London, where the estimate stands at £200,000-£300,000.

On Monday, I made my way up the Old Brompton Road to see this much-publicised item at first hand. What I encountered was not entirely what I had expected — or, rather, the experience of viewing the Crosby Garrett helmet seemed to fling two different worlds into jarring, distressing collision.

The context framed the problem. Although no stranger to Christie’s, virtually all my previous visits to South Ken have been consecrated to the pursuit of examining, and sometimes even acquiring (very much at the modest end of the spectrum — no £300,000 parade armour for me!) either furniture or pictures.

Here, well-established conventions apply regarding provenance, condition and authentication. Continue reading

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On ‘saving’ the Crosby Garrett helmet

When it comes to the international trade in antiquities, the UK has for centuries enjoyed the status of net beneficiary. This happy fact is evident not only amid the airy echoing courts and endless lesser galleries of the British Museum, various far-flung corners of the V&A, the renovated treasure-houses of the Ashmolean and the Fitzwilliam, dozens of excellent regional and local collections, but equally so from the riches which private collectors and their trustees have chosen to share with the viewing public — these last ranging from a few marvellous cameos in the Royal Collection to the magnificent holdings of some of our more acquisitive aristocratic families, or, as far as that goes, intellectually stimulating displays at Sir John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Sigmund Freud’s house in Hampstead — as well as what’s there to be seen, all the year round, in the salerooms of our larger and smaller auction houses and in the galleries of commercial dealers in antiquities.

Britain is, in short, notably well-stocked with the material residue of other countries’ ancient civilisations. Other countries are, in contrast, rather less preoccupied with the material residue of Britain’s ancient civilisations. When it comes to the past, we import more than we export. Or to put it another way, without a lively and long-established progression of antiquities out of their far-flung places of origin and into Britain, some of our greatest museums, galleries, stately homes and smaller collections would be looking rather empty, at least from the point of view of anyone who cares about ancient history.

Should we regret this? Not entirely. As the previous examples ought to show, Britain’s vast holdings of other people’s cultural legacies stems as much from the stuff of cross-cultural curiosity, profound and productive scholarly engagement, aesthetic receptiveness, political stability and  peaceful exchange as it does from military or economic imperialism, exploitation or outright theft. Rather like our tail-wagging mongrel of a language, our ability to absorb all those various successive lapping waves of inward migration, our default tendency towards tolerance cross-cut with a strand of fairly gentle irony, Britain’s acquisitive regard for other countries’ ancient history says the sorts of things about our culture that, at least when couched in positive terms, most of us are only too anxious to believe.

None of which is to say that we shouldn’t stop and think carefully about where antiquities purchased today come from, how they came to be there, or the sort of incentives produced by their sale — or indeed, about whether repatriating those antiquities might now suit our moods and purposes better than retaining them. But it does suggest, surely, that we’re not in much of a position to complain when our own antiquities end up finding new homes abroad.

All that being the case, when, why should we strive to ‘save’ — i.e. to retain within the UK, in a public collection — that article of Roman cavalry parade armour now known as the Crosby Garrett helmet, due to be auctioned at Christie’s South Kensington on 7 October? Continue reading

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Aberlemno

Continuing with that ongoing churchyard-related theme — just the sort of cheery carefree image one associates with summer holidays — here is a Pictish stone carving erected in what is now the kirkyard of the small village of Aberlemno in Angus, Scotland.

The stone was probably carved in the 7th or 8th century AD. It may or may not commemorate the Battle of Dunnichen of 20 May 685, in which the Picts won a major victory over their Northumbrian Saxon neighbours.

On the other side of the stone (not shown) is a large cross decorated with extremely elaborate knotwork, flanked by fantastical beasts.

The churchyard site is beautiful, by the way — a peaceful little wooded enclave, including the old manse and some stone-built barns — all of this set just below a ridge overlooking the richly productive rolling fields of the Vale of Strathmore. No wonder, then, that people felt strongly enough about all this not only to fight for it, but to record that fighting in a form that has lasted for perhaps 1,200 years or more.

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The Staffordshire Hoard

Staffordshire Hoard

Detail of a gold decorative panel: image courtesy of official Staffordshire Hoard website

sinc éaðe mæg
gold on grunde       gumcynnes gehwone
oferhígian                hýde sé ðe wylle —

__________________

[treasure easily may —
gold in the ground — any one of mankind
overpower, hide he who will —]

(Beowulf, lines 2764-2767)

Well, consider me totally overpowered — rather ecstatically so — ever since I saw this, first thing this morning, later supplemented by this, complete with photos. It is not every day that one hears news of 1,500 items of Anglo-Saxon treasure, probably dating from the 7th century, recently excavated from a Staffordshire field, but it’s worth celebrating when it happens.

I suppose if one can bury bad news, one can also, conversely, unearth amazing news. Truly, this middanġeard is full of marvels, even now.

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Not the typical Roman holiday …

Torcello

To compensate for this unprecedented and rather depressing run of two ‘parish news’ posts in a row — and also, admittedly, because while everyone else of any consequence is clearly now on holiday, I’m still here in London — let’s turn our attention, however briefly, to far horizons, judged either geographically or chronologically — specifically, to some nondescript and dessicated fields just north of Venice’s Marco Polo airport.

Most ‘news stories’ precipitated by press releases, seeded into the apparently endless news-drought that is August, deserve the torrent of indifference they generally receive. This, however, is something else entirely. Scholars have, I suppose, always known that a (pre) Roman settlement called Altinium, located on the Venetian terrafirma but also very near the island of Torcello, was more than just a tactful myth designed to confer upon a great Renaissance city some semblance of a respectably ancient Roman lineage. The site of Altinium, near the present-day hamlet of Altino, was well known. Excavations had already taken place, uncovering part of Altinium’s necropolis.

A dry spell in July 2007, however, revealed much more. Based on aerial photos taken in several wavelengths of visible light and in near-infrared, with a resolution of half a meter, it has been possible to reconstruct the street-plan of Altinium, complete with basilica, forum and theatre, as well as a canal. This latter feature is fascinating, suggesting as it does that long before the Lombard invasions of the seventh century, the inhabitants of Altinium were already learning the arts of embanking, draining and canal-building — all of which would later prove so central to history of the world’s most beautiful city.

Some might pause to wonder why a Soho-based Tory blog remains so preoccupied with Romans and barbarians, their various conflicts and eventual partial synthesis. Good question! Much of the fascination, I guess, lies in the gloomy romance of Torcello’s foundation-story. No matter how much archaeology, science or all-purpose rationalist daylight is beamed upon it, there’s still something in that tale of a tiny embattled enclave, encircled with lapping brackish water and odd-smelling muddy reed-beds — a glimmering reliquary of older rituals and manners, so improbable in its bare survival and yet so magnificent in its later Venetian successes — that stirs my reactionary heart.

And the rest of the fascination lies precisely in the pleasantly distant nature of these stories and predicaments, capable of functioning not only as metaphor, but as a sort of escapism, too. Holidays, after all, can take many forms. Enjoy yours, if you’re having one — and I’ll get back to poring over my maps of dried-out, distant, anciently depopulated fields.

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Dilapidated or just complicated? ‘The Roman Forum’ by David Watkin

forum

A few sentences into David Watkin’s The Roman Forum, notice is served that this will be no ordinary guidebook. The first paragraph establishes a tone that will persist throughout:

“The Roman Forum is one of the most famous of all historic sites, the heart of the ancient city, the hub of the Roman empire, the goal of tens of thousands of Grand Tourists. It is still visited by millions of people a year, yet it can be a baffling experience. Part of this is because archaeologists dig deeper and deeper in the understandable pursuit of knowledge about Rome and its early history, leaving behind rubble and holes which are ugly and difficult to understand. It is also because some of the most prominent monuments, which are believed by almost all visitors to be antique, turn out essentially to be products of the nineteenth or twentieth century.”

Yet how many other guidebooks would, by way of introducing the reader to ‘one of the most famous of all historic sites’, begin by asserting that the site in question is not only ‘baffling’ but also ‘ugly’ and ‘difficult to understand’ — let alone insist on the illusionless point that what may be seen today of the Forum is, in large part, a modern restoration? How many authors would dismiss archaeologists’ ‘pursuit of knowledge’ at the Roman Forum, of all places, with recourse to that pity-saturated adjective, ‘understandable’?

Prof Watkin, on the other hand, is no ordinary compiler of guidebooks. Professor of the History of Architecture at Cambridge University, fellow of Peterhouse since 1970 and a convert to Roman Catholicism, he has written important books on Sir John Soane,Thomas Hope, C. R. Cockerell, Athenian Stuart, John Simpson and others. His account of George III’s architectural patronage was a scholarly history in which the effort to avoid writing an instruction book for princes was palpable, if not wholly successful. Prof Watkin’s most famous work, Morality and Architecture (1977, revised edition 2001) indicated a willingness to defend as a matter of present-day urgency the inherited architectural vocabulary of ancient Greece and Rome, while at the same time acknowledging timeless doctrinal truth as simultaneously fundamentally different from and confidently superior to the sort of claims that can be made in favour of style, zeitgeist or positivist assertions of ‘progress’.

Not everyone has admired this. Thus Prof Mary Beard who, in her role as general editor of Profile Books’ ‘Wonders of the World’ series, commissioned Prof Watkin to write the present volume, again demonstrates the bracing disinclination to avoid controversy which has not only offended sensitive souls along the way, e.g. here, but lent energy to her re-invention as a successful uber-blogger, achieved without damage to a career as a fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge and a classicist of formidable seriousness.

For commissioning Prof Watkin, in any event, Prof Beard is to be warmly congratulated. The Roman Forum is, to use the almost too predictable phrase, a triumph. Clear-eyed, surprising, malicious, injunctive, polemical and often intensely funny, it achieves a minor wonder of the world in taking a place all civilised people feel they know and rendering it, if not new exactly, then far more complicated, contestible and immediately significant than had previously seemed to be the case. Continue reading

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