Review Article

Post-Roman imports in the British Isles: material and place

Michel Bonifay
Aix-Marseille Université - CNRS: Centre Camille Jullian,
Maison Méditerranéenne des Sciences de l'Homme,
5, rue du Château de l'Horloge, BP 647, 13094 Aix-en-Provence, France
(Translated from the French by Reviews Editor)

Books Reviewed
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EWAN CAMPBELL. Continental and Mediterranean imports to Atlantic Britain and Ireland, AD 400-800 (CBA Research Report 157). xx+164 pages, 85 figures, 56 colour & b&w plates, 22 tables. 2007. York: Council for British Archaeology; 978-1-902771-73-1 paperback £30.

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RACHEL C. BARROWMAN, COLLEEN E. BATEY & CHRISTOPHER D. MORRIS. Excavations at Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, 1990-1999 (Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London 74). xx+370 pages, 147 b&w & colour illustrations, 90 tables. 2007. London: Society of Antiquaries of London; 978-0-85431-286-3.

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Seventy-two years after Ralegh Radford's momentous discovery of ceramics imported into the British Isles from Mediterranean and Continental areas during the very early Middle Ages, and following inventories and classification by Charles Thomas between 1954 and 1990, two publications bring new light on a material that has already generated an abundant literature.

References to this rich literature will be found in the bibliography, by all appearances exhaustive, accompanying (on pp. 142-54) the first of the two books under review, Campbell's Continental and Mediterranean imports to Atlantic Britain and Ireland. An introductory chapter (pp. 1-13) sets out its aims: to construct an up-to-date corpus of ceramics and glass imported into the British Isles (excluding Anglo-Saxon England) after the end or the Roman occupation, and to better understand the commercial and social mechanisms which created the conditions for the arrival of these objects. Chapters 2 to 5 (pp. 14-82) describe the material by categories: Mediterranean ceramics (Phocean Red Slip ware, African Red Slip ware, Late Roman Amphorae), Continental ceramics (Atlantic Sigillées Paléochrétiennes, or Class E wares), glass, and miscellaneous artefacts including coins. Chapters 6 to 9 (pp. 83-139) are concerned with reconstructing the different models of consumption and distribution likely to explain the spread of this material; the principal points are summarised in a brief concluding chapter (pp. 140-1). The book is completed by a series of tables listing the material by categories and by site and with technical appendices (fabric descriptions, complementary discussion of the provenance of the artefacts, analyses of their contents, taphonomical analyses), available online at (I was, however, unable to open the two GIS files on my computer).

Campbell must be praised for presenting as complete a work as possible, particularly in the interpretative chapters where he uses use all the methods at his disposal to make the most of a material that is quite sparse (a hundred or so fragments of Mediterranean pottery, some 300 late amphorae and 300 sherds of E ware). The example of Dinas Powys (chapter 6) is most revealing: there the author, through a truly taphonomic study of the pottery, is able to assess critically not only the use of the different spaces but also the stratigraphy and phasing of the site. A synthesis of all the models for the modes of distribution of imported post-Roman ceramics is attempted in chapter 9 and leads to a new interpretation. The author emphasises first of all that the arrival of Mediterranean imports on the Atlantic façade of Britain is a new phenomenon, since, during the Roman period, it was mainly the south of England that received imports, via the well-known double, maritime and riverine, route (Atlantic route and Rhône/Rhine axis). This new exclusively Atlantic (?) exchange network with the Mediterranean reaches mainly aristocratic sites (Tintagel, Cadbury Castle, Dinas Powys, Cadbury Congresbury, though lesser sites benefit too) from the late fifth century up to the middle of the sixth century; its motor is probably the Byzantine empire's need for metals (tin from Cornwall, silver and lead from Wales, copper from southern Ireland). In the last quarter of the sixth century, a new trade becomes discernible, documented by imports of E ware and glass probably of Continental origin (but from where exactly?: from the Atlantic façade of Gaul?) which probably accompanied items of greater value (wine in barrels, dye, spices) bound for more numerous and more northerly sites, which nevertheless remain of high status (Dunadd, Clogher, Lagore, Garranes, Dumbarton Rock). These currents apparently die out during the eighth century, perhaps as a result of the rise of Anglo-Saxon trade centres.

In my view, the corpus is perhaps the least satisfactory part of the volume. Campbell's book was originally a doctoral dissertation submitted in 1991, the result of work undertaken in the 1980s; the author admits that he did not revise or re-interpret all of its contents for publication. The bibliography dealing with Mediterranean ceramics and glass is at times somewhat outdated; one could also have wished for more illustrations, as, when ceramics are illustrated, they show sometimes conjectural identifications (for example the eastern amphorae on Figure 10, in particular B100). This approximation in the analysis of certain data weakens some of the conclusions: thus I am not entirely sure that it is necessary to create three phases of arrivals for Phocean Red Slip wares, African Red Slip wares and Atlantic Sigillées Paléochrétiennes derivates. These three productions could have co-existed during the first half of the sixth century. Furthermore, given the current state of research, the basis for assigning a common origin to Continental E wares and to glass decorated with white glass threads (the author's group C) remains unclear to me.

Despite these very minor shortcomings (which are an incentive to pursue the enquiry!) and certain oversights in the presentation (non-British readers would certainly have welcomed a general location map of the sites studied), Campbell's work stands as the most up-to date source for anyone interested in researching the relationship between the post-Roman aristocracy of the British Isles, the Barbarian kingdoms of the Continent and the Byzantine empire.

The second book, edited by Barrowman, Batey and Morris (to which Campbell has also contributed) is devoted to the site where Mediterranean ceramic imports were first recognised and where they are still the most numerous (pp. 329 & 332): Tintagel. Despite its modest title, Excavations at Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, 1990-1999, the renewed research at this site represents a considerable event. Motivated as much by the need to re-evaluate the results of Ralegh Radford's incompletely published excavations between 1933 and 1955, as by the obvious public interest for a site linked with Arthurian legends, this new programme, initiated by English Heritage and the University of Glasgow, consisted of a surface survey of the entire island and several excavation areas on each of the promontory's three terraces and in the vicinity of, and at, the castle itself.

The volume is divided into five parts. The first (chapter 1, pp. 1-36) deals with the state of research at Tintagel as it was in 1990 and includes unpublished data to complement Radford's only published report of 1935. Part 2 describes the excavations carried out on the terraces (site C): lower (chapter 2, pp. 37-56), upper (chapter 3, pp. 57-66) and middle (chapters 4-6, pp. 67-146). Part 3 is dedicated to the excavations of the castle area (site T), of the great ditch which limits the site to the South (chapters 7 and 8, pp. 147-79) and to the building's undercroft (chapter 9, pp. 180-88). The whole is described most meticulously. Part 4 is devoted to the finds and the environmental analyses. Finally, part 5 (pp. 303-36) includes general interpretations and conclusions. Three short appendices contain details of physical and chemical components of the ceramics (pp. 337-41); endnotes grouped by chapter a bibliography and an index round off a volume of impeccable production standards.

If these studies do not fundamentally call into question Tintagel's general sequence suggested by Charles Tomas in 1993, they bring new insights into the nature of its occupation. Period II (the Roman period) emerges as more extensive (it is present in all areas of excavation) and in greater detail: for example, an inscription, probably mentioning the emperor Honorius, could be linked with the tin trade (pp. 192-200 and 311). Above all it is the function of the site in period III (fifth to seventh century) that has become clearer: the authors propose to abandon definitively the monastic interpretation which had prevailed for 50 years. Instead, the site is seen as a locus of power of the Dumnonian aristocracy (the great ditch dates to this period) and one of the main points of entry of Mediterranean goods into the British Isles during the post-Roman period.

The finds report (chapter 10; ceramics by Carl Thorpe, glass by Ewan Campbell) confirms Tintagel as open to the outside world. The range of imports is even increased, by ceramic cooking wares (pp. 233-34). It is however regrettable - especially as it occurs so rarely in Britain - that this material has not been presented more extensively, with a fuller catalogue and more illustrations. Nevertheless, these remarks do not detract from the immense import of a publication of high scientific standard and great historical significance. It is set to become the primary source for our understanding of Tintagel.

We have therefore two fundamental publications; the results, as much as the minor imperfections, should act as an invitation to further research. Campbell's stimulating corpus, as well as the problems Thorpe encountered when identifying material at Tintagel, highlight the need for a comparative examination of the imported material as a whole. When these authors point out the lack of homogeneity in the categories created by Radford (notably group Bv), which they nevertheless continue to use, they demonstrate once again the need to use classification systems current in the production areas; perhaps they should call more often for help from scholars specialising in the Mediterranean world - and Britain can count on some of the most prominent!

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