Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.2.13


Patrick Ottaway, Archaeology in British Towns: From the Emperor Claudius to the Black Death. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. Pp. xvi, 249. ISBN 0-415-14420-5.


Reviewed by Dr. Christopher A. Snyder, History, Marymount University, csnyder@marymount.edu.

I remember skimming through Ottaway's Archaeology in British Towns shortly after its release in hardcover and finding little new information relating to my research on late Romano-British towns. The 1996 release of the paperback edition, however, provided an opportunity to return for a more thorough reading of this book and, this time, to appreciate it for what it is: a sometimes compelling and well-written history of urban archaeology in pre-modern Britain.

The book follows a conventional organization of introductory topics followed by a chronological narrative of British towns. Chapter One is a brief history of urban archaeology in Britain, with an emphasis upon the rescue excavations which have risen to prominence in the field since the late 1960s. This chapter also introduces one theme which runs throughout the work: the hot-and-cold relationship between British archaeologists and commercial developers, and the varying success that government (both local and national) has had in mediating between the interests of these two groups. Chapter Two continues the background discussion with an examination of current methodologies and strategies used by the professional urban archaeologist. Site evaluation, excavation strategies, recording and dating artifacts, and the use of reconstruction drawings are some of the more important topics covered briefly in this chapter. A bit too brief is Ottaway's discussion of dating and chronology, which ignores traditional scientific dating techniques.

Chapters Three through Six comprise a chronological narrative of British towns, covering four periods defined by Ottaway as Early Roman, Late Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Medieval. For the most part this organizational strategy works, though some readers may prefer continuous discussion of major sites (e.g. London, York, Lincoln, Canterbury) instead of interrupted histories of these towns. In beginning his narrative with Roman towns, Ottaway makes the not too risky assertion that urbanization in Britain began with the Romans, and not with the native oppida of the Late Pre-Roman Iron Age as some prehistoric archaeologists would see it. I find it a bit more disconcerting that Ottaway has identified the entirety of the fifth through eleventh centuries as the "Anglo-Saxon" period (which ignores the Sub-Roman, Welsh, Scottish, and Viking aspects of early medieval Britain), though, again, this is somewhat conventional. Facing the daunting task of covering urban occupation "from the emperor Claudius to the Black Death," Ottaway is impressive in his even handling of these diverse periods, being careful not to glorify Roman urban accomplishments over their very different medieval successors. Chapter Seven's Postscript concludes the discussion with a look to the future of urban archaeology in Britain, and includes Ottaway's prescription for the profession's good health (and wealth): better public presentation of the past, following the lead of York's successful Jorvic Viking Centre and ARC (Archaeological Resource Centre) projects.

Ottaway tells us that the idea for this book grew out of a series of lectures, given to evening classes at the University of Hull, which were to introduce students to the principle discoveries and methodologies in urban archaeology since the 1960s (p. xi). Similarly, the "principal purpose" of the book is to give readers some impression of what the archaeological activity of the last thirty years has taught historians and archaeologists about the early development of British towns (p. 2). This is not an archaeological monograph, and its strengths are apparent where Ottaway the teacher uses methods of presentation which are neglected by most specialists. For example, Ottaway frequently gives background information to excavations (developers' plans, sponsorship) which even site reports ignore (or obscure). In addition to using reconstruction illustrations, Ottaway also employs imaginative written descriptions of daily life in Roman Britain, recreating a scene from the London waterfront (pp.64-67) and the emperor Severus' visit to York (p. 94). Ottaway's writing skills are further displayed in his moving description of newborn burials in Roman Winchester (p. 80), an emotional archaeological reminder of the very high infant mortality rates in pre-modern Europe.

Such straying away from "scientific" presentation of the data may not please all archaeologists -- we certainly do not need to read about "Chaucer's daily stooling" in London's sewers (p. 194) -- but few will object to Ottaway's interpretations of the data. His acceptance of "dark earth" as a sign of population decline in Roman towns (p. 71) is a little out of step with recent studies, and his foederati explanation of the Lankhills graves (p. 108) ignores the heated controversy surrounding the archaeological identification of Germanic mercenaries in British towns. But the only glaring weakness of this study is the constant intrusion of Ottaway's advocacy. He often describes Labor party members coming to the rescue of archaeological sites threatened by commercial developers. While field archaeologists in Britain may not be able to avoid British politics, the general reader -- targeted by this paperback release -- should be allowed to. That issue aside, this well-written book does often succeed in bringing the general reader, as well as students and scholars of early Britain, into the evolving story of British urban archaeology.