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Treasure under the nation's feet

23 November 2012

Archaeology and its ideas are developing, says Julian Litten


Time's Anvil: England, archaeology and the imagination
Richard Morris
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT517 )

THIS fascinating book - a combination of the author's autobiography and a biography of the science of archaeology in England since the 17th century - suggests that some historical truths are found and proved, rather than created, by archaeology, and that the study of conflict, and especially prehistory, is necessary for the nation's safekeeping.

For some, archaeology is limited to the artefacts recovered by excavation; but, without the time-line and the stratification, there is no context into which the items can be fixed. Thus, a sword recovered from a battle site remains merely a sword, but knowledge of the battle, particularly why, when, and how it was fought, gives that item its meaning.

No matter how many battle-damaged skulls are found, the fact that the man wielding the sword kills people remains headline news, whereas the rewriting of narratives that explain why the battles were fought is not.

How the past is read, and what one brings to the reading, is the fundamental principle of the book. From Anglo-Saxon settlements, deserted medieval villages, monas- tic remains, Tudor theatres, and Commonwealth battle-sites to the industrial archaeology of northern towns, the military cemeteries of the First World War, and the advent of aerial photography, Morris shows how each has a part to play in weaving the tapestry of England's history. But it is a careful weaving that must be done; for society has often underestimated connections between periods, things, institutions, and ideas that are normally studied apart, and assumed to be unrelated.

Archaeology, like other sciences, is continually evolving. The process of site-excavation in England in the 17th century was crude compared with today's system. Furthermore, while some 18th-century antiquarians would tunnel through a burial mound to get to the burial chamber, today's archaeologist will systematically examine the whole barrow to see how it was constructed before he or she reaches the remains within.

J. R. R. Tolkien was of the opinion that to destroy something to see how it worked was departing from the sense of reason; but Morris argues that systematic examination is the only way of finding out why a structure was created, and what its context might be.

The Snettisham Hoard and the Hoxne Hoard were both deposited rather than lost, which makes them all the more perplexing; for the context of the deposits remains unknown. By the end of the book, the reader will be able to understand that an episcopal ring in a cathedral treasury labelled as "found" in a bishop's coffin should be described as "from" that coffin, because nothing that is deliberately deposited is lost; for it is only the lost that can be found.

Dr Julian Litten is an architectural historian.

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