Axe, Tooth and Nail: Shifts in the Ground beneath Our Feet
Groom, Nick, The Independent (London, England)
Time's Anvil: England, Archaeology and the Imagination By Richard Morris Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Pounds 25 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop From Stonehenge to Birmingham, this survey of the art of the dig modifies our map of the past
The ground beneath our feet is made up of layers upon layers of history, the accumulated evidence of human existence from the millennia of prehistory to the hours of yesterday. These pasts are vertiginous, ever-expanding and engulfing, and it is this dizzying panorama of the vast, tangled mass of what has gone before that Richard Morris sets out to map in Time's Anvil. For Morris, this book is an "expedition" into the past, and as such it is both expansive and singular. But Time's Anvil is also an impassioned history and defence of archaeology, a history of humanity in England, and a heartfelt meditation on transience and mortality.
Compared with documentary history, the scope of archaeology is overwhelming. Morris inevitably finds an elegant human perspective in the snapshots he describes, from human footprints across the mudflats of the Severn estuary made six or seven thousand years ago by a group that included a running child, to the comparatively recent plaster drips hanging from the vaulted ceiling of a church crypt on the North Yorkshire moors, just nine centuries old. People leave their traces not only in deliberate workmanship, but just by getting along - disturbing the mud and leaving a trail that we, or at least the observant archaeologist, can follow back in time.
On this journey, every scrap of material becomes forensic evidence. Morris reveals how, as other disciplines and technologies develop, so archaeology benefits. Aeriel surveys of archaeological sites are now common practice, as is dating wooden objects by tree- ring analysis and artefacts by the decay of carbon-14. The examination of microscopic insect exoskeletons means that conclusions about farming, woodland, drainage, and even personal hygiene can now be drawn from a handful of earth: "pubic lice, intestinal parasites, mud from mires, turds - the list of things at which archaeology can look is infinitely extensible".
Morris likens this growing avalanche of evidence to the predicament of the sorcerer's apprentice. There is certainly a danger that increasingly minuscule detail will obliterate any wider picture of the past. But by challenging the conventions of depicting a day-in-the-life of Neolithic man, or plotting the historical narrative of the Middle Ages, Morris emphasises local distinctiveness and individual disparities. …