Review – Winchester: an archaeological assessment – St Swithun’s ‘City of Happiness and Good Fortune’

5 mins read
Patrick Ottaway
Oxbow Books, £40
ISBN 978-1785704499
Review Julian Munby

Winchester is a city with remarkable historical and archaeological roots. At various times playing a local, national, and international role, the city has been blessed with an unusual amount of attention in the 20th century when it comes to uncovering its past. Whether through schoolboy endeavours, private and municipal enterprise, a major research unit, or commercial organisations, a massive amount of activity has variously been funded, under-funded, and developer-funded – and so the resulting publication record is uneven. As in other cities, it has always proved hardest to publish large excavations rather than fascinating peripheral studies, and there are few medieval towns without a legacy of major sites still awaiting publication. In the case of Winchester, the exemplary nature of the excavations carried out by the Winchester Research Unit was always apparent from the promptly published interim reports, but the impact on urban archaeology would have been greater had the excavations in Brook Street been first, rather than last, on the list. (All the more so as the second series of excavations there are under-funded and unlikely to be published soon.)

But there has been no shortage of amazing publications: ten volumes of Winchester research reports from the research unit’s work in 1961-1971 that include the exemplary documentary surveys and finds reports (and with excavations on the Old Minster and Castle now first in the queue); plus six volumes (of 11) from the Winchester Museums Service on work in 1971-1986; and other reports on more recent work by others such as Oxford Archaeology. The real problem now, both for the archaeologically curious and the hapless consultant advising a developer, is to get behind the mass of Historic Environment Record (HER) data and develop some understanding of what has been found where (whether or not it was published) and how it fits into the bigger picture. The added interest for the medieval town is the layer of topographical information (often derived from a mass of under-explored documentary sources), and the presence of the existing buildings that are just as much a part of the archaeological record as anything that is dug up.

The Winchester archaeological assessment is a triumph for the team who have put it together and provides a clear, in-depth look at the development of the city, with a period-by-period overview fully illustrated with site plans and summary mapping of discoveries, superb photographs of some of the more important finds, and a valuable commentary on the history of discovery. The discussion of the archaeological potential of each period is valuable, with pointers to possible future research (including building studies), rather than a rigid series of research aims, which so often are superseded by the nature of discoveries. Especially valuable are the summary plans of discoveries: for example, the Roman Forum, the late Saxon churches, and the Brooks excavations, among the rich selection of illustrations of site plans and finds. It is an added bonus to have phased plans of St Cross Hospital and Winchester College.

With over 100 pages each on the Roman and late medieval periods, these are not insubstantial essays, and will prove hugely useful, as will the 88-page gazetteer of sites and monuments, and the substantial bibliography. One negative point for a work of reference is the wholly unnecessary insistence on Harvard referencing (which is an outmoded affectation completely inappropriate for scholarly works). The repetition of copyright claims in captions that properly belong in the list of illustrations is absurd.

The just-published Winchester Historic Towns Atlas (ed. Biddle and Keene, Oxbow Books) is the latest in the new series of historic towns atlases and is the perfect accompaniment to this assessment, since (in addition to the maps) there is a magisterial text on the development of Winchester. These volumes together present the results of decades of work, and emphasise just how central Winchester is to our understanding of urban archaeology in this country.

This review appeared in CA 337

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