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Kent Archaeological Review extract

The digger dug.
by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, CIE, MC.
(Spectator, July 5th, 1968.)

The Excavation of Roman and Medieval London, W F Grimes
(Routledge and Kegan Paul, 63 shillings)

Roman Britain remains a seemingly inexhaustible attraction to professional and less professional diggers. Of course, there's so much of it, it's so readily accessible, and it usually produces an abundance of definable bits and pieces. It is mostly archaeology without tears. If we add the unceasing impact of modern development upon our countryside, and of a watchful Ancient Monuments Division of the Ministry of Public Building and Works on the lookout for salvage, all the factors are present for a widespread combination of historical curiosity and social exercise.

Of one aspect of this laudable operation there may be less certainty: the adequate publication of the results of all the expenditure of mind and money involved. The spade is on the whole a less deterring weapon than the pen, and the backlog of unpublished (and therefore unusable) material accumulates at an alarming pace. For example, from 1946 to 1960 intensive and important exploration was carried out prior to the rebuilding of bombed Canterbury. Where is the Canterbury Report which should be a document of prime historical importance? From 1955 to 1961 revealing discoveries were made at St Albans (Verulamium) as a by product of road-building. How long are we to be fobbed off with little "interim reports"? And these are merely outstanding examples from far too many which lie upon the heap. Technically competent diggers can often be flushed from the stubble; literate exponents are rare birds.

This brings us to the book here noticed. Londinium was one of the great, if peripheral, cities of the Roman Empire. In exceptional measure, its vestiges matter materially to our understanding of the beginnings of civilisation in our island on an international scale. The utter destruction of something like one sixth of the City of London in the second World War, and the general reconstruction which this presaged, offered the last possible opportunity for considered exploration of any considerable extent. Happily, there were those whose timely prevision saw that the opportunity was not missed. During a brief visit to England at the end of 1943 I found the late Bryan O'Neil, of the Ministry of Works, and the officers of the Society of Antiquaries already thinking ahead and, largely at the instance of the Ministry and Society, the whole enterprise of recovery took practical shape in 1947. The project was well conceived from the outset, and received creditable civic support.

Thereafter the main direction of the peculiarly arduous and often frustrating task of burrowing through rubble-filled cellars devolved primarily upon Professor W F Grimes, now Director of the Institute of Archaeology in London. Of Professor Grimes I would at once say (and he must forgive me) that no British archaeologist at the present day surpassed his skill both as an excavator and as a delineator; his drawn sections and plans are analytically expressive and no less a pleasure to the eye. These are rare qualifications; but, as he would himself admit, they are not enough. His present book deals, inter alia, with two outstanding discoveries: the surprising Roman fort which he identified with great perspicacity in the Cripplegate area, and the now-celebrated temple of Mithras which he unearthed beside the Walbrook near the Mansion House. In this new book published how many years after the events? -- we are given some of the facts and the excavator's interpretation of them. But as time goes on, the excavator's incompletely supported inferences will matter less and less. What we need, and what at this late date we have a right to demand, is a complete factual statement of all the evidence. We may be grateful for the present book but at the same time quite shamelessly claim more, and with a justifiable sense of urgency.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Editor.

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