Bloomsbury Academic, £25
A biography normally explores the life of an individual person, but in this wide-ranging new book, Richard Hingley (Professor of Roman Archaeology at the University of Durham) tells the story of an entire town and the lives and livelihoods of its occupants over the course of five centuries.
Any study of Roman London is working with a very piecemeal plan – the settlement has been completely swallowed up by later urban development, and snapshots of its remains (often further fragmented by modern foundations) only emerge when construction provides rare opportunities to see what lies beneath the present city. Hingley freely admits that he is working with, and drawing interpretations from, incomplete material (‘The task of writing this book may be compared to assembling a massive jigsaw puzzle with up to 95 per cent of the pieces missing’, he writes), but this is nevertheless an impressive overview of present thought.
The book’s opening neatly synthesises, and pays tribute to, the important work of previous investigators, beginning with antiquarian discoveries made during the 17th-century rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral (see CA 266). This tour also takes in major finds of the 19th century, exposed during civic sewerage works and the construction of London Bridge; and much more recent work undertaken amid the ruins of the Blitz, notably the watershed discovery by W F Grimes of London’s Mithraeum (CA 334, 303, 296), and Peter Marsden’s excavations of the Huggin Hill baths, governor’s palace, and the Blackfriars ship (CA 333). Commercial archaeology, especially MOLA, also receives due credit for the portions of Roman London that such projects have helped to piece together.
Hingley begins his survey by searching for pre-Roman activity in the area. Unlike many other major Roman urban centres (St Albans, Silchester, Canterbury, Chichester), London does not seem to have been preceded by an Iron Age oppidum. Yet metalwork – particularly weapons – and human remains from the Bronze Age and Iron Age have been recovered from the Thames and its banks and eyots. This appears to have been a place accorded some significance, Hingley suggests – perhaps a key meeting place (albeit one without substantial structures or earthworks), or a liminal space between the worlds of the living and the dead. The idea of ‘plural landscapes’ serving both mundane and sacred purposes, and the indivisibility of ritual/religion and ‘everyday life’, is a key theme.
Subsequent chapters introduce the flourishing settlement, following its development in chronological episodes. Hingley describes how London rapidly rose to prominence c.AD 45-60, and explores the long-standing debate about whether it was an official imperial foundation. Piecing together excavated elements of the town, we explore its early infrastructure and amenities, and also encounter some of its first inhabitants. Here we learn how isotope analysis is helping to reveal quite how cosmopolitan a settlement Londinium was, while the recent discovery of the Bloomberg writing tablets (CA 317) has granted us the names of almost 100 of its occupants.
Above all, the story of Londinium is a story of dramatically rising and falling fortunes, and how London was reborn from the ashes of destruction, and swiftly returned to prosperity, each time. (It seems appropriate, in that light, that much of the Roman town’s layout was established amid rebuilding work following the devastation of the Second World War.) Chapter 3 covers the Boudican revolt of AD 60/61 (with interesting discussion about whether the paucity of artefacts within the burnt layers represents looting or Londoners having the time to escape with their belongings), and Chapter 6 features evidence for a major fire, or fires, during the reign of Hadrian (AD 117-138). Yet these are both followed by chapters tracing a swift return to ‘business as usual’, with the construction of monumental buildings and public works.
Amid these imposing structures, though, we never lose touch with the people who used them. This remains a personal story, with Londoners at its heart, even as we follow the settlement’s final decline in the late 4th century, and the beginnings of something new in the early Anglo-Saxon period. This briskly written synthesis, packed with helpful plans, is a great overview of the Roman town, and a handy launchpad for further reading about specific sites.
This review appeared in CA 342.