Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.08.14

Vincent L. Gaffney, R. H. White, H. Goodchild, Wroxeter, the Cornovii, and the Urban Process: Final Report on the Wroxeter Hinterland Project 1994-1997. Vol. 1, Researching the Hinterland. Journal of Roman Archaeology. Supplementary Series, no. 68.   Portsmouth, R.I.:  Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2007.  ISBN 9781887829687.  $99.50.  



Reviewed by Ardle Mac Mahon (am4745@tutor.open.ac.uk)
Word count: 2046 words

[Authors and table of contents at the end of the review.]

This is volume one of a regional research project that aims to put the civitas capital of the Roman town of Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum), which is located in Shropshire in the west midlands of England, into the context of its surrounding environment. The second volume, which is to follow, will concentrate much more on the urban area. It is due to include the results of recent excavations within the town and an interpretation of the comprehensive geophysical survey carried out across the entire urban area.

The importance of towns in Roman Britain cannot be overstated. Although towns have been studied in great depth, publications can frequently give the impression that these settlements occupied a vacant landscape or that towns and their surrounding environment are mutually exclusive. The study sets out, in part, to carry out a survey of the settlement pattern for the Wroxeter region. It also intends to move beyond the descriptive and to place these results into the wider theoretical context of the dual process of urbanization and Romanization. It is unique, in that it uses GIS (Geographical Information Systems) to examine the distribution of cultural material within the landscape to investigate the relationship between the hinterland and town. It presents hard evidence for an association for which many studies in the past have merely theorized or developed from smaller site-based studies. It also challenges many of the preconceptions that have been become part of our understanding of the development of Wroxeter and the people of the Cornovii. Perhaps the most important assumption challenged is the seeming paradox of a major town surrounded by an underdeveloped or unsuccessful countryside devoid of villas. The authors are well aware of the importance attached to the primary evidence but in this volume have set their sights well beyond the material remains themselves and have aspired to explore the economic and social dimensions of the surround landscape. Upon completion of the two volumes the authors will have produced a more material based history of Wroxeter and the Cornovii.

Wroxeter is the fourth largest town in Britain, and unlike most other sites, it has remained largely unscathed by later urban development and is available for archaeological research. Excavations have taken place on the site since 1859. However, the early work on Wroxeter was not on the same scale as those that took place at Silchester (Calleva Attrebatum) and Caerwent (Venta Silurum) and largely concentrated on the central public buildings. There are few sites available for studies such as that carried out in this volume and these are Caerwent, Caistor St Edmund (Venta Icenorum), Silchester and Verulamium, none of which was a colonia, the settlement type of highest status. It is an archaeological reality that our understanding of urbanization in Roman Britain is largely confined to the native civitates. Verulamium is perhaps an exception, although its status as a municipium is much debated.

The primary objective of the first volume is to examine the impact of the imposition of Wroxeter as a town into a regional area that had not been significantly influenced by Romanization before the arrival of the Roman army. The other stated aim is to place the settlement into the wider theoretical framework of the process of urbanization and Romanization, as these will have had varying impacts upon the native population. Furthermore, the project links new evidence from the survey and excavation to pre-existing evidence.

The preface, which is suitably modest in tone, makes clear the sheer scale of the project. Gathering the data and interpreting this material to understand the wider pattern of integration between town and countryside is no easy task. It also explains that the town-country relationship can only be put into context by consideration of both elements and states that this approach gives a more realistic picture of Wroxeter and its environs.

Chapter 1 deals with the abstract terms of 'urbanization' and 'Romanization' in modern scholarship. It is a compelling discussion and despite its best efforts to arrive at suitable definitions, emphasises the fact and states that any definitions will remain elusive. The great difficulty is that both Romanization and urbanization were not constant or unified concepts across the Empire or even throughout its duration. They are labels more akin to modern academic discourse than the Roman world. Any effort to find some form of model of Romanization, or urbanization for that matter, is a highly subjective pursuit and is in reality a theoretical exercise. This chapter does feel a bit out of context in a volume that predominantly focuses on the rural landscape but such criticism needs to be seen in the context of the wider study, which will follow in the second volume.

The second chapter places the research into the context of previous work and defines the geographical boundaries of the study. There is a fascinating discussion on boundaries in general such as that of the civitas and land use. The chapter also illustrates the importance of the study of acculturation in the urban hinterland and discusses the apparent variations in the depth of Romanization of the neighbouring Dobunni in the south and the Ordovices and Deceangli in the west.

Chapter 3 summarises the data and methodology that have been used to support the project. This includes pre-existing archaeological data and soil survey results. Chapter 4 discusses the surface survey of the research area to determine the importance of Wroxeter on the surrounding district and settlement patterns in the core of the Cornovian territory. It also includes a summary of the limited excavation work conducted in association with the project. Chapter 5 brings together the cultural material. These three chapters represent the hard data of the volume and show that Romanization, as measured by building materials, ceramics and other objects that demonstrate Roman traits, never became embedded in the surrounding rural landscape.

The most interesting and striking results of the survey of archaeological material are the limited number of finds. For example, the excavation of Whitley Grange villa which, although equipped with a bath-house, a hypocaust and an impressive mosaic, produced only seven coins and surprisingly few sherds of pottery. The conclusions drawn in chapters 4 and 5 are that while the Cornovian aristocracy willingly took to living within Roman style buildings, they did not take on all the vestiges of what is assumed for a Roman lifestyle when compared to other tribes especially those in the southeastern Britain. A similar pattern can be seen in the isolated farms, which do not seem to have acquired what are presumed to be the basic trappings of Romanization in the form of imported pottery. Furthermore, the results of extensive fieldwalking have shown that those sites with Roman ceramics tend to be located in close proximity to the road network.

Although I found chapters 1 and 2 particularly engrossing for their discussion of the wider context of the project, chapters 6 and 7 are the real the crux of the volume. Chapter 6 attempts the difficult task of integrating the material and focuses back on Wroxeter in an effort to reconstruct its population and its needs. Chapter 7 concerns identifying the Cornovii and re-identifies their character in the light of the outcome of this study. The volume concludes by placing the results of the Wroxeter project into the wider context of Roman Britain.

The volume proposes that Wroxeter was not a failed town, and that the surrounding countryside was not impoverished, but that Romanized lifestyles did not penetrate deeply into this landscape. The Cornovii were every bit as sophisticated as the tribes in the South East, but like their Iron Age ancestors, they set themselves apart in the manner in which they disposed of and demonstrated their wealth. The answer to the question of where this wealth originated, and how the landscape was exploited, given the absence of hard evidence, is that the bulk of agricultural production in the region must have been pastoral rather than arable and that this practice continued into the Roman period. Far from being culturally and politically backward, the Cornovii constructed hillforts in profusion and once pacified channelled these energies into constructing the administrative capital for the tribe in the period of two generations. It seems that the adoption of town life may well be the most potent symbol of commitment to Rome, as the opportunity to use ceramics or adopt coinage existed prior to the Roman invasion but was not embraced by the Cornovii.

The adoption of Roman cultural tradition was a complex process that developed along very divergent lines in each region. Ultimately, the concept of a town and what it was to be Roman was experienced, and therefore conceived, in different ways, by different people at different times. Wroxeter is not an isolated example of this, which I am sure the second volume, which will concentrate on the town itself, will demonstrate. Furthermore, this volume illustrates that such a notion concerning Romanization reaches far beyond the organization and exploitation of the urban centre into its hinterland. This adds further weight to the importance of taking a holistic approach to the study of towns by seeing them in the context of the surrounding territory. The volume is quite free of typos. The illustrations are well chosen and clear, although the impact of Fig. 2.7 is lost to an extent as some of the symbols are extremely faint or nonexistent. The report on the Upton Cressett (SA1919) pottery type is repeated from page 148 on pages 150-1. One might question the appropriateness of chapters focused on urban settings in a volume that claims to discuss the hinterland. However, to be fair these probably need to be seen in the overall context of the two volumes rather than this single publication. Overall, I feel there is little to be critical about in what is a very important book.

The volume is written with great clarity and is stimulating to read. This publication sets Wroxeter apart from others towns in Roman Britain, as the only civitas where the relationship between its major urban centre and its hinterland has been studied in detail. If the teams working on Caerwent, Caistor St Edmund, Silchester and Verulamium adopted an equivalent interest in the hinterland, our knowledge of towns in Roman Britain and their relationship to their surrounding environment could be dramatically illuminated or even revolutionised. Certainly the recent geophysical survey project of the urban area at Caistor St Edmund has already produced exciting results.

It really is a credit to the authors, and the team, to set up this work as a model for others to engage and develop, not only within the context of urbanization and Romanization in Roman Britain but also for the important rural-urban relationship. This is a very important work that pushes forward our understanding of the social history of Roman Britain. From a personal point of view, I await the following volume with great anticipation.

Table of Contents

List of figures and tables 6
Preface and Acknowledgements 9
1. Unfinished histories: approaches to urbanization and 'Romanization' 14
2. Previous archaeological work within Wroxeter, its hinterland, and nearby 35
3. The base data and methodology 54
4. Fieldwork of the Wroxeter Hinterland Project 65
5. Cultural material from the Wroxeter Hinterland 143
1. Iron Age metalwork from the Wroxeter Hinterland study area, by R. White with D. Mackreth 143
2. The Roman pottery from Wroxeter's Hinterland, by C. Jane Evans 146
3. Samian pottery, by S. Willis 168
4. Roman glass, by L. Bevan with H. E. M. Cool 181
5. Coins from Wroxeter Hinterland Project and Wroxeter Hinterlands Survey Excavations, by R. White 186
6. The metal finds, by L. Bevan with D. Mackreth and R. White 189
7. Stone objects, by L. Bevan with R. Ixer 198
8. Report on building materials from the Wroxeter Hinterland Project, by R. White with N. Cassidy, R. Ixer, E. Macey-Bracken and M. Wright 203
9. Stone building materials, by L. Bevan with R. Ixer 229
6. Integrating the evidence 237
with H. Goodchild and T. Maguire
7. Imagine a city: Wroxeter and its hinterland 279
Bibliography 287
Abstracts 302
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