Digging Up the Past; Great Excavations. by John Romer (Cassell, Pounds 18.99). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds

The Birmingham Post (England), August 19, 2000 | Go to article overview

Digging Up the Past; Great Excavations. by John Romer (Cassell, Pounds 18.99). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds


The tragedy of Pompeii was given a new dimension in 1980 when Italian archaeologists excavating at Herculaneum found fresh evidence of a catastrophe which had overwhelmed the city 2000 years before.

On an ancient beach nearby, archeologists found the remains of a boat embedded 70ft below a tomb of hard volcanic pumice stone.

The boat was completely filled with corpses - all that was left of those who fled the eruptions of Vesuvius which turned Pompeii into a city of the dead.

Beside the stern lay the skeleton of the steersman, and for the rest death had occurred in seconds and was devoid of dignity. As John Romer says, with his inimitable flair for theatricality: 'This was Charon taking his last boatload of passengers from the dying city'. And the identification with Ancient Greek legend when Charon ferried the dead cross the River Styx was perfectly in keeping with Romer's scholarship.

Without academic condescension or pomposity, and with the clearest exposition of any archaeologist working today (with the exception of the equally admirable Michael Wood), John Romer has completely revitalised archaeology making it both approachable and returning to what was often perceived as a dry as dust subject something of its wonderful romance.

His television series have always combined scientific fact with romantic surmise in a particularly evocative way, and so this book extends and develops Romer's TV programmes giving us something a little more solid to hold on to.

Two centuries ago, ancient history was a matter of dusty books in a library. The better part of human history - the personalities and the people - had disappeared from view or had not surfaced at least. But with the classification of the pre-historic in the 19th century, which in turn was extended to the Carbon 14 dating of the 1940s and after, the mysteries of the past have been revealed benefiting us all.

Here, Romer tells vivid stories behind the major discoveries of the past and he outlines the main characters who include Howard Carter (who unearthed Tutankhamun's tomb), Napoleon (who used the Sphinx for target practice), Breasted (the Illinois Egyptologist whose work was required reading when I was planning to study archeology at university), Flinders Petrie (who worked in Egypt in the 19th century) and the great Schliemann at Troy.

But it is frequently the case that anonymous archaeologists who will never be written about were also doing sterling work on highly significant digs. These are the men whose names do not appear in the high profiled discovery programmes which are shown on television.

If crooks, consuls, merchant-adventurers and local thieves descended on Troy, intent on making rich pickings from amongst the ancient treasures strewn everywhere, 'like digging for potatoes' as one worker said, then other men with a much loftier vision that did not include pillaging, were also in the field - although we must remember that the things sent home to museums were often packaged and exported without due regard for the people to whom they rightly belonged.

German archaeologists were excavating Baghdad in 1899. It was one of the world's first great sites with lavish findings and so first-class scholars were drafted to the area.

Robert Koldewey was the leader for Deutsches Orient Gesellschaft at Babylon. …

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