Time’s Anvil: England, Archaeology and the Imagination

David Musgrove on a bid to use archaeology to see the past in new ways

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Reviewed by: David Musgrove
Author: Richard Morris
Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price (RRP): £25

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An Englishman alive in 1850 would have a greater affinity with someone resident in the same place in the Bronze Age than we would have with that person from little more than 150 years ago. That is one of the surprising claims made by Richard Morris in this undeniably curious book.

Morris is an archaeologist and he is exploring what archaeology has taught us, and might yet teach us, about England’s past. His point of difference is to take the long view to tease out links that we’d otherwise miss, through our foible for categorising and compartmentalising history: as he puts it, “we have underestimated connections between periods, things, institutions and ideas that are normally studied apart and assumed to be unrelated”.

To give one example of what that means, he ponders whether we ought to take closer note of the fact that prehistoric people deposited metal artefacts into water at the end of causeways, and that, in medieval times, the ends of such causeways were often sites of religious houses, and still boasted a tradition of deposition. Is this evidence of a long line of thought of seeing the boundary of land and water as a special one? If so, is that liminal importance now hidden from us because we have lost a local sense of place that our ancestors were much more attuned to?

The Reformation, says Morris, cut us off from much of that local understanding by causing longstanding traditions closely allied with the religious year to be cast adrift. But it was the industrial revolution, and the change wrought in “thought, information flow and global population dispersion,” that truly hinders us from understanding the minds and imaginations of those who went before us.

The book is presented as the story of archaeology, mixed with the author’s personal and family history, and interspersed with a smattering of scientific discourse, and a fair bit of poetry. So, not your average archaeology book, but certainly one that brings up a lot of questions about the way in which we approach the past.

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David Musgrove is associate publisher of BBC History Magazine and the author of 100 Places That Made Britain (BBC Books, 2011)