This article appeared in the Autumn 1974 (Issue #37) edition of the Kent Archaeological Review.
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A WALK ALONG THE WALL by Hunter Davies (Published by Weidenfield and Nicolson -- price £3.50). Reviewed by Alison Borthwick.
When time for reading is limited and the cost of that reading matter is so high; the first impressions of a book are often very important. When I first saw A walk Along the Wall the cover, with a scene of rolling Northumbrian Wall country and ghostly roman and barbarian soldiers in full battle superimposed above, suggested that this was not a learned text filled with archaeological facts and theories. The write-up on the dust cover did nothing to persuade me otherwise. Hunter Davies is apparently a talented man. Having been educated at Durham University, he now writes for several National papers and has written many books on varied subjects, such as the Beatles, Tottenham Hotspur football team, and a doubtful publication on the activities of an adolescent boy! £3.50 seemed rather a lot to pay for a three hundred page book with nine rather uninspiring plates and a few very poor plans. Admittedly there is quite a comprehensive index and a good appendix giving the major sites along the wall, the best stretches of wall, accommodation, maps and intineries, and a fairly good if rather generalized and limited bibliography.
Mr Davies is obviously a commercialist and a popularizer of any subject he chooses. He has already made a television film on the same lines as this book, which to the uninformed viewer may well have been enjoyable and interesting, but un- fortunately it created completely the wrong idea of archaeology. All archaeologists are looking for buried treasure and their one dream is to dig up a Mithraic temple! I understand that the author has also handed over the copyrights of his book and therefore the proceeds to the Vindolanda Trust, because he feels guilty about the amount of money he earns and is attempting to reduce his annual income to a paltry £5,000 to ease his conscience. In this way he feels he is helping society and ensuring that his children do not inherit any great riches.
Turning however to the text and to be fair to Mr Davies, he admits that he always found archaeology and particularly Roman Britain very dry and boring. He makes no claim to be the author of an archaeological book but explains that he saw the need to popularize and bring alive a monument and an area he had known since childhood and had always felt was dead. In many ways he has achieved his aim. The book is chatty, lively and readable, in a way which personally I found rather irritating. He relates conversations with tourists, landlords, estate owners and government work- men. He brings in the attitudes of these people to the Wall. He talks about the problems of the roman soldier living in the forts along the Wall and gives a general if rather skeletal history of the monument as he progresses along it.
For someone who knows nothing of Hadrians Wall or the country it crosses, this book would I think succeed in rousing their interest, but it also brings out some important facts which the archaeologist should note. Firstly it shows the need to publicise and popularize archaeology for the layman. This the author recognised and cashed in on. In doing this he has inadvertently raised further points. Most importantly that there is a need for the 'right' people to undertake this popularization; people who know their subject and can put across the excitement of it, while backing it up with sound archaeological knowledge and the right approach to the subject. It is also apparent from the conversations the author had with people living along the Wall, that the government, archaeologists and tourists are not very popular. There appears to be a lack of interest on the part of the land owners in particular and this surely cries out for a careful, responsible and subtle form of popularization calculated to win over those people who form a very important part of the archaeological and tourist game. Lastly there is the fact that if a layman who confesses to have found Roman Britain boring can be impressed by a research excavation, the aims and methods of which are the subject of some controversy and is prepared to hand over the proceeds of his hard work to that excavation, why has the same sort of support not been courted for important, spectacular and more deserving sites which fall in the far more urgent category of rescue archaeology?
This is certainly not a book to be put on the 'essential' reading list, but we should sit up and take notice of the pitfalls it uncovers.
THE FIRST GREAT CIVILIZATIONS by Jacquetta Hawkes (Published by Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., price £5.50). Reviewed by Jim Williams.
Being married to the Editor does have some compensations, one being first pick of the books which are sent in to us for review. This is a book which cannot be overlooked by anyone who digs and who remembers Sir Mortimer Wheeler's words stressing the fact that we dig up people and not things. Aptly sub-titled 'Life in Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and Egypt', the accent certainly is on the life of the people.
The First Great Civilizations is the latest addition to a series entitled 'The History of Human Society', edited by J H Plumb, Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge. Professor Plumb has written such a powerful introduction to the book that I found myself compelled to read it through twice, once before reading the book and again after I had finished it.
Jacquetta Hawkes has brought the worlds of the archaeologist and the historian together to bring to life the worlds of three ancient societies, parallel in time but culturally worlds apart who had contact with each other through trading links. All three also shared a dependence on the annual flood of a great river to provide the food surpluses that enabled them not only to support highly skilled craftsmen and artists whose work we so often see illustrated, but also tradesmen, merchants, magistrates, lawyers, scribes, priests, kings, armies and whole classes of men freed for the first time from from the need to produce their own food. The author shows us in her clear, precise manner how these societies came into being, their development and how their problems of civilization were exactly the same problems which bedevil our society today -- there is even a case of Egyptian tomb builders coming out on strike.
Of great help in giving the reader the fullest enjoyment and interest from this book are the chronological tables thoughtfully provided at the back of the volume together with four excellent maps in their correct positions in relation to the text. These could, perhaps, be studied before actually starting the book in order to get the feel of the sequence of events, dynasties and place names -- then pop book markers in the appropriate places because the reader is bound to keep turning back for reference throughout the book. A very useful index is included and for those who wish to delve deeper into the subjects, there is also a selected bibliography. My only complaint about the book is that some of the drawings have not reproduced well -- particularly those of the palaces of Kish and Mari. Only one other book in this excellent series published by Hutchinson has come my way but I sincerely hope that I shall have the opportunity of reading forthcoming volumes.