Online Review: Book

Roman Mosaics of Britain. Vol. 4, Western Britain

Darrell J. Rohl

116.4

By Stephen R. Cosh and David S. Neal. Pp. xvii + 453, figs. 432, supplement 1. Society of Antiquaries of London, London 2010. $320. ISBN 978-0-85431-294-8 (cloth).

Volume 4 of Cosh and Neal's Roman Mosaics of Britain brings this celebrated series to a close, providing the first complete mosaics corpus for an entire Roman province. While much work has been done (and, in some cases, continues) toward the development of similar corpora in Gaul, Germany, Iberia, Turkey, and North Africa, Cosh and Neal have now completed a monumental work of scholarship that remains unmatched in both its comprehensiveness and quality. While the collaboration formally began in 1993, the pace of publication has been remarkable: the first volume (Northern Britain) appeared in 2002, volume 2 (South-West Britain) in 2006, the two-part volume 3 (South-East Britain) in 2009, and now volume 4 completes the corpus in less than a decade since original publication. In total, the completed corpus features nearly 2,000 individual mosaics, many of these fully illustrated with new detailed paintings (more than 550 across all volumes) by the authors. The present volume is organized into two main parts: a short introduction (1–31) providing useful background information on the historical context of the region and its Roman mosaics and a detailed catalogue (34–388) of the mosaics themselves. Additionally, two appendices provide updates to regions covered in previous volumes (390–409), as well as brief biographical notes on mosaic illustrators featured throughout the corpus (410–26). Finally, an illustrated glossary provides clear visual examples of terms used to describe patterns and motifs throughout the volume (427–33).

The volume is primarily a catalogue of 445 mosaics from 77 sites throughout west Britain (i.e., for this volume, Wales and the English counties of Cheshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, and Worcestershire). Most of these come from Gloucestershire (34–234), which features 266 individual mosaics from 44 sites, including the famous Great Pavement (mosaic 456.1) at Woodchester, the largest in Britain. An additional 55 mosaics come from 14 sites in Oxfordshire (236–80), 42 from 11 sites in the counties of Cheshire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, and Shropshire (282–324), and 82 from eight sites in Wales (326–88). Each catalogue entry follows a regular formula, which is reasonably well described (25) in the general introduction (1–31). Wherever possible, the mosaics are amply illustrated. For example, for the Woodchester Great Pavement, this includes 19 individual images: 3 images of antiquarian color engravings, an antiquarian watercolor of specific details, 12 modern color photographs of individual figured elements, and 3 images of a modern painting by Neal. A larger version of Neal's painting is also included as a foldout print at the back of the volume. This copious treatment is rather exceptional, though a range of illustrations, photographs, and site plans is provided throughout; even those mosaics that are known from only small patches of a few tesserae are illustrated (e.g., mosaics 469.13, 471.14, 490.1) when images are available. Because of the range of artists and techniques, these vary in quality from barely discernable pencil sketches (e.g., mosaic 469.3 by Winstanley) to the richly detailed 1:10 scale paintings by the volume's authors and Thompson, an archaeological illustrator (for a beautiful example of Thompson's work, see his painting of mosaic 418.2 from Chedworth, Gloucestershire).

While the authors have pioneered the return to scale paintings of mosaics after a long period of primarily photographic recording during the 20th century, their technique is not without controversy. This type of representation, along with much earlier engravings by Samuel Lysons and William Fowler, may very well provide the most beautiful images of these ancient artworks. The attention to detail and tessera-by-tessera scale painting methodology is certainly laudable and provides an incredibly accurate record. This type of top-down plan perspective does not, however, reflect the way in which the mosaics would have been viewed by the building's inhabitants or casual observers, providing an artificial and unnatural—though perhaps technically accurate—perspective. The choice of color is also problematic, as the matching of pigments is certainly subjective, and the decision to paint the mosaics "as if dampened" (410), while providing for consistency, will sometimes differ substantially from what may have normally been a dry viewing experience. More problematic are the various paintings that have been reproduced from earlier photographs, rather than from in situ observation of exposed mosaics. These issues have not gone unrecognized, and the authors routinely present their own paintings alongside monochrome or full-color photographs, as well as illustrations by earlier artists. It is perhaps through this mixed-representation method that the most complete understanding of the mosaic is obtained.

A major problem faced by authors of any similarly ambitious multivolume catalogue is the possibility that new discoveries will render early volumes incomplete even before the planned set is finished. With the pace of discovery and excavation over the past decade, it is not surprising that new mosaics—or new information about already-known mosaics—have been found in the regions covered by previous volumes in this series. These updates are found in appendix 1 (390–409) of the present volume, bringing all regions up to date through the beginning of 2010.

Perhaps the most delightful addition to this volume is the inclusion of appendix 2 (410–26), featuring short biographical notes on the 95 artists whose engravings, paintings, and other illustrations have been used throughout the series. This adds a most welcome humanizing element to the work, providing additional context and creating the opportunity for people-centered research projects focused on the antiquarians and illustrators that have contributed to the development of the corpus. As a publication of the Society of Antiquaries of London, inclusion of this appendix is very appropriate and incredibly useful for studies on the history of archaeology and British antiquarianism, especially as most of the artists are not included in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a common first stop for basic information.

It is regrettable that such a magnificent and important corpus is not more widely available. The volumes are bulky and expensive—certainly not affordable on most student budgets—though these are both results of the publication's excellent craftsmanship and the higher expense of so many color illustrations. This reviewer hopes to eventually see the corpus in a digital format; in this regard, other archaeological corpora—such as the Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus (Oracc; http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/), the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions (CMHI; www.peabody.harvard.edu/CMHI/), and the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland (CRSBI; www.crsbi.ac.uk), among others—may provide useful models. This would not only dramatically increase access to this important dataset but would also provide a platform for new and more sophisticated investigation and analysis. Until that time, the printed edition belongs in every academic or research library, particularly for the use of students and scholars of Roman Britain, Roman art and archaeology, and art history; while the corpus focuses exclusively on the province of Britannia, it will be of considerable comparative value to studies of mosaics, villas, and towns across the empire.

The authors conclude their general introduction by correctly positioning the now-completed corpus as "a research tool" (31). Despite any minor problems of analysis or interpretation, it is as a detailed and well-planned record of all known Roman mosaics in Britain (up through 2010) that the corpus will be valued. The authors further add: "it is hoped that the catalogue will be used to further the study of mosaics and archaeology for many years to come" (31). It most certainly will.

Darrell J. Rohl
Department of Archaeology
Durham University
Durham DH1 3LE
United Kingdom
d.j.rohl@durham.ac.uk

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1164.Rohl

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