Review by Neil Holbrook
Many people have a favourite archaeological site, an evocative place that has a personal resonance with the past. The landscape setting is frequently inspirational, sometimes more so than the actual remains of the site itself. Roger White’s love of the Roman town at Wroxeter in Shropshire shines through the pages of this book. He first worked there as a digger in 1976 and has been involved with it in various capacities almost ever since.
This book is not an archaeology of Wroxeter. Rather, it explores how people over the past couple of centuries have visualised and responded to the site, especially poets, writers, artists, photographers, and other visitors. We meet some famous people – the book’s title is from A E Houseman’s evocative poetry collection A Shropshire Lad. Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Wilfred Owen, John Buchan, and Rosemary Sutcliff were also interested in or inspired by Wroxeter: Darwin as part of his research into the effects of earthworms on soil, Sutcliff as a setting for her novel Dawn Wind. The artists are less famous, and the lavish illustrations stretching back to 1721 presented in the book will be new to many readers.
Also prominent in this account are the archaeologists who dug on the site from the 19th century onwards, not just the famous directors such as Kathleen Kenyon and Graham Webster, but also the volunteer diggers. Prince Edward is a notable presence in a 1984 end-of-dig photo. A range of local characters also get a look in, including a loquacious ‘village wiseacre’ in 1894.
White examines how the appearance of the site has changed over the years, from romantic ruin set in fields to a disfigured state dominated by large spoil heaps created by the excavations, and finally to the manicured and consolidated guardianship site we see today. While necessary for the preservation and management of the site, one senses his regret that Wroxeter has lost something of its melancholy aura of a long-vanished empire, remarked upon by a number of earlier visitors.
The author ends with his hope that excavation will recommence in the future, inspired by his evident nostalgia for the energy, excitement, and buzz of his formative digging years at Wroxeter.
Wroxeter: ashes under Uricon
Roger H White