Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation 2

This is the second part of a review of The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation by Bryan Ward-Perkins. The first part is here.

Ward-Perkins asks a simple question of the archeological evidence: what was the effect of the collapse of the Roman Empire on the lives of ordinary people?

The evidence is obviously limited to those things that last. In this case, that means: pottery, roof-tiles, coins, buildings. To which he adds some other data: population density, literary ephemeria; evidence of exports and imports.

Roman pottery had 3 important features: high quality and standardisation; huge quantities; high diffusion both geographically and socially.

The third feature is particularly important as it is germane to his entire argument. High-quality ceramics were available to even humble householders far removed from the centres of power. Ordinary people benefited from the industrialisation of the industry in the same way, if to a lesser degree, to us humble folk of today. And it is a feature that is present in the other areas of his study.

The contrast with what followed is notable. Whereas high art remained possible in a very different form and available to the rich and powerful, even the wealth at the disposal of kings could not buy them what ordinary people had had a few years earlier. The finds at Sutton Hoo showed that an East Anglian king could acquire from home and abroad luxury items of exquisite craftsmanship, but couldn't buy himself a decent jug. [I have struggled to provide an image. For obvious reasons, it is not a first choice. It is to be found in the British Museum.] This last was certainly imported since it was shaped on a wheel, a tool that had disappeared from these shores. Even so, the quality is poor, the fabric porous and the finish crude, inferior to objects found on British farms of 2 centuries previous.

The contrast is reinforced at la Graufesenque in Southern Gaul, a centre for the ceramics industry. Archeologists have uncovered the factory refuse pit, which contains the remains of 10,000 vessels, 1,000 of which are undamaged. They are all seconds, thrown away to maintain standards. There they rest with their makers' stamps, vastly superior to anything an Anglo-Saxon king could obtain for love, fear or gold. (cont)

Part 1 is here.
Part 3 is here.

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