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Finds from the Frontier: Material Culture in the 4th–5th Centuries

Finds from the Frontier: Material Culture in the 4th–5th Centuries

Edited by Rob Collins and Lindsay Allason-Jones (Council for British Archaeology Research Report 162). Pp. xvi + 161, figs. 64, color pls. 8, tables 8, maps 3. David Brown Book Company, Oakville, Conn. 2010. $70. ISBN 978-1-902771-81-6 (paper).

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The study of late antiquity, and most notably of its artifacts, has long been characterized by stereotypes: the technical and formal details of the finds were said to bear the hallmarks of a time of cultural and economic decline. In keeping with a more differentiated examination of late antiquity as a phenomenon, new light is now also being shed on the material remains of the period, which are currently attracting considerable interest. The strictly hierarchical organization of Late Antique society and the intense influence of the state, for instance with regard to the production of consumer goods, in many cases also left their mark on the material culture. Antiquity is now no longer perceived as having come to an abrupt end, but as having entered a phase of transition, which may have occurred in different ways in the various regions. The notion of frontier regions with their own cultural imprints and developmental dynamics is now increasingly replacing the idea of a strict dualism between the Roman empire and the barbarian regions.

The volume reviewed here contains the papers presented in 2008 at a conference on the Late Antique material culture and, in particular, on the frontier regions of Britain. The remarkably short period of two years that elapsed between the conference and the publication of its proceedings is quite unusual. The research question raised by the editors referred to the possibility of using the finds to gain information on everyday life in a northern frontier province of the Roman empire in the fourth century C.E. The result is a volume of papers that provide an excellent overview on the current state of research into the material culture of Late Antique Britain. Therefore, the book not only targets specialists but also colleagues, students, and enthusiasts seeking quick access to the subject matter. The volume itself also breaks new ground, so to speak, since no such synthesis has previously been available with regard to this particular region (cf. the foreword [xiv] and the concluding remarks [133]).

Introductory contributions by Cool (1–9), Willmott (10–16), and Hassall (17–19) prepare the ground for the subsequent studies. That the small number of epigraphic remnants only provide scant information on the period places particular importance on the archaeological material. The contributions paint a picture of a material culture that was simple but by no means poor. Along with the state of research, the authors also give an outlook on the possibilities of interpreting and carrying out further research into the end of antiquity in Britain. The introductory articles are followed by studies on selected (cf. Collins and Allason-Jones [133–38]) central categories of finds. These present the current state of research on pottery (Bidwell and Croom [20–36]), glass vessels (Price [37–49]), military equipment (Coulston [50–63]), and brooches (Collins [64–77]), and some include detailed lists of finds and distribution maps. Allason-Jones (78–85) discusses the possibilities and limitations with regard to the portrayal of the fourth- and fifth-century C.E. population based on the small finds. The contribution by Brickstock (86–91) deals with the field of numismatics. The overview ends with an article on animal and plant remains and what they tell us about the eating habits of the period. Three additional studies look across the frontiers of the Roman empire (Hunter [96–109]) and beyond the end of antiquity (O’Brien [110–19]; Roberts [120–32]). Finally, the editors summarize the results and give an outlook on future fields of research (133–38).

All the contributions put an emphasis on assessing both the similarities and differences among the various regions and different types of settlement: the glass vessels, for instance, vary significantly, depending on whether they were found at army posts, in urban centers, or in rural areas. Price discusses possible explanations for this, including rising costs and changing trends among certain social classes in terms of their use of glass drinking vessels. Coulston shows that the soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall would have been supplied with equipment and clothing up to the very late period, while such material was almost completely absent from areas farther north. Collins compares the range of crossbow brooches with onion-shaped knobs from the frontier region with those from southern Britain on the one hand, and those from the continent on the other, and is able to show clear differences.

Some of the authors use the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which, however, is not without controversy. It provides an online platform for private persons to make new finds (often found by metal detectorists) available to scientists, here, for instance, to compile distribution maps (134). In this case, however, it has proved an excellent tool for the correction of maps previously made available, since they were often distorted by a particular research focus (Hadrian’s Wall, Antonine Wall). Outside Great Britain, such systems are not yet well established, and because of differences in heritage protection laws, it will not always be possible to set them up. Besides the intense debate concerning the genesis and purpose of such a finds database, scientists will also have to assess the sustainability of this type of publication over the coming decades.

The basic concept of the volume to act as an overview carries with it certain peculiarities: the illustrations provided in the articles largely concentrate on the main types of artifacts, while detailed discussions do not occur. Experts seeking parallel finds will find fault with this, since they will be forced to consult the references cited in the articles. This, however, is not a fundamental flaw, but on the contrary, makes the work more readable.

The volume is completed by a detailed bibliography and a very useful index. A summary in three languages (xii–xiii) and three detailed maps in the foreword (xiv–xvi) facilitate access for non-English speakers. This is particularly worth mentioning, since quick access, reader friendliness, and an easy-to-understand structure are becoming more and more important criteria in addition to the scientific quality of a book, given today’s quantity and speed of publication.

The volume will allow its readers to quickly and easily gain an overview of the current state of research and the debates and open questions concerning late antiquity in Britain. While the main emphasis lies on the artifacts, the historical context is provided in the introductory articles and can be further tracked via the references cited. The contributions are clearly intended to inspire further pursuit. It will thus be fascinating to use this benchmark to measure the scientific progress achieved a few years from now. In order to facilitate supraregional comparisons, similar works would be desirable on the continent. The editors and authors are to be lauded for this excellent volume.

Marcus Zagermann
Commission for the Comparative Archaeology of the Roman Alpine and Danube Regions
Munich 80539

Book Review of Finds from the Frontier: Material Culture in the 4th–5th Centuries, edited by Rob Collins and Lindsay Allason-Jones

Reviewed by Marcus Zagermann

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 4 (October 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1164.Zagermann

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