Roman Gloucestershire by Tim Copeland

Book Review by Melvadius

The jacket blurb describes this as a "long awaited and strikingly illustrated new work [which] brings our understanding of the Romans in modern-day Gloucestershire up to date, incorporating the many recent developments in fieldwork and excavation, and showcasing the latest discoveries of sites and artefacts." I therefore looked forward to seeing how these various elements would be blended together in Tim Copeland’s Roman Gloucestershire.

In addition to a short preface there are thirteen listed chapters in this work as well as 93 black and white numbered illustrations, although several of these are multi-part, with the addition of 28 colour plates the illustration ratio to total page count is quite good. However there is no full list of illustrations contained in the work and this lack is compounded by a general problem with the referencing to which points I will return below.

The book is constructed around thematic chapters; opening with "Lost and Found: defining Roman Gloucestershire" and the second chapter exploring "the Late Iron Age Foreground". Both chapters provide a reasonable introduction and overview of the history of investigation into the major pre-Roman sites in the area. They also discuss how these sites may have related to the Dobunni, cited in Roman period writing as the local tribal grouping, who apparently also had strong links to other parts of pre-Roman Britain.

The next few chapters include themes of evidence for a military presence and the road system which developed in the area before turning to the two main urban centres of Glevum and Corinium. Limitations of the availability of archaeological evidence for how the land was used and the wider rural population in the area are considered before a chapter on the small towns in the area. Further chapters discuss villas, agriculture and industry and evidence for religious practices. The final chapters are; one touching on epigraphic and other evidence for how people both perceived themselves and lived their lives while the last concentrates on the final decline of Roman influence.

In the Roman period there was no such administrative boundary as Gloucestershire so the opening chapters highlight a key recurring issue with the structure and content of this book; the problem is where to draw boundaries in discussion of the area since some sites, which are relevant to particular topics being discussed, may be located a long way from modern Gloucestershire. Another key factor in reading this book is the repeated mention of difficulties of compiling evidence; often only limited excavations were possible, at least since the 1980’s, or else excavations occurred long before modern archaeological techniques were developed. Therefore the information available at both urban and rural sites is often severely restricted and this has a bearing on what can be said about several of the key sites.

Roman Gloucestershire contains two large urban centres which for the Roman period were in surprisingly close proximity and these have developed into their modern equivalents of Gloucester (Glevum: Colonia Nervia Glevensis) and Cirencester (Corinium Dobunnorum). Both modern towns are heavily built over and while Gloucester was subject to continued use as an administrative and commercial centre since at least the medieval period neither town has offered opportunities for large scale excavations since the 1980’s.

I had encountered several layout issues with another History Press work; Russell and Laycock’s UnRoman Britain: Exposing the Great Myth of Britannia so was concerned to see if in this work they had been addressed. Unfortunately lack of proper referencing and easily avoidable errors, such as citing ‘Cemeteries and burial practices’ in the index for a section headed ‘Belief and afterlife’ in the text, missing or surplus words and the occasional spelling mistake appear, on this evidence, to be something of an endemic issue with this publisher.

Unlike UnRoman Britain, illustrations are numbered and generally appear to be located close to appropriate text however again very few of the illustrations are specifically referred to from within the text. In a number of instances I felt that the illustrations, even if located closely to appropriate text, could still have done with some additional words of explanation.

Lack of a good single map showing all of the sites mentioned in the text and the communications network running between them was a recurring gripe. Even if some sites hardly rate a passing mention it was not always apparent which were which or where they were located in relationship to more important locations. This was especially so when one apparently important site was mentioned several times yet the location cited early in the text only indicated it was about 37 miles from Cirencester. By inference it was probably to the north-west and it did finally appear in one of the more area specific maps towards the end of the book confirming this, however no direction from Cirencester was ever given for its location.

The eight page bibliography is actually in the form of extended "End Notes" and while some attempt has been made to only reference recent works and to group books by themes the information was presented as blocks of text making it difficult to pick out specific book references. This problem was exacerbated by a lack of standardisation in author citations; initials seemingly randomly listed before or after surnames in the same reference. An example of this is on page 182 of the bibliography with one set of authors cited as ‘Trow, S., S. James & T. Moore’ although strangely enough figure 3 on page 19 cites them as ‘S. James, T. Moore, S Trow’.

Overall I found this book a frustrating read; the author credits numerous authors as providing the sources and inspiration for elements of it and often the illustrations and text do provide strong indications of how complex and interesting the story of Roman Gloucestershire is. The thematic approach in some instances works well but not in others with some repetition of similar material due to the limited number of major sites discussed. Unfortunately in several instances the text leaves the impression of being compiled as extracts from more detailed works which have been loosely cobbled together, to the extent that they sometimes even suggest reference to additional site details which this work does not contain.

This book is obviously intended more for the lay reader, who only wishes to know a bit about this area, rather than anyone with a more academic interest in the topic. For anyone looking for a basic overview of current knowledge of the area then Roman Gloucestershire probably does fit the bill and I admit that some of the illustrations are striking. However, while good academic references are scattered throughout the book, I found the lack of internal referencing to those ‘striking illustrations’ and the complexity of the End Notes both major detrimental features for this purpose.

As a showcase for current knowledge about Roman Gloucestershire I’m afraid that for me all too many cracks seem to have slipped through the pre-publication net and a lot more care taken then would have been advantageous.

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